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Danny Duffy may have a point about analytics and team chemistry

Baseball players are people, too.

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Minnesota Twins v Kansas City Royals Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The Royals won a championship in 2015, crediting their cohesive clubhouse, and their ability to trust each other. Many pointed to the leadership given in previous seasons by Jeff Francoeur, James Shields, and Raul Ibanez as integral to giving the younger players confidence and the ability to learn how to win.

The idea of clubhouse chemistry has been derided by the analytics community, which Royals pitcher Danny Duffy seemed to take issue with on Twitter this week.

Clubhouse chemistry has been mocked by analytics-types, particularly on this site, but that view is changing. Personally, I believed a bit in the idea, but found the pursuit of capturing it to be folly, as the personality of 25 individuals meshing was subject to a million variables no GM could possibly anticipate.

But consider that the old school thinking of analytics. The new school, and perhaps less extreme version than the one Duffy references, certainly appreciates and tries to create an atmosphere ripe for clubhouse cohesion. As Bill James said,

“Whether you sell insurance or you’re a school teacher, obviously the people you work with can make you more productive or less productive....Baseball would be quite a remarkable activity if it was the one place in the world where your co-workers didn’t have any impact on how productive you were.”

The book Astroball by Ben Reiter, chronicles the rise of the Houston franchise from laughingstock to World Champion by using a new school analytical approach, with the book serving as a spiritual successor to Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, which covered the early 2000s Athletics. Reiter mentions a study presented at the 2017 Sloan Conference that found a measurable impact that amounted to as much as a 20 percent variation in team wins from expected wins due simply to performance, with nearly half of that variation attributable to clubhouse chemistry, dubbed “The David Ross Effect” in honor of the Cubs backup catcher. Using that information, the Astros sought their own veteran presence, finding it in Carlos Beltran, who, despite a lackluster offensive year, had a positive effect tutoring other players and providing leadership down the stretch, even after a rough patch that threatened to derail their season.

And the impact, at least according to the Sloan study, is not insignificant. Authors Scott A. Brave, R. Andrew Butters, and Kevin Roberts introduce the metric of pcWAR, or “player chemistry Wins Above Replacement.” And a player like David Ross can be quite valuable under this metric.

Considering that for some of the best players we estimate pcWAR values of upwards of 4 wins, the value of team chemistry to an MLB team can be just as high as what fWAR would currently assign to a typical borderline “Star” player.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that James Shields may have had a bigger impact on the young Royals pitching staff than just what he did on the mound. He taught the team how to slow the game down and have fun, and more tangibly, taught other pitchers new grips, and instructed Duffy using video, acting as a mentor. Raul Ibanez gave the rousing clubhouse speech that inspired the team when it was floundering in July. And who knows what impact veterans like Chris Young, Jeremy Guthrie, or Jonny Gomes had behind the clubhouse doors.

I think Duffy’s frustration with analytics is a bit of a strawman - the mainstream analytical community certainly doesn’t totally dismiss clubhouse chemistry, and extreme views shouldn’t be given much weight. But I can certainly understand the viewpoint that analytics reduces human people to numbers, puts a limit on their abilities through projections, and doesn’t consider the impact of human interactions, human frailties, human resilience.

Projections are just probabilities. They predict events that are likely to happen, not guaranteed to happen. And often times, the improbable happens - players get hurt, lose their drive, become more driven, learn a new pitch, improve their launch angle. As we learn more about baseball, we can improve these projections. We can even delve into player psyche’s - perhaps the next level of analytics.

But even then, there will be severe limitations on what analytics can tell us. Despite what Westworld may assert, humans are complex subjects, perhaps easy to predict at a macro-level, but impossible to predict at a micro-level. Players are people, something all fans seem to sometimes forget. And we have been lucky to share part of this human experience with the engaging personality of Danny Duffy.