Does Team "Chemistry" Really Matter?
I’ve been thinking about this issue quite a bit lately. “Chemistry” is a word that one usually hears thrown around by fans of struggling teams. It seems, to me, like a convenient factor to point to when looking for reasons to blame for failures. What do we really know about “chemistry” as it relates to professional baseball?
Here’s a quote from Joe Torre, as quoted by Jim Caple “Winning creates chemistry more than the other way around. I’ve seen clubs that don’t necessarily like each other, but they respected each other once they got on the field, and that’s more important than being happy to go out to dinner with each other.” (Source) Ozzie Guillen (I know, I’m referencing Ozzie) said that chemistry follows winning, and clubhouse strife follows losing, not the other way around.
Caple, in the same article, references the 2002 National League Champion Giants – the team of Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent (who were never accused of being great team guys). Caple quotes Jason Schmidt, who played for the Giants that season, and he provided a few gems:
“I’ve been on teams where there was one guy — and it wasn’t Barry — who made everyone miserable. But you’re not thinking about that when you’re on the field. Not at all. It’s a nonissue. I don’t really see how it affects the team’s play. Will you throw 95 instead of 90 because you’re happier in the clubhouse? Will you throw strikes?”
Since I’m writing this article, I guess I’ll give you my personal opinion. Most of us are not professional athletes, but most of us are a professionals of some sort that work as part of a “team” (however you want to define it), and we all know, anecdotally, that one’s work environment can affect your job performance and morale. So, I think there is probably something to “chemistry,” even if it can’t be quantified – but the question is, how much does it actually affect the bottom line of wins and losses? Moreover, is there any evidence, beyond our own personal anecdotes (which can’t be generalized to other situations, especially situations as unique as a pro baseball clubhouse), that “chemistry” makes any real difference in the end?
It seems that whatever bad “mojo” Bonds and Kent brought to the 2002 Giants was far outweighed by their production on the field (Schmidt’s quote indicates that he agrees). So, as much as we romanticize the idea of “chemistry” – and as much as it makes intuitive sense to us – I don’t think the evidence is there for us to focus upon it as the main reason for any team’s struggles or success. If a team were better on the field, they’d probably have better chemistry, and that’s probably the most important interaction between the two concepts.
I think a better approach would be to be more precise in our language. In my day job, I do quantitative and qualitative research, so I’m not just a numbers geek – numbers can tell us what is happening, but not always why. Since we’re dealing with human beings, there really are factors at play that help determine why we’re seeing a particular quantitative result, and it can differ greatly from person to person (morale, motivation, comfort-level, etc.. are all legitimate concerns). Guessing blindly about the interpersonal factors that are affecting a player without evidence seems counterproductive, though.
One of the most important things for digging beneath the surface of numbers to examine qualitative factors is to define terms clearly and precisely. The term “chemistry” is just ill-defined. What does it mean? It’s impossible to determine the effect of something when we don’t have a precise definition of it in the first place. For me, “chemistry” is right up there with TWTW (Hawk Harrelson’s “The Will to Win”), “bellyfire” and “grit.” It’s the old-school “gut feeling” approach to analysis that doesn’t really get us anywhere, but it can make us sound like we vaguely know what we’re talking about. I think we’d be better served to be more precise: what is actually happening, and what are the exact factors that may be contributing to a team’s (or an individual’s) performance? Even if we are just guessing, I think we’ll advance the conversation – and gain more insight – if we stick to precise, knowable concepts. I could go on – and I’ll probably return to this topic in the future – but you don’t want to spend an hour reading this post (thank you if you’ve stuck with me this far).
Aside: Speaking of research, here’s a terrible example. I came across a Psychology Today article attempting to determine the effect of “chemistry” on team performance. One of the factors they examined was how much a good manager could mitigate bad team chemistry. As a measure of manager effectiveness, they defined good managers as those that had won or had been named a finalist for the Manager of the Year award. Well, you can probably see the problem here: MOY winners and finalists are always from good teams! Of course bad chemistry wasn’t hurting those teams. Ugh, bad research, it makes me angry. Anyway, they used the Uptons as a test case (it was written before this season). Following their premise (that the Uptons are bad chemistry guys), chemistry doesn’t matter at all, since the Braves are crushing.
Do we really want to relive this game? The Cubs offense returned to their usual form, with the only runs coming off solo shots from Brian Bogusevic and Donnie “Babe Ruth” Murphy. The game was actually close until the ninth, when the Nationals put up two runs to make the game all but out of reach. Chris Rusin was banged around a lot, although he only gave up two runs in 5.2 innings. On the other side, almost-Cub Dan Haren pitched really well for D.C.. I think we’re going to see a ton of games like this one from here on out. Bring on the race for a better draft pick.
Follow Sean Powell on Twitter @powell_sean