In a recent interview, Lance Berkman told one of the Astros beat reporters that this year’s team would be composed largely of players new to the team and he would have to see how this affected its chemistry, and by inference, its ability to win. This comment was met with:
1. Unhappiness by many Astros fans who were delighted to see new bats replacing Craig Biggio, Jason Lane, Adam Everett, Chris Burke and Luke Scott and delighted to see an almost entirely new bullpen and
2. The usual amusement of fans who believe “team chemistry” to be a antiquated term that attempts to define an amorphous feeling that can neither be explicitly quantified nor accurately defined.
If the term “team chemistry” were bandied about by only the media, then I would consider it merely a media invention. But best I can tell, its use by the ballplayers themselves predated its use by the media. Therefore, I’m not surprised that Berkman, the new de facto “team leader” would be concerned about this. A baseball team is composed of 25 men who spend the better part of seven or eight months together. Some groups of men work better together than other groups. Groups can divide into rival cliques with rival leaders, all vying for more power. That can significantly interfere with working relationships.
The Astros’ 2007 season marked only the team’s second losing one since 1991, and as the farm is virtually empty, the owner and GM had the choice of entering the 2008 season with essentially the same players and hoping for improved performance from everyone, or removing much of that team’s roster and replacing it with new players. They chose the latter.
Of the 25 players who were Astros on Opening Day 2007, only seven or eight will be Astros on Opening Day 2008. Of the players who were on the Astros’ 25-man roster as of Aug. 30, only 10 remain, plus two who were with the Astros organization at that time. This means that roughly half the team will be completely new to the organization.
I was wondering what happened in the following year to teams who replaced half of one year’s roster. Now I know very well that if you replace five Mario Mendozas with five Albert Pujols types and half of your pitching staff with aces, the club will improve. However, that never happens, not even to the Yankees or Red Sox. I also know that there are different umpires, different strike zones, different baseballs, different opposing pitchers, different opposing hitters and nothing stays exactly the same from year to year.
I looked at teams since 1994, and the percentage of plate appearances in a given year that were contributed by players who were on the team in the previous year. In 2008, The Astros will receive fewer than 48 percent of PA from players who were on the team in 2007. I compared them with the following teams from 1995 to 2006 who received fewer than 48 percent of PA from players who were on the team the previous year. I also looked at their before-and-after winning percentages, as well as noting whether, like the Astros, they changed managers from the beginning of one year to the next:
Year Team Turnover Previous W% W% Manager change? 1995 TEX 45% 0.456 0.514 Yes 1997 SF 45% 0.420 0.556 No 1999 PIT 46% 0.486 0.424 No 2000 CHC 39% 0.414 0.401 Yes 2000 COL 47% 0.444 0.506 Yes 2002 NYM 48% 0.506 0.466 No 2002 SD 46% 0.488 0.407 No 2003 CHC 47% 0.414 0.543 Yes 2003 COL 45% 0.451 0.457 Yes 2003 MIL 43% 0.346 0.420 Yes 2003 SD 43% 0.407 0.395 No 2003 SF 44% 0.590 0.621 Yes 2003 TAM 33% 0.342 0.389 Yes 2004 COL 45% 0.457 0.420 No 2004 NYM 41% 0.410 0.438 No 2005 LAD 41% 0.574 0.438 No 2005 ARI 42% 0.315 0.475 Yes 2006 FLA 35% 0.512 0.481 Yes 2006 LAD 36% 0.438 0.543 Yes 2006 SD 42% 0.506 0.543 No
Ah, you all noticed that I have listed exactly 20 teams and only two are in the American League. In fact, 70 percent of the NL teams are from the West. 11 teams changed managers, and of those that did, seven had better records the following year. Eleven of the 20 teams had improved records the year after rolling over more than half the players.
I didn’t know if the acceleration of the rollover rate was a recent phenomenon, so I examined the rollover rate since division play began in 1969. Well, until 1995, only the following 18 teams, 10 of which are AL teams, rolled over fewer than 48 percent of their players from one year to the next:
Year Team Turnover Previous W% W% Manager change? 1971 CHW 47% 0.388 0.565 No 1972 CLE 44% 0.370 0.462 Yes 1973 CLE 43% 0.462 0.438 No 1975 SF 48% 0.444 0.497 Yes 1977 CHC 46% 0.463 0.500 Yes 1978 OAK 20% 0.391 0.426 Yes 1981 CHW 32% 0.438 0.509 No 1981 CHC 41% 0.395 0.369 Yes 1981 SD 47% 0.471 0.353 Yes 1982 CHC 44% 0.369 0.451 Yes 1982 TEX 44% 0.543 0.395 Yes 1983 SEA 41% 0.469 0.370 No 1985 MON 45% 0.485 0.522 Yes 1989 CLE 44% 0.481 0.451 No 1990 CLE 44% 0.451 0.474 Yes 1992 KC 42% 0.506 0.444 Yes 1992 NYM 44% 0.478 0.444 Yes 1993 SP 48% 0.506 0.377 Yes
Of these 18 teams, 13 changed managers, and of those, eight increased their winning percentage. I’m not surprised that slightly more than half of manager changes resulted in increased wins—that happens more often than not regardless of the team’s record the previous year. Overall, nine of 18 teams improved their winning percentage the year after rolling over more than half of the team.
So, what can I conclude from these numbers? Well, if a team changes managers, it is more likely than not likely to improve its winning percentage, but a team that rolls over more than half its players has approximately a 50-50 chance of bettering its record, regardless of manager change.
So, based on these numbers, can I reasonably expect the Astros to improve their record this year and, by the way, exactly what does all this have to do with chemistry? If I had to guess, I’d say it’s baseball, so youneverknow.
As for the chemistry, it’s simple: If the team improves, it had better chemistry. If the team does worse, the chemistry was worse. At least that is how the team leader can explain success or failure to the media, who will accept that explanation happily, even if I won’t. But I still have no more idea than when I started if or how chemistry affects pitching, hitting or fielding because there is a factor you can’t find a formula for: the mind of the player. As a wise woman once told me, people don’t believe what they see, they see what they believe and the mind is a very powerful thing.