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August 2013

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Does Team "Chemistry" Really Matter?

Written by , Posted in General

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

  • Jerry in Wisconsin

    I like the term chemistry. The manager of a team has 25 different elements on his team. It is his responsibility to determine what combination will give him the best results. Sometimes by putting the wrong combination together you can really blow things up. The manager also must determine how much heat and pressure needs to be added to combine the elements into a cohesive unit.

    • Eddie Von White

      Wow! In that context the manager really is important.

  • Chuck

    I believe “chemistry”, as it applies to sports, is only a negative force. Great team chemistry won’t really help you win more games because talent will win out in the end as long as it is not mismanaged. However, a toxic clubhouse will suppress winning because negative attitudes will tend to produce negative results in subtle ways.

    BTW: To totally off-topic here, when would it be appropriate to lobby for Travis Wood to play a position in the field? His .265/.294/.465 AVG/OBP/SLG line is better than several position players on the team.

    • PLCB3

      He should be used a pinch-hitter the way Lou and Dusty used Bozo to pinch-hit.

      • Jerry in Wisconsin

        Now there is a perfect example of good chemistry.

  • Seymour Butts

    First off you are not allowed to use the word “grit” in an article without also using the word “moxie.”
    My over 50 softball team was league champion this year because we had stellar infield defense (for 50= yr olds) and hit a lot. We were not the closest team in the league, but did not show outward animosity. I do think winning breeds happiness (chemistry) on field.
    In my real world job, chemistry among the team is important. Treating an acute heart attack requires at least 3 or 4 other people than myself. If my scrub tech is someone I know has poor technical skills, or not one of my “pets”, It makes my job harder as I have to keep a closer watch on them than I would if it was a different, more trusted person, standing to my side. So I do think chemistry matters in working as a team, but maybe not so much in sports.

    • Doug S.

      Wow, that’s a surgeon’s butt in the photo. Who knew?

      • …that is an optometrist-y thing to do.

      • Seymour Butts

        I thought everyone did, actually.

      • While we are clearing things up, I’m don’t actually manage an Orange Julius. I am a shift leader at the Orange Julius, which is more or less an assistant manager position.

      • Jedi

        Assistant to the manager position.

      • Same thing.

      • Jedi

        You don’t watch The Office, I guess.

      • Jedi

        My mistake – I should have never doubted. (And I shouldn’t reply before I wake up entirely!)

  • Eddie Von White

    Ozzie Guillen, Hawk Harelson, and Psychology Today?

    • PLCB3

      Ozzie: I bleeping admire Fidel. He’s bleeping awesome.
      Hawk: Ozzie, YOU CAN PUT IT ON THE BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARD, YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES!!!!!!!!! HE GAWN!!

    • Sean Powell

      That is a great trio! I should have thrown LaRussa in there somewhere.

      • PLCB3

        LaRussa is far more successful than Ozzie or the Hawk. Hate him all you want, but he was a great manager. Hawk is an idiot for canning him.

  • PLCB3

    Anyone who orders his pitchers to drill batters, sends them down to AAA for not doing so, admitting in the papers that he orders it, calls a sportswriter who says he’s senseless and immature for ordering a beaning a homophobic term, says a guy goes into 2nd base like his wife is turning a double play, and praises Fidel when he manages a team that has a brand new stadium in the heart of a city where millions of Cubans escaped has zero credibility when it comes to chemistry. The 2005 team got lucky that none of their playoff opponents could line up their pitching, and a lot of players on that team had career years. I don’t think even Dusty could have messed up that team.

    • Sean Powell

      Yes. That’s why I cited multiple sources.

      • PLCB3

        I know, I just like to rip on anything White Sox related

      • CAPS from early 2013 would have said trash related. I’ll be the first on aboard the coming-to-age CAPS bandwagon. Baby steps, man..baby steps…

      • Jedi

        It’s like I can see his wife-of-the-future’s head coming back into view on the photograph.

      • Seymour Butts

        That’s just the vertical hold on the teletubby