Team chemistry arguments are pretty played out. Yet people still try to turn team chemistry discussions into zero sum arguments and employ caricatures and straw men of their perceived opponents in the debate to make their case. It’s almost always baseball writer driven, of course, and the latest example comes from Bob Nightengale of USA Today.
It’s the usual fare. A story of people talking about chemistry after the fact rather than before the fact (please find me an example, anywhere, where “good chemistry” stories appeared in newspapers before the winning, not vice-versa, and no, standard spring training optimism stories don’t count). A story in which the writer has a preconceived notion about team chemistry and finds several players who give him quotes which fit into those preconceived notions. Quotes like this one from John Lackey:
“It’s really undervalued,’’ St. Louis Cardinals veteran starter John Lackey told USA TODAY Sports, “especially in today’s world with all of the numbers guys.”
We can put all kinds of numbers on players’ talent, from RBI to WAR, to ERA to FIP, but when it comes to the heart and soul of a clubhouse, there remains no measuring stick.
“The numbers guys can’t quantify that one,’’ Lackey said, “so they don’t want to believe in it.’’
John Lackey, by the way, was a big part of the “Chicken and Beer” Red Sox of 2011. Back then he said this in response to all of the media people who claimed that team’s collapse was all about bad chemistry:
“Guys having a beer after their start has been going on for the last 100 years,’’ Lackey said. “This is retarded. It’s not like we were sitting up there doing it every night. It’s not even close to what people think.’’
What about reports of players drinking in the dugout? “They [media] just see how far they can go,’’ he said. “That’s just a flat-out lie.’’
Is he willing to acknowledge that mistakes were made? “I guess. Sure. They’re being made in every clubhouse in the big leagues, then. If we’d have made the playoffs, we’d have been a bunch of fun guys.’’
Which is absolutely true. A few better pitching performances a few more wins and the Sox would’ve been in the playoff lottery, the Chicken and Beer Brigade being just as famous as the 2004 Idiots.
Giants pitcher Jake Peavy had this to say:
“We’re in a game today where everybody wants to think they can formulate, or come up with some kind of number,’’ says Giants starter Jake Peavy, who like Lackey, has won World Series titles with two organizations. “You turn on some of these baseball shows, and nobody wants to talk about the San Francisco Giants, because numbers can’t explain how we won last year.
“They don’t want to talk about clubhouse chemistry.”
You can place some numbers on that, Jake. Numbers like 2-0, 1 save, 0.43 ERA, 21 IP, K/BB ratio of 17/1, 9 hits allowed. That’s Madison Bumgarner’s World Series line. Or how about 2.17? That’s your own ERA after coming over to the Giants in a trade, significantly improving a battered pitching staff down the stretch. Or 8? That’s the number of position player starters the Giants had with an OPS+ over 100. Or 1: the number of managers they have who are considered the best in the game today. Or “many” being the number of people who have come to believe that Brian Sabean is among the best at filling holes on seemingly flawed teams and turning them into winners when it matters. Chemistry may be nice, but talent, in all of its forms, matters more.
And the distribution of talent across the season matters. Baseball is not a 25-man vs. 25-man contest in real time. Matchups matter and Bruce Bochy is really good at making sure he matches up better than you most of the time. Timing matters too. People like to talk about how, say, the Dodgers have more talent than the Giants. Maybe so over the course of 162 games last season or this season. But in world where ten teams make the playoffs, the overall talent discussion is irrelevant. Who, among those ten teams, plays better in October is what determines which team wins the World Series and the Giants performance in October has been a function of applied talent over a short period of time in three of the past five seasons, not chemistry. Unless, that is, you think Madison Bumgarner’s heroics last year, Pablo Sandoval’s .500/.529/1.125 line in the 2012 World Series or Edgar Renteria hitting .412 with two homers in 2010 was all a function of good vibes. Good players — of whom have a track record for high-level performance and an extraordinary amount of talent — are why the Giants have a fist full of World Series rings.
But, as is often the case, the pro-chemistry people will likely respond to me with some variation on “you never played the game so you don’t know.” Well, they’re right. So let me defer to my cosmic associate. His name is Jim Leyland, and he knows a thing or two about baseball. Here’s what he said to the Washington Post’s Adam Kilgore 2010 when asked about how Pudge Rodriguez was aiding the Washington Nationals’ team chemistry:
“Take all that clubhouse [stuff] and all that, throw it out the window. Every writer in the country has been writing about that [nonsense] for years. Chemistry don’t mean [anything]. He’s up here because he’s good. That don’t mean [a hill of beans]. They got good chemistry because their team is improved, they got a real good team, they got guys knocking in runs, they got a catcher hitting .336, they got a phenom pitcher they just brought up. That’s why they’re happy.”
Those brackets hide a lot of references to horse excrement in case you’re not familiar with Mr. Leyland’s patois.
I’ve said this 100 times before and I’ll say it 100 times again. Working with people you like is way better than working with people you don’t like. Having guys in the clubhouse who make your life and job better is always preferable to having guys who make it work. I’ll even grant, based on the testimony of players I have spoken to, that there is at least some intangible yet real benefit if everyone is happy an gelling. I’d always try to get rid of bad seeds if I ran a team, at least as long as their bad seeding was not outweighed by seriously outstanding on-the-field play.
But good chemistry doesn’t make teams win. Good chemistry is a product of winning. And bad chemistry is, very, very often, a product of guys reacting poorly to losing (just ask Cole Hamels about that). To suggest that the “numbers guys” are mistaken when they say that talent trumps that stuff is just bunk.