Are we done here or shall I explain why I think team chemistry matters? Well, I guess I get paid good — not great — money to write about baseball, so I’ll do some more writing. Lately I’ve been getting emails about the Royals and their “team spirit” or “moxie” or “fight” or whatever term you want to use to describe what’s going on with them.
Here’s a sample:
“Continuing the line of thought in your article about factors that Sabermetrics doesn’t do a very good job of taking into account, I would add another one. You touched on it when you said teammates, but I would go further and say the team itself and team spirit. It seems clear to me that last year the Royals’ run to the WS was more than could be reasonably expected, given the individuals making up our team. The collective group just outplayed the sum of its individual talents. I’ll call this team spirit, which can at times go into a positive feedback loop. And it seems to me that the Royals are right up at the top of the teams in U.S. professional sports, not just MLB, in this “team spirit” category. They support each other so much and help one another rise to challenges. This team spirit is probably impossible to quantify, but it is real.”
Not long after I got the above email the same reader sent me a link to a USA Today story by Bob Nightengale on the same subject. Here’s how the article starts:
“In a sport where the desire to quantify every movement only grows with each season, it is a sabermetric aficionado’s worst nightmare.
You can’t measure it. You can’t define it. You can’t put a number on it.
We’re talking about clubhouse chemistry, and the culture that can raise a major league team to extraordinary heights without having the biggest payroll or most talent.
“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.”
How and why team chemistry works
This is only a theory, but it’s a pretty good one if I do say so myself. (Plus I stole most of it from guys who play, coach or manage big league baseball, so I figure I’m on pretty solid ground.)
Good teams believe they will win.
Good teams think that anything bad that happens is an aberration and they can overcome adversity if they keep hustling and grinding away. Good teams look for signs that they will win — a big hit, a great defensive play, an error by the opposition — and believe that when one good thing happens, it’s just the first of a string of good things that will follow.
Bad teams believe they will lose.
Bad teams think that anything bad that happens is not an aberration and no matter what they do, they’re not going to win, so they just go through the motions. Bad teams look for signs they’re going to lose — a strikeout, a great play by the opposition or an error by their team — and believe that when one bad thing happens, it’s just the first of a string of bad things that will follow.
“Team first” players
Clint Hurdle, manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, once said that if you can ever get 25 guys to put the team first, that team can do amazing things. If there’s a “team first” philosophy, nobody cares who gets the big hit. You’re just as happy for a teammate to be the hero as you would be if it was you that came through in the clutch.
That’s why seeing the Royals celebrate together is a big deal; it’s a sign that they’re happy for a teammate and when teams like each other, they tend to play better. Guys are willing to do whatever it takes to win a game; even if it means letting someone else stand in the spotlight.
“Me first” players
“Me first” players do not want to give up an at bat by moving a runner over. They don’t want to take hittable pitches so their pitcher can rest. They won’t attempt difficult plays because they don’t want to make an error. And that attitude can spread like a disease; it’s why they invented the term “clubhouse cancer.”
A player who was putting the team first sees another guy take care of his own numbers and thinks: “Why should I be giving away at bats? He’s not.” The clubhouse cancer is usually an unhappy player — he thinks he ought to play more or be used in a different way — and most unhappy players don’t want to be unhappy alone. They start working on other players: “The manager doesn’t know what he’s doing, you’re getting screwed.” Now you have two unhappy players and the cancer starts to spread. If you don’t get that guy out of your clubhouse — no matter how good his numbers are — your team will turn into collection of cliques, the clubhouse will be unhappy and everybody will say to hell with the team; I’m going to take care of my own numbers and get out of here as quickly as possible.
There’s no number for attitude
When a team contemplates acquiring a player, they don’t just look at his numbers — at least the good teams don’t. They can see the stats a player puts up, but they usually make some “what-have-you-got-on-this-guy” phone calls. They talk to people around the league to find out what kind of guy the player is.
Is he a good clubhouse guy or a cancer? How’s his marriage? What’s he do in the off-season? Who does he hang out with?
The people who have to play, coach and manage actual real games know there’s a human element that can’t be ignored just because it’s hard to measure. Ever wonder why a player with good numbers gets moved?
He might be putting up good numbers for himself, but hurting the overall team in the process.
What Albert Einstein knew about baseball
I didn’t believe in team chemistry all that much until I started running some baseball teams. The difference in attitude and results was amazing and now I think it’s hard — not impossible, but hard — to do great things with an unhappy team.
Numbers matter, but they never tell the whole story. Let me leave you with a quote from one of the smartest numbers guy who ever lived:
“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”
— Albert Einstein.
Team chemistry matters.