CSS Button No Image Css3Menu.com

Baseball Prospectus home
  
  
Click here to log in Click here for forgotten password Click here to subscribe

<< Previous Article
Premium Article Bizball: Are the Astro... (02/11)
<< Previous Column
Baseball Therapy: Fact... (01/28)
Next Column >>
Baseball Therapy: What... (02/18)
Next Article >>
Premium Article Overthinking It: Sprin... (02/11)

February 11, 2013

Baseball Therapy

How to Measure Clubhouse Chemistry

by Russell A. Carleton

the archives are now free.

All Baseball Prospectus Premium and Fantasy articles more than a year old are now free as a thank you to the entire Internet for making our work possible.

Not a subscriber? Get exclusive content like this delivered hot to your inbox every weekday. Click here for more information on Baseball Prospectus subscriptions or use the buttons to the right to subscribe and get instant access to the best baseball content on the web.

Subscribe for $4.95 per month
Recurring subscription - cancel anytime.


a 33% savings over the monthly price!

Purchase a $39.95 gift subscription
a 33% savings over the monthly price!

Already a subscriber? Click here and use the blue login bar to log in.

This one is dedicated to the memory of my father-in-law, himself a biochemist. I once tried explaining baseball and sabermetrics to him (he was from Russia). He thought it was nice that I had such an interesting hobby. He will be missed.

Clubhouse chemistry. The fact that everyone in the room believes in everyone else. Except Smith. The fact that this team is composed of a great bunch of guys who are there for each other and support each other. The fact that no one could ever ask for a better group of teammates. The fact that we just won the World Series.

The chemistry question is one that flummoxes data-driven investigation, mostly because there just isn't any direct evidence to test the hypothesis. Can an ill-defined and nebulous concept like "chemistry" among the people on the team have an effect on their performances on the field? Performance can be measured, but how on earth does one actually measure chemistry? It's not like MLBAM is putting out BESTFRIENDf/x any time soon. (MLBAM, if you're reading this... I'm just saying.) Outsiders don't have access to the clubhouse, either directly or indirectly. Players and media usually have an unspoken agreement that what happens in there stays there. About the only time that outsiders even see a locker room is when players are spraying each other with champagne after clinching a tie for the second Wild Card, entitling them to a play-in game to get into a play-in game. No one interviews the team that lost 100 games. Maybe everyone on that team liked each other too. And anyway, even if they did interview them, there's a standard answer that everyone knows how to mouth.

There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of the claim that chemistry influences performance. One commonly cited idea is that the arrow is pointing in the wrong direction. Chemistry doesn't influence performance. Winning puts everyone in a better, friendlier mood. (More on that a little later.) Another is the selection bias of the "proof" that's often offered. Players get the chance to proclaim how joyful things are only when they've won something, which gives the illusion that winners live in happy locker rooms. And even if people can barely stand each other, there's the old rule that if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all. These are all legitimate points that the available data are very biased. We can't scientifically accept the claim that chemistry influences performance.

But we can't dismiss it either. Often, I hear well-meaning sabermetricians deny the claim out of hand. How can anyone possibly buy into this stuff? There's no proof! But if we're going to be fair, the chemistry-performance link falls into the "reasonable hypothesis" category. We just don't know either way. It might not be true, but it at least passes the "if you say it out loud, you don't sound foolish" test.

In the absence of direct evidence, we're forced to look at (very) circumstantial evidence on the matter. In favor of the hypothesis, there's the fact that an entire field of study exists (industrial/organizational psychology) that looks at the evidence on "workplace environment" and productivity in other types of jobs. The general evidence is that the structure of the workplace and the interpersonal relationships between workers make a difference. A baseball team is just another workplace, right? On the other side, a few weeks ago, when I tried to find an effect for one specific type of workplace chemical agents (that just sounds wrong...) that teams tend to employ, the "veteran leader", there was no major effect that blanketed the whole team, although there might be some effects on individual players that we wouldn't be able to detect.

It's tempting to think that it's impossible to measure team chemistry. I personally think "impossible" is the wrong word. It's not a physics problem; it's a logistics problem. In fact, if I had the access (and the budget) to do it, measuring clubhouse chemistry wouldn't be all that hard. To get a big enough sample size that would produce meaningful results, I'd probably need access to a majority of team clubhouses over multiple years, not to mention the cooperation of the players in answering my questions. This isn't likely to happen (again, if anyone's reading... just saying...) but I think it's interesting to look at how it could be done, since it can tell us some interesting things about what actually comprises "team chemistry" and what effects it might realistically have. In what follows, I present a research project that will never be fully realized. But you might just learn something from the exercise.

Warning! If There Were Gory Mathematical Details, They Would Go Here!
First of all, let's talk about what we mean by chemistry. There are 25 players on a team, and each of them experiences the clubhouse in a different way. There is no team where all players are BFFs with the other 24 players. It wouldn't be a horrible thing, but if I found a bunch of guys like that, I would politely ask the cult members to direct me to the baseball stadium that I apparently mistook their compound for. What we're looking for is a well-functioning and well-connected social network.

There are a couple of different ways to measure the development of a network, again assuming massive (and unrealistic) amounts of access and cooperation. The easiest one is what's known as a peer nomination strategy. You give each of the players a sheet of paper and ask them to write down the five or so players on the team with whom they feel they are most friendly (or some variant of that question). If you want to get fancy, you can ask them to rate that closeness on a scale of 1 to 10 (or 20 to 80). You can then map out who is friendly with whom and figure out how many links on the chain it would take to get from Smith to Jones. If Smith hangs out with Lewis, and Lewis is also friendly with Jones, they are two links apart. If there is conflict between Smith and Jones, they are more likely to solve it if they share friends in common, both because Lewis might act as a peace broker, or more to the point, Lewis will be annoyed at being in the middle of a fight and whip the two players into shape.

In an ideal clubhouse, there would be at least some sort of link between everyone on the roster. The problem comes when there are players (or groups of players) who are completely isolated from the rest of the team, something that would show up on that social map. It's easy for humans to fall into cliques. On a team, lines might be drawn along pitchers vs. position players, English vs. Spanish speaking, religious vs. non-religious, or about 1500 other possible granfalloons (a billion points for that reference). Those aren't impossible barriers to break down, but if no one makes the effort, then it leaves open the possibility of conflict and no good interpersonal path for solving it. In other words, bad clubhouse chemistry. Everyone doesn't have to be friends with everyone else, but well-formed networks do offer a counterweight to festering conflicts.

The cool thing for the quantitatively-minded researcher is that there are numerical methods for looking at these social maps. You could look at the average distance between players or look at how many factions are in the clubhouse. You can look at the general ratings, subjective as they are, and see if this is a clubhouse where there are a lot of 50 relationships or a lot of 80 relationships. A researcher could start by looking at how individual players fit on the map and check it against their performance, and then do the same at the team level. If a well-connected clubhouse helps players, we would be able to prove it. If it's true, then that guy who is a good people person, makes friends with everyone, and has a second career as a diplomat awaiting him but also hits .230 suddenly has more tangible value beyond his on-field WARP. It's possible that being that link between guys who are fighting can be quantified into runs. The critique of the WARP model (and sabermetrics in general) that I've heard most often is that it doesn't consider the value that a guy adds in the clubhouse. Well, here's a good start on how we might address that. Want a sabermetric Nobel prize?

On the question of whether happy players hit the ball further, a researcher can ask simple questions like "How happy are you on a scale of 20 to 80?" before the game, after the game, and the next day when the players get to the park. It would take a little bit of time to get what each player's baseline level of happiness is (because this is a subjective scale, some guys will say 80 when they are only moderately happy and some will save 80 for being deliriously happy), but that's just a matter of getting a good baseline. Once that's been established, though, a researcher could see whether a player being above or below his baseline happiness rating helps or hinders his performance. And the same for the team. Maybe hanging out with a bunch of chipper chaps makes even the most dour and awful starter pitch like Justin Verlander.

The method of looking at happiness before and after the game would shed light on the question of whether happiness leads to performance or performance to happiness. However, I'd personally expect the arrow to point in both directions. This is neither logical nor statistical heresy. There are plenty of cases where two variables feed off one another. You feel better so you have some energy to get up and work out, and that makes you feel even better. These are called reciprocal effects and can be modeled with either some good longitudinal regressions or with a structural equation model. Again, with the right data, it wouldn't be that hard.

And so if baseball would grant that level of access, we'd at least have quantifiable measures of social connectedness in the clubhouse and player mood. Combined with some outcome measures on the field, we can pull together a few hypotheses to test whether those post-World Series speeches are actually true and whether it made a difference. We might also look at which teams (and players) are emotionally the most hardy in the face of an 0-for-5 night, and perhaps which teams (and managers?) are the best at not getting too high after a win or too low after a loss... and whether that one matters either.

While I'm in the clubhouse, I might look at a couple other markers that would promote good chemistry. How often do players converse with one another after games, and for how long? (Yeah, I know that would be creepy to actually measure.) How long do they hang out in the locker room after a game? These can be indicators of a clubhouse that no one likes to be in. I might also look for some structures that would promote chemistry. Does the team have a structure (a kangaroo court?) for settling grievances that arise? Does the team have an identity that everyone buys into? Say what you will about the Rays’ themed road trips being silly, but they get everyone on the team to buy into something that they all do together. A manager must be one part field tactician and one part summer camp counselor.

And when you add it all up, it sounds like a good measure of team chemistry. It isn't really that hard to measure, if you can get the right access, and then it's just some numerical gymnastics to figure out whether there's a link to performance. What's important to know about the things that I've laid out is that they all have been shown to promote a good workplace environment, and that generally increases productivity. Now, in a baseball context, the effects might not be huge. Only in Hollywood can a ragtag bunch of rejects turn into world beaters just by trusting in each other. But I think that given what we know, the most logical guess would be that there would be some effect of chemistry, just maybe not as exaggerated as it seems in the warm glow of a late October night.

But if you ever wondered why even the "smart" teams pay so much attention to such a squishy thing as "team chemistry" consider this: the effect might be small or maybe even non-existent, but the cost of trying to optimize it is miniscule. It might be the cost of some cheap props from a dollar store. Even if a loose clubhouse adds half a win, if the cost is 25 bucks, that's a deal. And even if the interventions fail, they probably won't make things worse. So why not try?

And maybe the effect is a little bit bigger. Right now, we don't know, but I think we as sabermetricians do ourselves a disservice if we assume that chemistry doesn't matter. And maybe some day, we'll get a chance to prove it one way or the other.

Russell A. Carleton is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Russell's other articles. You can contact Russell by clicking here

Related Content:  Chemistry,  Clubhouse Chemistry

25 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

Pat Folz

Really enjoyed this, it's well thought-out and thought-provoking! I wonder if any teams have actually tried something along these lines, looking for the "extra 2%" as they say.

A couple thoughts:
1)I've long wondered if "chemistry" works how some say "clutch" does: it can't make you better but it CAN make you worse. I have a hard time seeing positive feelings promoting prolonged success (I'm guessing the warm fuzzies from team bowling night get dashed pretty quickly if the next game is a 0-12 blowout loss), but I can see how even a highly-paid professional might get in a mindset like "it's late August, we're 15 back, my contract's not up for two years, no one else here gives a crap, why should I?" as losses start piling up, making the team underperform their 'true' talent.

2)There's an assumption behind a lot of this that "good chemistry" = good/friendly relationships. It occurs to me that these are highly competitive young men we're talking about, and I could see some of them thriving on negative feelings and not-so-friendly rivalries, even with teammates. The whole "chip on your shoulder thing". Especially since baseball is a more or less individual sport.

Chemistry might then become a sort of balancing act, trying to figure out if the benefit of having the grump is worth the deleterious effect he might have on others' moods/production.

3)I wonder how much of the necessary information could be gleaned from discrete interviews with coaches. It may not be entirely reliable, but they probably know most of the "Bob likes Dave and Dave likes Sam but Sam hates Bob because Bob made a move on his wife. Pedro's in a bad mood today because noobs in his WOW guild screwed up a raid last night..."-type stuff, and could probably be used to piece together a decent picture of the chemistry network.

Feb 11, 2013 04:11 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Russell A. Carleton
BP staff

Pat, all of those were issues that I left on the proverbial cutting room floor. Per #1, my guess is that there is probably more downside than upside, but I hold out hope that some innovative person could figure out a way to optimize the upside.

Per #2, I briefly considered comparing a clubhouse to a junior high classroom and all the drama that could ensue. There probably are players who love the drama, but that's not a sign of a healthy group in general. Friendly competition is one thing, but "No, I won't tell you the thing that I noticed about the opposing pitcher because I'm mad at you" doesn't help anyone.

Per #3, I focused only on the quantifiable for this article, but there's a fantastic opportunity within Sabermetrics for people who have qualitative and textual analysis skills. I wish there were more of those people out there.

Feb 11, 2013 06:54 AM
 
mitchiapet

Love the idea. If you actually did send such a survey out, it's highly likely that you would not get 100% response, as you note. Are there ways for analyzing a clubhouse's social network based on a sample, rather than a census, of the players in that clubhouse?

Feb 11, 2013 04:44 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Russell A. Carleton
BP staff

There are, but since "chemistry" is a team-level term, I'd need at least a good response rate within each team, and since there are only 30 teams, I'd need a good chunk of them to have any sample size to look at team-level effects. So, I'd need a response rate that was pretty high.

Feb 11, 2013 06:57 AM
 
Richard Bergstrom

Do you really need to survey major league teams? Can't you glean some directional data from high school, college and minor league teams?

Feb 11, 2013 10:48 AM
rating: 0
 
jdeich

It could be misleading. It's probable that seasoned, adult professionals would have very different outcomes from their less experienced colleagues. I'd predict that "team chemistry" declines in importance as age and salary rise, but I admit to that being little more than a hunch.

Feb 11, 2013 11:06 AM
rating: 1
 
jdeich

(However, I will point to the landmark case of Det. Roger Murtaugh vs. This #$&!, with respect to one's willingness to endure clubhouse drama.)

Feb 11, 2013 11:12 AM
rating: 1
 
Richard Bergstrom

Ya know, that might be an interesting way to measure it. Many people in high school take things like the Myers-Briggs Personality tests. It'd be interesting to see if there are correlations between athletes personalty types and performance.

Feb 11, 2013 11:21 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Russell A. Carleton
BP staff

Rule #3: Never mention the Myers-Briggs around me.

Feb 11, 2013 11:41 AM
 
Richard Bergstrom

INFJ? :)

Feb 11, 2013 14:33 PM
rating: 4
 
BP staff member Russell A. Carleton
BP staff

I took it once and actually split three of the four down the middle.

Feb 11, 2013 18:33 PM
 
Richard Bergstrom

Last time I did, I split the last two down the middle.

Still, if you wanted a way to group players based on some psychological traits, that might be one way to do it.

Feb 12, 2013 16:15 PM
rating: 0
 
jdeich

One related question might be: How much value does roster consistency have? One would think that being a Marlin in 2013 would be bad for morale-- guys are going in and out the door every week. Is it helpful to get more than X% of your innings or roster spaces from the same guys as you did the year before?

(This issue also has a causality arrow problem. Let's say low roster turnover correlates to better results. It is because teammates 'gel' and the higher morale leads to better performance? Or is it because successful teams don't have as much impetus to make changes, and players are happy to stay with a winner?)

Chemistry would be part of this-- if a guy hates being on a team, he's more likely to seek/accept a trade, or sign elsewhere when he can. This would only hint at chemistry, but at least it's comparatively straightforward to measure.

Feb 11, 2013 09:47 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Russell A. Carleton
BP staff

If you measure things longitudinally across the season (and across several seasons) you could get a better idea of this.

Feb 11, 2013 10:23 AM
 
Richard Bergstrom

Chemistry's a bit like defense. We're sure it exists, just not sure how to precisely measure it.

Feb 11, 2013 10:47 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Russell A. Carleton
BP staff

Of course it exists. The question is whether it matters on the field.

Feb 11, 2013 11:05 AM
 
ahemmer

Cat's Cradle!

Feb 11, 2013 11:04 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Russell A. Carleton
BP staff

A billion points!

Feb 11, 2013 11:05 AM
 
gweedoh565

"What we're looking for is a well-functioning and well-connected social network."

This makes me wonder if any interesting patterns can be derived from Twitter- a public data source participated in by many professional athletes. For instance, one could use the Twitter API to document the number of athletes that "mention" teammates in tweets.

I doubt there are enough active users per team to generate anything too meaningful, but it might be worth it to at least do a feasibility assessment.

Feb 11, 2013 11:10 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Russell A. Carleton
BP staff

This is why I wrote this article. I didn't even think of that.

Feb 11, 2013 11:17 AM
 
Agent007

I suspect team chemistry is a significant factor, even though I am not sure you'd be able to measure it. These players are together for six to eight months, half that time on the road, playing almost every day. Some of the team chemistry measure may be reflected in how well a team rebounds from a tough loss. Or from a shellacking. Maybe even from a good win. Adam Jones, for example, seems to put things in perspective for the Orioles (or maybe he's just more accessible to the media), pointing out that "it's only one game". If the leadership of one player can help the others overcome the disappointment of one night, maybe team chemistry comes into play at that juncture.

Feb 11, 2013 12:32 PM
rating: 0
 
ScottyB

I don't think social network analysis is the right tool here. I might try for surveying teams about the "values" of their clubhouses and then performing multi-group analysis. That's how we lO psychologists get at organizational culture.

Feb 11, 2013 19:22 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Russell A. Carleton
BP staff

I could see that working. My reach for social net was based on the fact that all proclamations of the amazing chemistry in the clubhouse start with "we're all such good friends" or some other non-sense like that.

Feb 12, 2013 07:18 AM
 
quackman

Enjoyed the article, but sorry to hear of your loss. Best wishes to you and your family.

Feb 12, 2013 12:41 PM
rating: 0
 
owlcroft

Would not a plausible measure using baseball metrics be to try to see how players moving from one organization to another perform? Better, worse, no different? It's not a simple matter, because many factors affect performance, from increasing age to parks, but surely with some care and thought, one could tease out effects attributable simply to the different "environment"? (If, in fact, there are such effects.) After all, "chemistry" is meaningless unless it is something that affects actual performance and results.

Apr 09, 2013 01:19 AM
rating: 0
 
You must be a Premium subscriber to post a comment.
Not a subscriber? Sign up today!
<< Previous Article
Premium Article Bizball: Are the Astro... (02/11)
<< Previous Column
Baseball Therapy: Fact... (01/28)
Next Column >>
Baseball Therapy: What... (02/18)
Next Article >>
Premium Article Overthinking It: Sprin... (02/11)

RECENTLY AT BASEBALL PROSPECTUS
The BP Wayback Machine: Can Spring Training ...
Fantasy Article The Adjuster: Relief Pitchers
Fantasy Article Fantasy Three-Year Projections: Relief Pitch...
Fantasy Article The -Only League Landscape: American League ...
Premium Article Rumor Roundup: Don't Call It A Committee!
The Lineup Card: Nine Ways to Improve Your F...
Fantasy Article Player Profile: David Robertson

MORE FROM FEBRUARY 11, 2013
Premium Article Arbitration Showdown: Mock Hearing: Martin P...
Premium Article Overthinking It: Spring Position Battles, Am...
Premium Article Bizball: Are the Astros Really Losing Money?
Premium Article Transaction Analysis: All Up Hill From Here?
Premium Article Rumor Roundup: Monday, February 11
The Week in Quotes: February 4-10
Fantasy Article The Keeper Reaper: Catcher, Second Base, and...

MORE BY RUSSELL A. CARLETON
2013-03-04 - BP Unfiltered: Daddy, What's Replacement Lev...
2013-02-26 - Premium Article Baseball Therapy: Can't Buy Me Chemistry?
2013-02-18 - Baseball Therapy: What Really Predicts Pitch...
2013-02-11 - Premium Article Baseball Therapy: How to Measure Clubhouse C...
2013-01-28 - Baseball Therapy: Fact or Fiction: The Verdu...
2013-01-21 - Premium Article Baseball Therapy: Pitchouts and My Underage ...
2013-01-14 - Premium Article Baseball Therapy: Does Having a Veteran Arou...
More...

MORE BASEBALL THERAPY
2013-03-04 - Premium Article Baseball Therapy: Of Dogs, Men, and Stolen B...
2013-02-26 - Premium Article Baseball Therapy: Can't Buy Me Chemistry?
2013-02-18 - Baseball Therapy: What Really Predicts Pitch...
2013-02-11 - Premium Article Baseball Therapy: How to Measure Clubhouse C...
2013-01-28 - Baseball Therapy: Fact or Fiction: The Verdu...
2013-01-21 - Premium Article Baseball Therapy: Pitchouts and My Underage ...
2013-01-14 - Premium Article Baseball Therapy: Does Having a Veteran Arou...
More...

INCOMING ARTICLE LINKS
2014-02-03 - Premium Article Baseball Therapy: How Would We Know That a T...
2014-01-10 - Overthinking It: The Trouble with Forecastin...
2013-10-11 - Premium Article Baseball Therapy: Why Sabermetricians Don't ...
2013-04-15 - Premium Article Baseball Therapy: Boys Will Be Boys?: The Ca...
2013-04-04 - Premium Article In A Pickle: Can You Buy What You Can't See?
2013-03-21 - Premium Article Baseball Therapy: Is Brandon Inge Worth 10 W...
2013-03-14 - Premium Article Overthinking It: 15 Questions I've Been Aski...
2013-03-05 - BP Unfiltered: Why Multi-Position Players Ma...
2013-02-26 - Premium Article Baseball Therapy: Can't Buy Me Chemistry?
2013-02-11 - Premium Article Arbitration Showdown: Mock Hearing: Martin P...