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Chemistry in baseball is completely overrated and underrated

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All the Kevins get along great.

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Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Bob Nightengale of USA Today recently wrote about the importance of clubhouse chemistry, but his article wasn't very illuminating on how exactly it is that clubhouse chemistry leads to more wins. From his piece it almost seems like clubhouse chemistry is emitted from veteran players to transform mediocre players into All-Stars. The players seem to think it has an impact, but they also think those stupid necklaces and compression sleeves have healing powers.

I wanted to really examine how it is that clubhouse chemistry might translate into improved performance on the field. Here are some of the theories.

Ya Gotta Believe!

!Nosotros Creamos! One theory seems to be that good clubhouse chemistry can cause players to believe in themselves, leading to improved performance. Lee Judge writes:

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.

Good teams also generally have very good players, while bad teams have bad players. And that is the first big issue with chemistry - the causation/correlation issue. Good clubhouse chemistry is almost always credited after a team has already won, leaving us to speculate was it the clubhouse chemistry that produced the winning, or the winning that produced the clubhouse chemistry?

Of course, that's not always the case, as the Twins were credited with having good clubhouse chemistry earlier this summer, and have a 32-40 record since that article came out. Did they forget how to use their clubhouse chemistry? Can clubhouse chemistry go through slumps?

While "believing in yourself" sounds more like Oprah/New Age hokum, there is some scientific evidence on the physiological impact of the power of belief. But did the Royals ever seem  like a team that needed more belief in themselves? Upon signing his draft bonus, Eric Hosmer bought an SUV with "HOS" monogrammed on the seats. That doesn't sound like a guy short on confidence.

Is positive thinking the reason why Mike Moustakas turned a corner this season? Maybe. He did cite a video sent over the winter by Scott Boras showing how good he used to be as something that made him believe in himself again. But this turnaround probably had more to do with a different approach to hitting and changing mechanics. Positive thinking can't hurt, but it probably doesn't have much of an impact.

Trusting your teammates

Lee Judge kind of touches upon this, when he talks about "me-first" players:

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."

There are a few issues with this. First of all, it seems we're now conflating "clubhouse chemistry" with "unselfish players." Those can be related, but aren't necessarily related. You can have people that get along and still have people act pretty selfish. But more to the point, in a game like baseball where each hitter has a discrete opportunity to score runs, why is it bad for a player to want to improve his numbers? This isn't basketball, where the ball needs to be distributed to teammates, or football where some players have to take a lesser role. Doesn't improving one's individual numbers help the team overall? Maybe the hitter won't be as willing to give up outs to move a runner, but that is a good thing. Outs are precious and not to be wasted.

How I can see trust in your teammates helping performance is in a hitter's approach to each at-bat. If a player thinks his teammates are worthless bums, he may try to hit a six-run home run every time up, press too hard, and strike out on a bad pitch. If a hitter trusts his teammate, he may be more willing to take a pitch, draw a walk, go for a single instead of a long-shot home run.

Of course, we have not seen a more patient approach from the Royals despite their excellent clubhouse chemistry, so this is all theoretical.

Veteran Presence

The closed-door meeting pep speech given by Raul Ibanez last year has become franchise lore. The  Royals turned things around after that point and went on their magical post-season run. "Veteran presence" has long been cited as a reason to justify a General Manager bringing a seemingly "past his prime" player with little to offer in on-field results. While veteran presence may not justify a multi-million dollar contract for a below replacement level player, that doesn't mean it doesn't have some impact.

James Shields has been cited as teaching players new grips, how to keep poise on the mound, and other tricks of the trade. Sure, coaching is the job of coaches, but sometimes the players are more receptive to getting the message from a peer than an authority figure. Does this kind of mentorship have an impact? Sure. Think about any mentor in your life that showed you the tricks of the trade, making your job easier or more productive. Having veterans that can serve as an extended coaching staff can, in the right situations, have quite an impact.

In summary, clubhouse chemistry can too often be overcredited with a team's success. The Royals are a very talented team with talented players, to say that chemistry is the reason they have exceeded expectations undermines the hard work they have put int to make adjustments and maximize their talent. As Blue Jays General Manager Alex Anthropoulous says in the Nightengale piece:

Don’t get me wrong, it’s still talent and production first, but the other component is almost as important. Just because you have all good people doesn’t mean you’re always going to win. There are plenty of guys who have a 6-plus ERA who are tremendous clubhouse guys, but they’re sitting at Triple-A.

Rickey Henderson, Alex Rodriguez, and Manny Ramirez were all known as being clubhouse headaches, yet all have a ring. The 1970s-era Yankees were notorious for feuding, yet they beat the close-knit Royals three consecutive years in the post-season to win the pennant. On the flip side, the 2012 Royals had terrific chemistry, and lost 90 games. Talent is still the key.

On the other hand, chemistry should not be completely dismissed. Certainly if talent is equal, you'd rather have the team with good clubhouse chemistry over the team with bad clubhouse chemistry. In a game where every team is looking for an edge, chemistry might be that extra 2% that can make the difference between a team winning a Wild Card game and going on a post-season run to the World Series, or a team that blows a lead in a one-game playoff. Who knows.

And that's the biggest issue with chemistry - we know so little. We have a hard enough time predicting baseball standings, how on earth can we predict how 25 grown men with different backgrounds, ethnicities, and personalities will interact with each other? Even more problematic is how little we know about each other. Kirby Puckett seemed like a great guy until we found out he wasn't. Chad Curtis seemed like a model citizen until he wasn't.

The Royals analytics team recently talked about how character plays into their analysis and companies are using data analytics in hiring to build better chemistry in their workplaces. But there is still a lot we don't know, and simply adding a Willie Bloomquist to the mix is not likely to improve the clubhouse.

Maybe the Royals are on the cutting edge here in developing clubhouse chemistry. Or maybe they stumbled onto the greatest bromance in baseball history. But we should probably stop acting like chemistry is a magic elixir or a mythical creature that doesn't exist and instead think more critically about how exactly it impacts teams and how, if possible, it can be cultivated.