Chemistry and Deportment

Buster on changes in attitudes and latitudes:

Talent evaluators within the game will make judgments about fastballs, about defensive skills, about a hitter’s swing. But increasingly, it seems, makeup is regarded as a pivotal factor on whether a player is acquired or dumped — and this might be part of a broader evolution in Major League Baseball, a shift in focus away from the need of the individuals, to an emphasis on the greater good of the organization.

And a lot of executives view these choices as business decisions. For a small-market or mid-market team — clubs which operate with very little margin for error — a problem personality can have a dramatic impact. Imagine a 16-man crew, says one GM, and you have one guy pulling his oar in the opposite direction. “It doesn’t really matter what the other 15 guys are doing,” the GM said. “It just sinks you. You can’t win. You cannot succeed.”

I tend to think that this is more important than a lot of my sabermetrically-inclined friends believe. Or used to believe anyway, because even most statheads these days will acknowledge that the mere fact that you can’t quantify chemistry doesn’t render it unimportant. We’ve all worked in offices with jackasses, and there can be no denying that it has an impact on everyone’s productivity.

But even if we acknowledge its importance, the concept is still often overstated. And Buster, I think, overstates it here:

The most prominent example in recent years might be the Tampa Bay Rays. After the 2007 season, the Rays moved to trade outfielders Delmon Young and Elijah Dukes. Other Rays felt Young simply was on his own program, conducted himself with sense of entitlement, and simply didn’t work hard enough; in one memorable moment, teammate Carl Crawford, a player with a staggering work ethic, was ready to fight Young out of his frustration that Young simply didn’t try to improve. Dukes played hard, but because of his off-field issues, he seemed unhappy a lot; this sapped energy out of the room.

Young was traded to the Twins, Dukes was moved to the Nationals, and quite suddenly, the team belonged to manager Joe Maddon, who was suddenly free to focus on getting the best out of emotionally invested players and less time on keeping others in line.

I’m sure that in a candid moment Maddon would say that his life was made easier with Young and Dukes gone, but I can’t help but think that “getting the best” out of the Rays’ players was far easier given the fact that the players Maddon had in 2008 had a lot more “best” to give. Do we forget that Matt Garza was kind of a jerk himself last season? Do we ignore the fact that his jerkiness was far outweighed by the fact that he was the Rays’ best starter? Is it possible that upgrading from Iwamura to Evan Longoria at third base and having the entire rotation improve dramatically had a bit more to do with the atmosphere lightening up than simply canning Dukes and Young?

Like I said, I don’t want to overplay this hand, because I don’t doubt that losing perceived troublemakers is increasingly important to teams. But like they say, no one ever talks about how great the chemistry is on a losing team, and when you’re a troublemaker on a winner, you’re considered “colorful.”

(thanks to Jason at IIATMS for the heads up)

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  1. MooseinOhio said...

    There is definately a fine balance that needs to be attained between statistical value and personal character when crafting a roster that puts a team in the best position to win.  There are time you need folks like Kevin Millar, who statistically speaking is not getting on many fantasy rosters, but was one of the right, dare I say necessary, idiots to help the 2004 Red Sox ‘cowboy up’ and win the WS.  However, in 2007 the need to allow a statiscally better positional player in Youklis was of more value to that Red Sox team winning the WS than Millar’s clubhouse presence. 

    Millar’s contributions to a team success did not change that much in those few years but the needs of the team changed so his true value to a team was not necessary.  Much like in cooking too much of any one ingredient can overpower the dish and make it less than palatable but the right mix of ingredients make it one of the best dishes you have ever tasted. 

    To take the cooking metaphor further – last night finale of Top Chef demonstrates my point well.  While Stefan was technically the best chef of the lot he was often uninspired and his food was left lacking because it had no soul.  Carla’s food was often infused with love, which allowed her to win several challenges, but she often struggled with techinical proficiency and her desire to find peace and joy in the process often got into her way, resulting in only a partial dessert being made.

  2. pete said...

    With apologies to Olney, who seems like a good guy, this article seems like a lot of easy-to-write nonsense, exemplified by this excerpt:

    “Last year, we saw a rash of managers’ benching veterans for not hustling—Charlie Manuel sat down Jimmy Rollins for not running out a ball, and then later for showing up late to the ballpark; Eric Wedge yanked Ryan Garko out of a game for not running out a groundball; and Maddon disciplined B.J. Upton for not hustling.”

    …you know, as if this doesn’t happen every year.

    Maybe baseball is putting more weight on character these days, but that’s an easy assertion to make and a very tough one to prove, and the evidence presented in the article is total weak sauce.

  3. MooseinOhio said...

    Hit enter just a wee bit too soon as I need to conclude the Top Chef analogy.

    Hosea was the right balance of techinical proficiency and soul, so while he may not be as talented as Stefan or have the heart of Carla, he had a better balance of the two and as a result was able to rise above the his competitors when it mattered most.  Let the three of them compete again and the result may change as the others may improve their balance and overtake him but we’ll never know.  So while folks can argue the various possibilities and who should have won, Hosea is still the Top Chef, at least that what the judges told us.

  4. Conor said...

    Moose – you gotta be kidding me! You hit the enter button way too late. Top Chef analogies? Dear God, perhaps you could enlighten us with some American Idol talk too?

    I know this will come off as harsh, but I just can’t stand references like this. Baseball, basketball, and football (most of the time) have a winner and a loser and it’s not based upon abstract opinions and preferences. It’s all about who scores more. It’s bad enough when people use other “sports” like gymnastics, ice skating or diving to make analogies. I find them to be largely irrelevant because outcomes are not based on facts and number counting, but intangible whims that often cannot be backed up by anything tanglible. Don’t get me wrong, these type of competitions have their merit, but they just aren’t relevant to baseball.

    And if they aren’t relevant to baseball, you can imagine how I feel about so-called reality (often scripted) TV “competition” which have a closer resemblance to “professional” wrestling. Not to mention the supposed analogy is comparing an individual competition to a team-related discussion.

  5. Ryan said...

    Olney also conveniently left out that the Twins are still considered mid to small market, yet they traded FOR Young in the same year the Dodgers traded FOR Manny, and now the Cubs just gave Milton Bradley 4 years.

    I’m not discounting chemistry altogether. But for every story like this, the opposite story could easily be written. Headline: “2009 Brings Second Chances for Troubled Players”

  6. MooseinOhio said...

    Conor:  Apparently all those years I spent leading leadership development and team building workshops were a complete waste of time as all an organization needs to do is hire the smartest person available.  All those coaches that brought there sports teams, including major league sports teams, were completely off base as well, especially when they asked us to work on issues of team chemistry. 

    I suspect that if Dan Snyder or Jerry Jones stopped playing fantasy football and reconized that chemistry does matter maybe there teams would win championships again.  Apparently the Gold Medal the US won in basketball because they put together a team, complete with role players, and not just a bunch of stars didn’t happen by design. 

    For years the Red Sox were known for using ‘25 cabs for 25 players’ but when a new ownership group came in it changed the culture of the organization and move beyond just getting the statistically best players available to building a team on a model that included hiring coaches and drafting players that could work within the structure of a larger organizational philosophy.  Maybe if the Yankees went back to a similar philosophy they could win four of five WS again but I prefer the current model of signing top FA who cannot get along with teammates.

    Lastly the use of Top Chef was intended to use the a real example to illustrate the cooking metaphor I was using.  I believe that food, espeically a complete meal, that taste great requires three key elements: great ingredients, appropriate technique and care.  Food that only has two of the three is lacking and often does not taste that great. 

    Care matters in cooking in a variety of ways including the selection of ingredients and courses, the progression of the meal as well as being prepared by someone that includes part of themself in the process.  Call me sappy or a romantic but I believe you’d asked for seconds of a meal Carla made with love before one Stefan made to please himself.

  7. Conor said...

    Where did I say chemistry didn’t matter?  Where did I say all that matters is signing the best player? I made not such arguments. But hey, at least you’re talking about BASEBALL for a second. I’m sure you’re very qualified to talk about leadership and team building and such, and when you actually talk about baseball, you bring up valid points. I just think your Top Chef analogies are ridiculous and out-of-place no matter how hard you try to push that square peg into a round hole. I’m not gonna argue cooking with you or whether or not “care” is similar to team chemistry – THAT’S MY FREAKING POINT. Nothing about cooking or Top Chef is relevant to team baseball. The analogies you make are so far fetched I can’t believe I’m actually commenting on them twice! Given your self-described qualifications I’m sure you can do better.

  8. Roger Moore said...

    As a confirmed stathead, I’ll say that I really do believe that character and other intangibles are important.  What I think is the problem is that they’re talked about way too much.  As I see it there are a bunch of problems with putting to much emphasis on “character” issues:

    1) It’s an area that sportswriters have firsthand experience that’s denied to fans.  That makes them inclined to play up its value as a way of exaggerating their own importance in understanding the game.

    2) Interpersonal interactions may be important, but they’re hard to predict.  It’s very hard to know in advance whether any given move will help or hurt your team chemistry.  Suppose, for instance, that you decide to bring in a “proven leader” because you think your team is too laid back.  Maybe he’ll provide the spark you need to get the rest of the players’ butts in gear, but maybe he’ll piss people off by being too rah rah or get into fights with the existing team leaders over who’s going to be the most important man on the team.  If you don’t have a very good idea of which one is going to happen in advance, it’s not a useful way of making decisions.

    3) Because it’s so subjective, it very often becomes a way for people to grind axes and make unchallengeable claims.  Writers can use it to bag on good players who they don’t get along with or praise lousy ones they like.  Managers and GMs can use it to justify stupid decisions.  It turns into what Bill James calls a BS dump.

    The sad part is that there really are some character issues that are undoubtedly important.  Players who work at keeping themselves in shape really are more likely to stay healthy and outperform slackers.  Ones who are coachable are more likely to fix their flaws and develop better than ones who think they know everything.  An area where I think that comparison-based methods like PECOTA have great potential is in finding objective evidence for those kinds of previously subjective measures.

  9. MooseinOhio said...

    Conor:  I apologize for the tone of my response, having a bad day/week and let it bleed over into other things.  I took some offense and responded harshly – please accept my mea culpa.

    As for the cooking metaphor I was attempting to make a point that a great meal (i.e. winning team)is the result of great ingredients (i.e. players), appropriate techinique (i.e. organizational philosophy such as Moneyball) and care (i.e. a manager who pushes the right button or GM that makes the right deal at the right time).  Metaphor are a tool of the trade in team building but I was not able to clearly demonstrate that here in the written format of the blog.  Top Chef was only meant to be a vehicle to the metaphor some context in hope that it provided more clairty.  Apparently it did not work, or I did not, either way I may stray away from them in this format.



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