Baseball’s Invisible Statistics
To many people, the concept of “what you see is what you get” is an acceptable premise. I completely understand the rationale behind denying any claim that lacks solid mathematical or physical evidence. However, I believe there is more to life than what you can see in front of you. My stance on this does not change regarding baseball. In fact, I feel more strongly about this in regards to baseball than I do when applied to most things. In my opinion, the intangible qualities of a team’s players factor into their on-field success, debatably as much as the statistics do.
I want to make it very clear that I love statistics. I’ll say it again for those that don’t believe me: I love statistics. The stats are what draw a fan deeper into the sport, and baseball is full of stats. As the millennial age of computers and projections has come into full swing, it can be easy to get lost in the numbers. Today’s baseball fan has a plethora of statistics to drool over, if they so choose. The days of Earned Run Average, Home Runs, RBI, and Batting Average are over, as the modern analyst is more likely to point to Walks and Hits per Innings Pitched, K/BB %, Contact %, or Hard Hit Rate to prove an argument. Nowadays ERA, Homers, RBI, and Batting Average are considered to simply be results, derived from these more advanced statistics.
But if you really think about it, consider what statistics really are: a way for analysts and fans to gauge a player’s value. The stats only explain what has happened, they do not explain why. I believe that the makeup of a player’s personality, his psychological traits, and (consequently) his social behavior are the less-than tangible qualities that play a significant role in a team’s success. An accumulation of players that are strong in these qualities, as well the potential for on-field production, should result in the mystical unicorn referred to as “clubhouse chemistry”.
Someone that puts a great deal of emphasis on chemistry is Cubs manager Joe Maddon:
“It’s all about me building relationships with you and then you trusting me…Everybody wants to say they want to go to the World Series. But what’s the process in how to get there?”
“The first three steps for me are relationship building, development of trust, and then at that point, now we could honestly exchange ideas without any pushback. That’s my main objective when I walk in the door.”
Remember that before Joe Maddon was at the helm of the star-studded Cubs, he managed the Tampa Bay Rays, with a record of 754-705 (.517 W%) over 9 seasons. The Rays gave him his first full-time managing opportunity in 2006, and Maddon rewarded the young expansion team (est. 1998) with their first winning season in franchise history two years later, as well as their first and only World Series berth, and in the same season, no less. The point being, Maddon might know a thing or two about winning, and he had to create his own culture on a team that was brand new.
Other names around the league had similar input on the subject of chemistry:
“Torii Hunter is one of those special guys who knows instinctively what to say and when to say it…Teammates respond to a guy like Torii; he’s got a great personality and understands the game in a deep way. It’s a lot easier to have good chemistry when you have players like that.” – Ron Roenicke, former Brewers manager
“You want to be smart enough when you have that chemistry to keep it. It’s something you have to keep in mind when you’re bringing in a new player, how he’ll fit in with the team..One of the qualities of every good team is character, and chemistry is a big part of that. You want to keep it as long as you can.” -Jerry Dipoto, Mariners GM
Quotes courtesy of Lyle Spencer at MLB.com
“I don’t know the formula for winning, but I do know what it means when teams are inseparable, enjoy their time together, care for each other, and play for the higher cause. I’ve seen it. I’ve been part of it.” – Two-time World Champion Jake Peavy, via USA Today
Since chemistry has no statistical value in regards to baseball, there is not much to go off of, other than the quotes. One thing to point to is the National Baseball Hall of Fame criteria for voting. The status of Baseball Immortality is earned with a Hall of Fame induction, and they specifically address a player’s personality traits when listing the voting criteria:
Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played. –National Baseball Hall of Fame
By my count they list six factors, and three of them (integrity, sportsmanship, and character) are 100% non-physical traits. Even a player’s contributions to the team could be weighed by their attitude and social influence, which means four out of the six qualities that make a Hall of Famer are measured with intangible traits.
Now, there is a legitimate argument against the “theory” of clubhouse chemistry. There are many ex-pros, such as Lloyd McClendon, that believe chemistry is a result of winning, not the other way around. This typically starts a “chicken or the egg” debate, which really has no answer. Instead of getting caught up on it, I’m ignoring this and moving forward. I am aware of that possibility, but I do not agree with the idea that winning simply happens on it’s own.
Putting the best players together on one team doesn’t guarantee anything. If that worked, the Giants wouldn’t have 3 World Series rings since 2010. They were never the strongest team in the playoffs from a statistical standpoint, but they always seemed to find a way to score that final run. It seems apparent that at least a few team executives put an emphasis on clubhouse chemistry. This would certainly explain why players like David Ross, Jonny Gomes, and Gerald Laird (to give a few recent names) have found their way into the playoffs so often, despite poor on-field production. Every roster spot is precious, especially in the playoffs, yet teams have time-and-time-again given roster space to players that are very unlikely to contribute on the field. There must be a reason for this, and my guess is chemistry.
Unfortunately I do not possess any amazing, double-secret formula that proves the value of clubhouse chemistry. What I do have is the belief that a system could be put in place to evaluate a player’s projected impact on the clubhouse. Personality tests, psycho-analysis, and similar trait-identifiers could do wonders for a team that can’t figure out why its players aren’t properly motivated, or getting along.
I don’t think anything I’ve said is particularly groundbreaking, but I feel that more conversations need to be had about the intangible traits a player possesses. Statistics are getting more and more attention, and they’ve become incredibly complicated. I find it hard to believe that players are spending their off time thinking “My HR/FB% is ugly, how am I gonna improve my WAR projection?” Sure, they’re probably trying to improve their swing, but these guys aren’t doing it to impress KATOH, Fangraphs, or any other SABR-influenced stat-tracker. They’re doing it be a better hitter, and to help the team win. Maybe guys like Jonny Gomes and David Ross spend a little bit of time focusing on how to be a better teammate. If so, it’s working.
There’s much, much more that can be said on the topic, and thus you can expect me to revisit this subject in the future.