By In Stuff


There was a kind of interesting Twitter exchange the other day between my co-worker and friend Craig and injured pitcher and friend Brandon. I say “kind of interesting” because Twitter is, by definition, limiting, and it seemed like both Craig and Brandon were only able to say about half of what they were trying to say. The conversation was about team chemistry.

The starting point was this story in USA Today about team chemistry. I think the general point of the story is that team chemistry is undervalued by the numbers guys (per John Lackey) and that the San Francisco Giants have won three World Series largely because of chemistry (per Jake Peavy) and that people don’t appreciate how much David Ross means to the Cubs even though he’s hitting sub-.200 (per Anthony Rizzo) and that outsiders’/numberheads’ inability to understand the importance of chemistry is infuriating (per David Price). There was also the mandatory shot at the Oakland Athletics for inspiring a best-selling book and movie without winning a World Series.

“How about let’s make a movie about the good ol’ fashioned baseball people, and how they judge team chemistry, and put together guys that fit in,” Peavy said.

Well, yeah unfortunately that didn’t work out so well.

I thought the most interesting sentence in Bob Nightengale’s article was this one about the Giants: “Maybe they’ve had the best manager in Bruce Bochy, and GM too in Brian Sabean, but never have they had the best talent.” I think there’s a lot there. What does best talent mean? By definition, could Brian Sabean be a good GM if his team never has the best talent? Or is Bob using “talent” pejoratively, meaning instead “wasted talent?” Or is he saying that Sabean understands that there are other qualities a team needs beyond talent? And if that’s what he’s saying, don’t those other qualities also register as talents?

In any case, this article predictably triggered some backlash, particularly this well-done story with the somewhat telling headline “Do baseball players ever know what ‘chemistry’ means?” The point here as I read it is that, sure, chemistry plays a role in baseball success — and it’s insulting to say that people who try to quantify performance don’t understand there’s a very real human side of the game — but the author’s belief is that baseball people tend to exaggerate the role of chemistry, using it as a mystical sledgehammer to separate the insiders from the outsiders (As in: “You couldn’t possibly understand”).

None of this is new, of course. It’s essentially an extension of the scene where Billy Beane throws a chair through the wall in “Moneyball.” Baseball people feel like numbers guys dehumanize the game. Numbers guys feel like baseball people try to mythologize baseball beyond reason.

But then Brandon and Craig started Tweeting about it, and I thought that was new and interesting.

Brandon is an unconventional thinker in many ways, and one of the things I like about him is that he’s not utterly predictable with his viewpoints. For instance, he’s a Bill James fan and he strongly believes in how baseball statistics can tell stories. But he also believes that many of the numbers guys DO underrate chemistry and do not appreciate just how important it is to have players in the clubhouse who help, who inspire, who challenge, who teach, who hold people accountable and who have your back when things are not going well.

Craig is an unconventional thinker too, in many ways, and one of the things I like about him is that he’s incisive, gets at that point, challenges the status quo. He believes that much of what people call “chemistry” is fuzzy and unspecific and, in Bill James’ and Jon Stewart’s key word, “bullshit.” That is not to say that chemistry does not exist but to ask that if it DOES exist, why can’t people cite actual examples of chemistry beyond such banalities as “the guys really like each other,” and “they make it fun to come to the ballpark.”

Brandon counters that players CAN AND WOULD go beyond such banalities if writers would be interested enough to coax it out of them.

Craig counters that the chemistry effect, while there, will always be overstated because it’s in the best interest of baseball people to overstate it.

I hope — as Mr. Potter says in “It’s a Wonderful Life” — that I paint a correct picture of their views but as I said, it was Twitter. I might be exaggerating.

The back-and-forth took a turn when Brandon suggested that maybe writers should think about how chemistry affects their own places of work.

Craig responded by suggesting that using “editors” is not quite right because editors are more like coaches. He came back with a more precise analogy:

And it was Craig’s tweet that made me think of chemistry in a little bit different way.

When I was a columnist at The Kansas City Star in the 1990s and 2000s, we had an amazing staff. I mean it was absolutely amazing. You look around sports journalism today and you will find so many stars who were there — Dinn Mann, Wright Thompson, Mike Vaccaro, Mechelle Voepel, Jason Whitlock, Jeff Passan, Liz Merrell, Jason King, Bob Dutton and many others, not to mention fantastic people who are still in Kansas City like Sam Mellinger and Blair Kerkhoff and  Mike Fannin and so on. Did we have chemistry? Well, what does that mean? We had talented writers who were young and hungry, and we had some amazing editors who led through sheer force of will, and we spent money to go and write great stories.

But I would say, yes, we did have chemistry — if you want to use “chemistry” to refer to an almost invisible rhythm that became part of our daily work. We never talked about it. I’m not sure we would have been able to describe it any better than ballplayers do. There was this standard you felt like you had to live up to — you wanted to write better because all those people were writing better. There was also this closeness that is not easy to explain. We talked about work all the time, even when it didn’t feel like we were talking about work. Without even thinking about it, we were bouncing ideas off each other. We were praising each other’s best stories. We were offering suggestions. And that silence that followed mediocre stories or lazy work was as loud as anything.

How much better did any of this make The Kansas City Star? I don’t know. We were awfully good, I know that. Sure, it was a fortunate collection of talent, but when you are inside that bubble you don’t think about “talent” in the same way. We knew each other. And talent is always countered by flaws. Maybe we helped each other overcome some of those flaws. Maybe it would have been different if we didn’t have each other to push.

I am writing this from the Darius Rucker band bus — long story (which is coming soon). And a little bit ago, I was talking with Jeff Marino, the drummer. He was talking about how he has played with a lot of bands, but this one is different. He thinks one of the mistakes people make when putting together bands is that they only look at the quality of the musicians. They don’t look at the kind of people those musicians are.

“It isn’t about being on stage,” he said. “That’s the easy part. You get a bunch of great musicians on stage, and they’ll give you a great sound. But what about tomorrow? And the next day? It isn’t the time on stage. It’s the 14 hours your together on the bus. It’s the downtime before the show. We have a bunch of great guys now. And that makes a huge difference.”

He didn’t use the word “chemistry.” But I suspect that’s what he meant.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

74 Responses to Chemistry

  1. chlsmith says:

    I think a team of numbers guys, who don’t give one iota about what goes on around them, but show up and do their jobs everyday the best they can, would be a contender every year. Unfortunately, there are people who won’t do their best work if their team isn’t to their liking. Once a fella gets a big, multi-year contract, there’s not much incentive to work hard if the team isn’t really working well together.

    I think this is the essence of why the A’s haven’t won a World Series. They’ve put together solid numbers guys and had contending teams, but they are all young and wanting that big multi-year contract. Once that contract comes, they are no longer with the team and don’t have that incentive anymore. Clubhouse crap does come into play then.

    An example with the Reds. A team of Joey Vottos, who has worked hard both before and after his big contract (though his numbers aren’t as good) would be an all-time great team. A team full of Brandon Phillipses, though, I’m not so sure. I love BP…he’s a great player, as fun to watch as they come, and AWESOME with the fans. I just don’t think he and Votto get their motivation from the same place. BP does work hard and has performed well after his contract, but he’s not shy about stirring the pot a little. I don’t know how well that would go over in a big market, or how well that plays out in the clubhouse.

    • jpg says:

      I disagree with basically all of this.

      Different things motivate different people. Money, fame, recognition, acceptance… Guys stop working hard because they got their big contract due to clubhouse chemistry? Not sure I buy that one. I believe that’s mostly a myth because a guy who is primarily motivated by money to work hard is liable to continue working hard so that he can earn another big contract and even more money. Guys who stop working hard are probably guys who never had great work habits to begin with.

      The A’s have made the playoffs under Beane quite a few times. If that doesn’t show that they “work well together”, I don’t know what does. Unless of course you’re going to suggest that their chemistry level was good enough in the regular season, but got out chemistry’d once the playoffs rolled around. It’s far more likely that the randomness that occurs in a short series is the primary reason A’s haven’t won a title under Beane.

      A team full Vottos would be better than a team full of Phillpses because, well, Votto is an elite ballplayer and one of the very best hitters of this generation. Brandon Phillips is not. The hard work stuff? Total nonsense. For all we know, Phillips works and has worked every bit as hard as Votto ever has. And by all accounts, while Phillips can be prickly with media, he’s well like and respected by his teammates.

    • Jaunty Rockefeller says:

      A team of Ty Cobbs would beat the life insurance out of a team of Sean Caseys, but most people would probably greatly prefer grabbing a beer with the losing squad.

  2. Josh G says:

    Outside of just “getting along” I feel like the actual word people are looking for when they talk “chemistry” is “attitude.” People with good attitudes lift the mood of everyone around them. People with real bad attitudes bring it down. It works in every workplace. I worked at McDonalds for a few years. People came and people went but there was a 6 month period where we had an incredible team of people. Everyone liked each other, everyone liked working together. When you showed up for your shift, everyone was happy to see you arrive, when you left, they were sorry to see you go. People sometimes would be having so much fun working that we forgot to stop and worked 15 minutes past our shift before noticing the clock.

    Within those 6 months we crushed every single quantifiable record in that store. Any way you could measure productivity, we crushed it. I think it was because we had such a positive atmosphere that everyone had far less down times. You didn’t hit that wall halfway through your shift where suddenly time moves slow. If you were in a bad mood shuffling your feet, everyone else was trying to cheer you up.

    Chemistry to me is a bunch of people with the right attitude who make it hard to have the wrong one. Bad days didn’t stick. Bad people didn’t fit in. Like in your description of the Kansas City Star. Work doesn’t feel like work.

    Up here in Canada, everyone is losing their minds over the Jays. People having been meeting up to watch baseball games in August. In August! There is so much excitement all over the place. When they lose, people just get excited for the next game. If that’s how the fan’s are feeling then what must it be like in the clubhouse? Chemistry can’t win you a game. But I think it makes the whole process just that much easier.

    • Gordon Hewetson says:

      Josh got it right. I worked at McDonalds and we enjoyed it as well. Same with the seafood restaurant I worked at for six summers, Mothers Day to Labor Day, 60-80 hour weeks. Saw a lot of people come and go. Sometimes after just one day. With a bit of humility and pride in the work you could make out eg. >$200 a day. Plus we enjoyed each other’s company. Water ski between lunch and dinner shifts during the week.
      That Josh is Canadian speaks to their disposition or character. I’m a Yankees fan but I wish the Blue Jays well as a wildcard

    • Scott P. says:

      Here’s the thing, though: That chemistry, as you said, shows up in the numbers. Now, I’m sure that even if the numbers weren’t up, you would look on that time fondly. But from management’s perspective, this anecdote doesn’t show that chemistry can’t be measured, it shows the opposite.

      In baseball, it’s even more stark. You score runs, and try to keep the opponent from scoring runs. To score runs, you need hits and baserunning. To prevent runs, you need pitching and defense. All are more or less quantifiable. So if you are winning due to chemistry, that means you are getting more hits and more runs, or fewer hits and fewer runs, than otherwise.

      And that should be detectable. If Cody Ross shows up on your team and everyone starts hitting 50 points better afterwards (on average, of course), that is measurable.

  3. Marc Schneider says:

    Very interesting. I do agree that sabr-types tend to act as if athletes are simply robots and they discount the effect of psychology, which is apparently important everywhere but in sports. Confidence, comfort, leadership, things that we all take for granted in our work lives must play some role in sports. But the problem, I see, is that there is a chicken-egg issue with respect to team chemistry. I once read a book by Jerry Kramer, the old Packer guard during the Lombardi era, that addressed the 1968 season-the year after Lombardi left. By then, the team was aging, had a new coach, and struggled. Kramer noted how “team chemistry” seemed to break down once the team started losing; people started complaining about things that they would not have when the team was winning. So, do teams win because they have team chemistry or does team chemistry develop once the team starts winning?

    The other problem to me is establishing a baseline beyond which team chemistry would make a difference. I’m sure if my office was like the USS Enterprise in the alternative universe, where everyone was a pirate out to step over everyone else (i.e., like Amazon), it would affect my work. But most workplaces aren’t like that and I suspect that most clubhouses have a mix of guys that like and don’t like each other. Some clubhouses might be especially toxic to the point that impacts a team’s performance and another might be so close that it really helps them. But, most, I suspect, are in-between so that players go out and play. In most cases, I would think, the level of talent is the determining factor. I don’t think that even the most strenuous advocates of team chemistry would argue that the 2013 Houston Astros would have been winners if only they had better team chemistry. So, at what point does team chemistry make a difference? What is good team chemistry and what is bad team chemistry?

    The argument about the SF Giants, to me, is irrelevant. The proof of the Giants great team chemistry is that they have won 3 World Series. But, they have never been the best team in the regular season. Does the Giants’ team chemistry only kick in during the playoffs? Do they just not give a damn about the regular season? Was the Giants’ team chemistry so much better than, say, the Atlanta Braves’ of the 90s who had far better regular seasons, but were often flops in October? Would the Braves have won more World Series if they had had better leadership? Conversely, would the Braves’ results have been different if they had played Texas, Detroit, and Kansas City, rather than Toronto and the Yankees? It seems to me that using the Giants as an example of team chemistry is misleading, because, in effect, they simply got hot three times in October. Is that a matter of team chemistry or is that just good fortune?

    I don’t have any doubt that there are psychological factors that affect players’ performance. I also agree that many sabr types are clueless about they dynamics of clubhouses. But, this is such a slippery subject.

  4. For every example like the SF Giants (who, by the way, have had Tim Lincecum when he was good, Matt Cain when he was awesome, and Madison Bumgarner, in addition to a darn good offense that is underrated because of their home ballpark), there are counter examples like the As of the 70s and the Yankees of the 80s who hated each other but won multiple World Series. So the argument will continue.

    One thing I always wonder about – does winning come from chemistry, or does chemistry come from winning? And aren’t there any loose, happy clubhouses in .500 or losing ballclubs?

  5. tomdegisi says:

    Maybe you *can* measure chemistry. Maybe teams with good chemistry just have more players with a high Emotional Quotient.

  6. Anon says:

    At the end of the day, we only care about team chemistry if it helps win baseball games. That’s what the game is about. So the question is: “Does team chemistry help win baseball games?”

    If we are to conclude that chemistry DOES indeed help win games, we need to find a way to show that. “In God we trust, all others bring data.” Now, this absolutely doesn’t mean that we can measure the effect of chemistry RIGHT NOW. Just think of how much better a sense of fielding value we have now than 20 years ago. But there’s no doubt about it — if there’s an effect, it CAN be measured, somehow.

    So if you’re a big proponent of chemistry as an effect on a team, figure out how it works. Is it based on certain players? Certain managers or teams? Certain characteristics? Figure out what is going on, and write down a way to test it. If your hypothesis checks out, you may revolutionize the way baseball teams are created.

    My guess is there will be an effect. Probably not huge, but it’s such an important concept in life, you’ve got to believe it factors in somehow. But I’m not going to put my trust in it until somebody can provide evidence that it has an effect.

    • One of the tings about chemistry is that it acts with the environment, and that environment is always changing. The great Yankees and Dodgers teams of the 1950’s both had chemistry, but they were two different kinds, as different as Republicans and Democrats. Chemistry is not one thing, it’s a recipe whose ingredients are never fixed, a mixture of time and place, of personnel and personalities, of city and ballpark, of attendance and media coverage, of history and expectations, of age and experience and money and sex and a hundred other things besides. You can describe it, but you can’t measure it, because you can’t know all the variables to conduct an experiment. It’s like the classic definition of pornography—I know it when I see it.

  7. I subscribed to the Star back in those days and what a great analogy. Great columns and stories were a daily thing back then. I’m an educator and can tell you that same environment shows up in schools. It comes and goes but there are times when we perform better because work doesn’t seem like work. It’s hard to see how chemistry forms though. It’s like a tornado. We know what conditions are likely to cause it–winning for example–but it doesn’t always show up when you expect it and sometimes it appears out of nowhere. It’s easier to see when the atmosphere collapses and some new factor destroys it. Perhaps that is what makes chemistry so magical. It can’t be created entirely by man or management. In the end, I think chemistry helps players get the most our of their potential by helping them focus better.

  8. GaryW says:

    We’ve had the movie Peavy wants. Wild Thing Vaughn says hello.

  9. Giant's Fan says:

    I think one problem is that “talent” is often equated to “tools” by the numbers guys. This is why the Giants never have any top prospects despite Duffy, Panik, playing All-Star caliber baseball. Players who do everything well but not one thing outstanding get under rated and are considered less talented. Many teams also have the stars and scrubs roster constructions, which has to be an impediment to teamwork.

    Also, as this article and the comments point out, anyone who has ever worked anywhere knows that a team of people who get along and work towards a common goal (as opposed to individual goals) perform better. Seems ridiculous that there are billions spent on organizational studies in all industries, yet there’s a faction in baseball who want to ignore it.

    • davidpom50 says:

      Duffy and Panik were not rated poorly as prospects because they did a bunch of things pretty well, but nothing really well. They were flat out bad. They have both performed vastly better in the big league than in the minors.

      As a Dodger fan, I hate it. I want to call it luck, call it cheating, call it anything but what it is good coaching.

  10. I used to work in a group of computer programmers and we had this kid in there who was a terrific programmer. He had everything — ability, work ethic, drive to learn and succeed. Then we changed managers and within a few months the kid requested a transfer to another floor and got it. And told me that he would have stayed if the manager hadn’t been changed, but after that he no longer enjoyed working in the group.

    We were, the rest of us, all exactly the same guys. The new manager didn’t make any radical changes to the routines but something definitely did change. The old manager, when a trick was played on him in fun by one of the guys, would laugh until he dropped; the new one wouldn’t, and soon the tricks stopped. The old manager went out of his way to avoid holding meetings; the new one held more of them. I could go on but you get the point. The chemistry of the group had changed. I have no idea if our productivity changed as well, but at a minimum it cost us a rising talent.

    Baseball is different because EVERYTHING is measured by accepted standards. Every now and then, however, a team will perform so far ahead of, or behind, expectations that the accepted standards are called into question. The Nationals — OK, they’ve had a lot of injuries but there’s no way that much talent should be around .500. The 1969 Mets got contributions from players who showed little ability to provide them before and in many cases never provided them again — does anyone remember Jack DiLauro or Bobby Pfeil or Rod Gaspar, not to mention Al Weis, who was the definition of a below replacement middle infielder until he began making plays and getting key hits in VERY big games. The standard explanation is “luck,” and of course that’s true as far as it goes. But some teams seem to have a lot more luck than others.

    I think, as with my programming group, it comes down to management. Some managers have the ability to keep all 25 players working hard, which in many cases is nothing more than being ready when they’re suddenly needed. In a sport in which microseconds matter, keeping players loose is more than a metaphor. It also means they’re able to maintain that state of consciousness where they’re able to react without thinking, which means there’s nothing in the way of their focus. The great ones — Hank Aaron comes to mind — spend their whole careers in that state of mind and it doesn’t matter who manages them. Others, Tommie Agee was exhibit A on that Mets team, need more protection from distraction, sometimes a lot more.

    And none of this in quantifiable, and never will be. But it’s there, and we all know it.

    • Donald A. Coffin says:

      I don’t know about chemistry. It reads to me like you traded a good manager for a bad manager. And that shows up in the performance characteristics of the managers, doesn’t it?

    • invitro says:

      “But some teams seem to have a lot more luck than others.”
      This should be expected. It would be very strange if all teams had the exact same amount of luck.
      Not many people want to believe that their achievements are even a tiny bit due to luck. They strongly prefer that they, and others, believe their success is due to character and moral superiority.
      It’s the job of the rest of us to tell them that they’re full of BS, and show them why.

  11. DjangoZ says:

    Of course “chemistry” exists and we have all experienced it (or the lack of it) in our our own workplaces, just as athletes do.

    Having chemistry makes it feel better to go to work and do the work…but does it actually improve performance? That’s the question.

    So, athletes and coaches and GM who have to go to work in those places will always value “chemistry”, as anyone does in a job, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it has on-the-field performance value.

    • invitro says:

      According to the article, many (most? all?) baseball players believe chemistry has enormous on-the-field value.

  12. primeny711 says:

    Do any of the scientists who believe in chemistry explain how it left the Giants in 2011 & 2013 & only visited the Red once in the last 4 years?

  13. Giant's Fan says:

    That’s pretty easy. Their best players got hurt those years (Posey in 2011 and Pagan plus entire outfield in 2013). Chemistry cannot overcome lack of talent.

    • flcounselor says:

      You claim the Giants’ “entire outfield” got hurt in 2013?

      When Gregor Blanco played 141 games and Hunter Pence played all 162? That year?

      So your thesis comes down to Angel Pagan being limited to 71 games that year as the reason the Giants fell all the way to fourth place, ten games under .500. Which is even less convincing when one notes he only played in 96 games in 2014, when they won the World Championship.

      That must be some truly powerful “chemistry” that Pagan possesses.

      In other words, you’re just making stuff up and hoping no one will notice.

  14. Marc Schneider says:

    I’m not sure that chemistry in sports works the same way that it would in a normal workplace. Professional athletes are all high-achievers with healthy egos, who have already overcome incredible odds to make it to the majors. They are most likely stronger-willed than the average person. They also are doing work that they enjoy; clearly sports the highest level is not just a game but, still, it’s not like working at McDonald’s or even working in most white-collar jobs. There are huge incentives for players to perform well and to win that don’t often exist in normal work settings; for one thing, they can make huge amounts of money and the prestige of winning a championship is enormous and life-changing. Players in a team sport automatically have a common purpose; anyone would rather win than lose. I suppose some players might be motivated more by their individual performance than by winning, but I suspect that is fairly rare at the highest levels. Players have also, most likely, played with guys they despise or at least have nothing in common with. It seems to me the question is not so much whether good team chemistry helps a team win but whether bad team chemistry actually inhibits performance. My personal belief-and, of course, I’m not a professional athlete-is that good team chemistry is generally a function, not a cause of winning. Good teams have good chemistry because they are winning and people are happier; Jim Bouton made this point in Ball Four. I’m sure it helps to like your teammates or, more to the point, not to have teammates that you can’t stand or that are distractions. I think managers have a lot to do with creating team chemistry; with the 1990s Braves, the players loved Bobby Cox and it largely adopted his personality (of course, they may have looked for players that Cox could get along with). But I don’t think you can just analogize from a typical working environment to professional sports.

  15. Frank Evans says:

    As a KC resident during the ’90s, I very much appreciate that incredible staff the Star had back then. I still read it online, and after 15 years in St. Louis haven’t found anyone on the Post-Dispatch’s sports page who would have made the team in KC. Well, not since Rick Hummel retired.

  16. Ian says:

    Interesting article. I know, coming into this season, the Twins thought they needed to improve the chemistry and attitude in the clubhouse. They signed Torii Hunter to be a mentor, esp to Hicks and Buxton. During ST, GM Terry Ryan said he thought the team could compete for the playoffs. Both of those things were mocked pretty loudly by stat heads.

    But, they are competing for the playoffs and stat heads are quick to say it’s an illusion. Hicks struggled and didn’t make the team out of ST but since July has been hitting .281/.333/.477 and finally looks like he’s figured things out (he’s given Hunter credit). Stat heads would probably argue that Hunter had nothing to do with it and Hicks would’ve been fine on his own. We can’t really prove it one way or another. (USA Today had another article on Hunter’s mentoring that’s worth a read – But I do think Terry Ryan is a very smart baseball man and so is Paul Molitor. Both thought chemistry had to be improved.

    • In 2012, the Angels were 89 and 73. They elected to let Torii Hunter leave so they could sign Josh Hamilton. The 2013 Angels were 78/84 with Hamilton playing the whole year. In 2014, Hamilton got hurt and missed 73 games, and the Angels took off, cruising to a first place finish. Hamilton came back in time for the playoffs where the Angels were swept as Hamilton went 0-13. During the offseason, Hamilton fell off the wagon, got hurt yet again, and was traded to the Texas Rangers. Meanwhile, Hunter signed with the Tigers, who made the playoffs in both of his years there.

      There were many reasons for the Angels rise and fall, but Hamilton’s presence created a sour taste that permeated the whole ballclub, so much so that Arte Moreno was willing to pay a king’s ransom just to send him away, to a division rival no less. According to the stats, Hamilton was the more valuable player during 2013-2014, with a 2.9 WAR to Hunter’s 2.7. This is yet another reason that WAR makes certain fans and players want to puke.

  17. TWolf says:

    When speaking of team chemistry, do we mean chemistry in the locker room (players getting along and enjoying each other’s company) or chemistry on the court or field (players who work together well and whose abilities complement each other)? Chemistry on the field or court is probably more important in basketball and football than baseball.

    As an aside, its big of Joe to mention Jason Whitlock in his list of talented Kansas City Star sports writers. Jason was unusually mean spirited (even for him) in his review of Joe’s book on Joe Paterno.

  18. No Comment says:

    Sabermetric writers tend not to write about chemistry because there is simply nothing particularly useful to say about it. Does it exist? Sure. Does it help teams win or cause them to lose? Maybe. How much? Nobody knows. Can team management consciously create/foster it? Maybe?

    The goal of sabermetric analysis is to add to our understanding of the sport. We can quantify the value of offense, base running, pitching and defense, even if inexactly. To date, there is no intelligent way to quantify chemistry. So why talk about it in an analytical sense? It doesn’t mean sabermetric writers don’t believe it exists. There’s just no point to them talking about it at length when they have nothing intelligent to add to the discussion.

    • Respectfully, I disagree.

      The fact that nobody has found a way to quantify chemistry doesn’t mean somebody won’t be able to do so in the future, and perhaps it will require somebody to do a lot of lateral thinking to find a way to frame the question.

      If nothing else, this article is Joe’s attempt at suggesting that the key to the chemistry mystery will appear when some free thinker does a lot of lateral thinking and finds a way to quantify chemistry.

      • No Comment says:

        Honestly, I’m not sure which part of my comment you find disagreeable. All I’m saying is that presently there is no known method of quantifying the value of good or bad chemistry. I don’t think you disagree with that. If, as you suggest, in the future, some inspired individual(s) is able to find the angle from which to quantify chemistry, then it will become a topic on which analytically inclined writers can usefully speak. Until then, not so much.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      I think that’s the point. Can you really consciously work to foster good team chemistry or is it something that just happens spontaneously? Obviously, if you have a guy that is really toxic in the clubhouse, it makes sense to get rid of him (but, there you have to balance the cost/benefit if he is really good). People talk about teams bringing in good people and so forth; I’m sure no team consciously brings in jerks or at least would prefer not to. The point is, there’s really nothing you can do about it. If a guy is hitting .240 but is good in the clubhouse, do you keep him around over someone who is better but not as good in the clubhouse?

  19. danaking says:

    I think a lot of the chemistry is in the numbers, but it would be hell to get it out. For instance, I think it almost certainly does matter when a veteran player can guide a rookie through how to conduct himself, how to handle a slump, a million other things, and it may well help that rook. How much? No one can say, and I doubt anyone ever will be able to. That said, chemistry can;t make a team better than its talent. It can, however, help a team more fully take advantage of the talent it has. (Bill James wrote on this a few months ago, but I can’t find the article.)

  20. And a lot of people would say that after Joe left the KC Star, Whitlock’s ego got out of control and the whole thing fell apart. Chemistry is a weird thing. Someone above suggested Ty Cobb would have bad chemistry, but I’m not sure that’s true. Sometimes teams need big angry personalities to help drive people but they need other personalities to keep people going. It’s chemistry.

    • flcounselor says:

      When you can accurately state IN ADVANCE which teams need an “angry” personality and which ones need “other personalities,” then prove it by citing empirical results, on a repeatable basis, then we’ll know you’re really on to something.

      Until then we might as well call it all bullshit. Because if one can’t utilize “chemistry” to gain the results they want, that’s exactly what it is.

  21. Sam says:

    I think the thing is while chemistry certainly exists, it is a kind of lousy basis for making decisions, in almost all of these contexts. I mean, if the Kansas City Star were in a position to hire Earnest Hemingway, who is drunk and heavily armed and generally a terrible person to be around, but getting Hemingway would cost them a nice writer who helped out Joe– I think you have to swing that deal as GM of the Star. Joe might be kind of miserable and his work might suffer while he gets used to dodging whisky bottles/bullets but you have to count on the fact that Joe is a professional and it won’t suffer so much that it outweighs the benefit of adding Earnest Hemingway.

  22. Crout says:

    I have just never understood why so many people view this as an “either/or” proposition. You can use both aspects in your decision-making process.

  23. Dr. G says:

    I like how it’s referred to as “chemistry,” a branch of science, when referring to how different people’s personalities combine. It’s as if by calling it “chemistry” one could predict how many Type A personalities could be added to Type B personalities for a specific result of building a winner (or some such predicable formula).
    I vote we add a machine to the internet that will search for all “chemistry” references in cases such as this and replace them with “alchemy,” which I think is a better representation.

    • Kuz says:

      I think when people refer to “chemistry” in this context, they are recalling the word “catalyst” from some dark, dim recollection of chemistry class.

  24. NevadaMark says:

    The Brilliant Readers have some GREAT comments on this issue. I’d like to throw out a question: is it possible for a bad team to have good chemistry? I have never heard a GM or manager say “Well, we had lousy pitching and our hitters never got going, we lost 95 games, but we had great chemistry”? Or do all bad teams have bad chemistry and all good teams have good chemistry? What exactly IS chemistry, in a baseball context?

    • Dr. G says:

      I’m not sure if there’s been a losing Cubs team that didn’t have good chemistry. Of course, that’s an exaggeration, but they’ve been called the “lovable losers” for as long as I can remember, and it probably has a bit to do with “chemistry.”

  25. BobDD says:

    I’ve heard from several places how when John Olerud joined a team, the pitchers and other infielders all seemed to ‘magically’ improve. Was that chemistry, or just stealing credit from Olerud? I certainly am happier being in a situation where there is a great (happy and nurturing) attitude, but will it make some ballplayers produce better? I think so, but then other ballplayers might be more complacent without a challenging attitude in place. Chemistry/Attitude probably makes some difference but cannot be measured well because the differences are slight and/or even out.

  26. Karyn says:

    I wonder if there’s something to Bill Simmons’ idea of Big Dogs and Knuckleheads. In short, you can have one talented Knucklehead on a team if you have a respected Big Dog on the team to keep him in line. But if you have two Knuckleheads, Oscar Robertson himself couldn’t keep that team together.

    It may have more validity on an NBA team, with the smaller team size and necessity of player interaction on the court. Dunno.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      I think there are ways to measure “chemistry” in basketball to the extent that it reflects performance on the floor. Does one guy hog the ball, refuse to set picks, etc? It’s much harder in baseball because it’s essentially an individual sport. Plus, some of the things that people say shows chemistry and teamwork (e.g., hitting the ball to the right side to advance a runner) may actively go against what sabermetrics preaches. I was watching a game the other night; team is down by a few runs with a runner on third, batter hits a weak ground ball and gets the run in. The hitter is praised for his unselfishness but, in fact, he pretty much stifled the rally; he would have been better off trying to hit a home run, but that would have been considered selfish (unless, of course, he was seen not to be trying to hit a home run but as a natural outgrowth of going the other way or something). In baseball, chemistry (or alchemy, as someone above called it) is entirely metaphysical; what is the value of having a “veteran presence” or “leadership.” I’m sure there is some value, but it’s nonquantifiable, in part because the terms are so vague. Was General Patton a great leader (assuming he was) because he was a brilliant tactician or because he slapped guys around in field hospitals? Who knows?

      • NevadaMark says:

        If you give yourself up to move a runner from second to third, aren’t you just shifting responsibility to the next hitter?

  27. Timo says:

    A big Rangers fan here and I saw first hand how much team chemistry played a role in their ascent to their first pennant. That team had alot of homegrown players that grew up with each other. Nelson Cruz, Michael Young, Ian kinsler, derek holland..the guys that came over in the teixera trade like matt harrison, elvis andrus, neftali feliz…former rangers that came over as veterans like colby lewis and darren oliver..josh Hamilton had been their for three years…that team loved playing with each other. Ive never seen a team so happy in the dugout…constant smiles on faces.laughing and joking all the time..they had that goofy antler thing they did when taking an extra base or when they successfully stole base…and the hook shot when they got a hit. They looked so comfortable as teammates. It was a pleasure watching them play. The chemistry with that team was amazing.

  28. echima says:

    I always think of chemistry in relation to an coed adult soccer team I was on. When I joined, it was a great team, perennially at the top of the division, with a bunch of girls who had played in college and a star striker from New Zealand who dominated every game. Everybody loved each other and the team would go out for drinks after most games. We’d laugh and joke and do tricks on the field while cruising to 4-0 wins. No team has ever had better chemistry!

    Then, one season, we had a string of fluke losses and bizarre goals, and everyone started blaming each other. Angry emails started going around about who wasn’t subbing out often enough and who was showing up to games late. People refused to talk to each other at games. By the end of the season, the team was so splintered that they disbanded.

    The point, of course, is that it’s really easy to have fun when you’re really good and winning. Success causes chemistry a lot more than chemistry causes success.

  29. KHAZAD says:

    I have seen alot of comments about what makes good “chemistry” here, and they all have some merit. Some people have talked about management, and good chemistry always starts at the top, with a good environment to work in and leadership that cares and can be believed in, dealing with individuals but leading a team. (Something that alot of modern companies seem to forget.)

    People being able to work together and co-exist is important as well. They might not all have to be buddies, but having each other’s back instead of stabbing each other in it is pretty important. Respect may be more important than liking someone, though being friends certainly doesn’t hurt. A good attitude goes a long way as well. (Something else that may start at the top, but leadership among peers letting someone know that negative attitudes and a bad work ethic won’t be tolerated is important as well.)

    Success has been mentioned, and while it may be a chicken or egg debate, it is certainly easier to have a good attitude when you are successful. There are some personalities that do well in success that become divisive in failure. The media often sees good chemistry as synonymous with success, and therefore can either mistakenly give the good chemistry label to a team that is simply talented but without it, and fail to recognize it in a team that hasn’t had as much success yet.

    It is a big freaking stew of many ingredients that make up good chemistry, and the inability to pinpoint it and predict it leave many questioning it’s existence. I haven’t always known all the reasons the chemistry was good in situations where I have experienced it, (Work, sports teams, and a rock band in my younger days) but I certainly have recognized the results when I have seen them. I have not always been able to pinpoint the reasons why certain groups didn’t work out very well either (though admittedly it easier pinpointing those reasons than the good ones) but I have known the disasters when I have seen them as well.

    Chemistry exists, but we can’t always define it, and we can’t always see a way to make it better when it is bad, and it pisses us off that that we can’t seem to do those things.

  30. Great article Joe and it highlight the tension between “analytics guys”/bean counters and old fashioned scouts/traditionalists.

    I’m thinking about Bill James sitting alone in his office with his spreadsheets trying to quantify whether “team chemistry” exists. This image highlights, to me, that analytics/math folks tend to work alone, in a vacuum of sabermetrics. Scouts — while working alone — are always analyzing the big picture, assessing performance in the context of other people (performance with teammates, interactions with coaches and even crowds at the ballpark).

    How could we expect an analytics person to appreciate chemistry when they’re yeoman’s work is done in solitude.

    And maybe vice versa with scouts (and players) who cannot see baseball performance as existing in a vacuum because they operate in the arena.

    I appreciate those folks, like yourself, who can see the value of both poles and operate in the gray areas where there’s value to be gained from both sides.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      I think you are really engaging in stereotyping here; sort of the old “saber guys live in their parents’ basement.” Analytics is trying to find the demonstrable factors that lead to success. They don’t necessarily say chemistry doesn’t exist so much as say this isn’t something that you can say leads to success. All the arguments about chemistry are anecdotal and, largely, after the fact. A team wins and they have great chemistry. And, I would bet that scouts put far more value on talent than on some vague notion of how a guy contributes to chemistry. It’s not as if teams will refuse to sign guys with talent if they seem like they will be bad in the clubhouse.

      I think chemistry is like clutchness; maybe it exists, maybe it doesn’t, but how do you actually do something with it?

      • Frank Evans says:

        I don’t think you have to “do something” with chemistry. Good chemistry makes people better… it improves teamwork and communication, and removes barriers to success. It’s no different in a cube farm than it is in a major league clubhouse.

        • Marc Schneider says:

          The point is, if you can’t really figure out how to improve chemistry, what’s the point in trying to analyze it. Sabermetrics is about analyzing things that you can actually bring to bear to make the team better. Now, maybe a GM can bring in players that he thinks will improve team chemistry. I don’t think saber people necessarily say chemistry doesn’t exist or doesn’t have some influence on performance, but they are more concerned with material factors that you can measure. And the fact is, chemistry is whatever you want it to be.

  31. Tom says:

    I don’t like Herschel Walker. A few years back to make a point to a friend, I went and researched the before, during and after records of all the teams Herschel was on in the NFL- Cowboys, Vikings, Giants, Eagles, Giants. All were doing well before he got there, went into the tank while he was there, and came out of it once he left. I cannot see how that was a coincidence. What if a similar study was done in baseball? Measure the stats of players who were there before, during and after the player in question and see if he has any effect on their stats.

    • Dan says:

      To be fair, Herschel was a two time Pro Bowler and probably the best back in the league in 1988, and wasn’t the reason the Cowboys sucked during his time there. The Cowboys, you might recall, went 1-15 the year after they traded him. I suspect the reason the Cowboys got better and the Vikings worse after he moved was that the Cowboys had Jimmy Johnson and great drafts, and the Vikings had given up too much to get him. I didn’t really follow his career after that, so maybe there’s something to your theory about his later teams.

      • DB says:

        I would guess that Herschel some how went from a winner to a loser when he went to the NFL. Seems logical.

        1. I cannot find Herschel’s high school win-loss records, but as senior, they won a state championship. First and only for that school.
        2. Georgia in his first year, wins a national championship (first one since 1942 and never since). Year before did not even go to Bowl game. Three straight Sugar Bowls with him.
        3. USFL. Generals never really did anything (stuck behind the great Baltimore/Philadelphia Stars) but made playoffs twice and Herschel holds records for rushing yards and touchdowns. Cannot really compare before and after.
        4. First year with Vikings, lost one more game but won the division (finished second the year before) and the Cowboys were worse.

        Just not sure why you hate him (maybe because of his religion and support for Trump). Not his fault though that the Vikings got fleeced by Jimmy Johnson.

  32. Michael Green says:

    “Chemistry,” or whatever you want to call it, does make for a happier workplace. Does that translate into job performance? I think it depends on the workplace. Consider a baseball team. I would like to think that a batter will be willing to hit behind any runner if the situation calls for it, but will he try harder if he likes the manager or the teammate involved? How DO we rate that?

    Let me extend it to broadcasting. Curt Gowdy used to say that it’s a long season and a small booth. I grew up listening to Vin Scully for seven innings and Jerry Doggett for two. They clearly got along well, at least on the air; it turns out that they were best friends off the air. While The Vin maintains the practice of working alone, he and Jerry would chat as innings were beginning or during pitching changes at times. The broadcasts were enjoyable to listen to. Of course that was because Vin was, as Jerry described him, the best broadcaster who ever came down the pike. But I suspect their ease with each other didn’t hurt.

    It’s funny that we talk about the Oakland A’s and Moneyball. We could talk about them with chemistry. There never has been a happier group of players than those on the 1972-74 A’s who won three straight World Series. Ahem. But Dick Williams told them dissension could be healthy, and in turn they were united on one thing: all of them hated Charley Finley. THAT was chemistry.

    • invitro says:

      Did the players on the 1975-1979 A’s have the same chemistry? Maybe they didn’t hate Finley enough? Which players today hate the most?

      • The A’s won their division pennant again in 1975, narrowly lost it in 1976, and then Finley broke up the team.

        I doubt there will ever be a repetition of that A’s team or the late 1970s Yankees simply because of free agency. Players have enough control over their futures to avoid that kind of a scene. Does anybody here really think that if Matt Williams is still managing the Nationals when Harper qualifies as a free agent, he won’t leave???

  33. frog says:

    Chemistry, that mystical variety that gets waved around. Sounds a lot like all forms of magical thinking bollocks. Homeopathy, Reiki, fortune telling – all “evidence” coming from anecdote and small sample size and remembering the hits and forgetting the misses and biased “studies” and created interests.

    If you really really want there to be chemistry I’m sure you will see it.

  34. CB says:

    As an A’s fan, I always thought the big mistake Beane made last season was trading Cespedes. His numbers weren’t amazing (OBP was pretty bad), but he played loose and you could tell he was having fun. Can never quantify it directly to him using numbers, but it was definitely not the same offense after he left.

  35. Pragmatic says:

    You want great “chemistry” in hockey, get a great goaltender, you want great “chemistry” in football get a great quarterback and so on…I am not saying “chemistry” doesn’t exist, but saying you can identify is HUBRIS to the nth degree.

  36. hermitfool says:

    I suspect successful teams in any sport usually have members who cannot tolerate losing. Michael Jordan and George Brett come to mind. Maybe someone smarter than I could make the case. However, the woods are full of uber competitive athletes–Troy Tulowitzki, Dustin Pedroia, Richie Ashburn, doomed to play for dreadful teams and unable, by themselves, to affect the outcome.

  37. Black Licorice Matters says:

    The word “win” is of imaginary construct. It is usually shaped by the person telling you about it.

    Chemistry has no business in the discussion so I will not mention it again.

    In baseball, we are told winners are the group of players cheering with the most points on the scoreboard when the season ends. Superior numbers, performed by individuals and teams that are not cheering at this minute can, and do, often confuse people who like their columns to sum correctly. A+B+C=D if A=#, B=#, C=#, and D=WS.

    But truly, A is undefined. I am secretly delighted.

    A stands for Astronomy.

    For ten thousand years or more, every half rotation around the sun produces a period when certain stars line up to tell people that all is well and that the ground is fertile for planting. New life emerges and reaches for the light. A half orbit around again before night and day are nearly exactly the same length. The harvest begins and I am made to ponder the question. Baseball understands this; it repeats itself every year.

    This is why I like MLB. In the beautiful, bright and shiny light of spring each year and when fall warns me that winter approaches, I have to ask myself what win means.

    I never let anyone tell me.

  38. Richard H says:

    It’s luck. People hate admitting that something is uncontrollable so they chalk it up to “Intangibles” that a “Good” GM can figure out and put together a good team. In October you have to be good and then get the bounces to go your way, anyone watching these last few postseasons has seen that.

  39. MikeN says:

    THe Red Sox have shown this pretty definitively over the last 15 years.

  40. Tess Koehne says:

    Chemistry | Joe Posnanski

    […]Honestly, most of the people that attempt outside sales fail at it. They don’t fail because they’re incapable of it, they fail because they don’t put in the effort, or can’t handle “no”, or they give up too soon. […]

  41. Chemistry | Joe Posnanski

    […]A roof can leak for a lot of reasons. The first step is to locate the leak and try to figure out what isn’t right. […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *