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Team Chemistry

Something I was thinking about at work today (because clearly I get a lot done in the lab)...

Nevermind all the examples you can give either way. Nevermind that the Cubs traded Michael Barrett and immediately started winning. Nevermind that the Yankees signed historical douchebag Roger Clemens to a contract allowing him to skip road trips in which he isn't pitching, and immediately started winning. Nevermind that no team has ever won a championship with Barry Bonds, or that the White Sox won a championship with AJ Pierzynski. Nevermind that good chemistry stories only come out when a team is winning, and that bad chemistry stories only come out when they're not. Nevermind all of this stuff - it isn't what I want to talk about, at least not directly.

There's an argument out there put forth by a fraction of the anti-chemistry crowd that the attempt to draw a connection between mood and performance is bogus, that a guy will play the same regardless of how he feels. I think this is silly. As is the case with pretty much any task, a happy person is likely to perform better than an unhappy person, because one's mind is clear and focused while the other's is preoccupied and not thinking straight. This should come as news to exactly no one.

However, at the same time, I don't think that statement really applies to baseball players. How often are we dealing with the extremes? How often does some decision that affects the clubhouse chemistry make the difference between a happy team and an unhappy team? Having good chemistry is obviously better than not having any chemistry at all, but is the latter ever actually the case? How much does chemistry really differ from one team to the next?

I imagine if you went across every roster in the league, the levels of camaraderie would remain pretty consistent. You'll see a little variation, as some teams have guys like Raul Mondesi while other teams have their own Jamie Moyer, but all in all you're talking about a little fluctuation around a stable average. Baseball players know that the season is long, and almost to a man they're professional enough to know that they should get along with their teammates, even if they're not quite BFF material. In a league where nearly everyone gets along, no one has an advantage. Even if a team has a noted troublemaker, calling him a "clubhouse cancer" strikes me as a dramatic overestimation of the effect that one guy can have on an entire clubhouse. Because of this it strikes me as strange that some teams claim chemistry to be one of their strengths. Is it really? If 100% of your players shoot the breeze in the clubhouse while your rival's at 96%, does that really give you a leg up? It's like a Victoria's Secret supermodel saying "what sets me apart is my good looks." Sure, she might have a slight edge, but that's all it is - a small advantage that, overall, really doesn't make much any difference.

More unclear to me than the explanations of the importance of chemistry, though, are the descriptions of how delicate it is for every team. We've obviously talked about this a bunch, and how it relates to the Mariners, who've been extraordinarily reluctant to reduce the roles of certain veterans out of fear of upsetting the clubhouse dynamic. Is it really that fragile? Do you think the overall mood of the entire team would change drastically if you sit Richie Sexson or platoon Raul Ibanez? In my experience, it doesn't matter with whom you're taking the field - they're all teammates, and you support them, and you give everyone a high-five at the end of the game regardless of whether or not they played. I know when I played, my mood was never affected by who was and wasn't in the starting lineup. Wouldn't you expect someone whose role you've reduced to be good enough not to make a big deal out of it? And even if he became upset, is one unhappy voice enough to cripple the positive vibes of everyone else?

Sit back and think about this for a moment. Let's say a manager doesn't want to change the role of Player X because he doesn't want to upset the team chemistry. What does that mean? Is Player X going to bitch and complain until he brings everyone down? Is the team going to miss playing with him as often as it used to? Is the entire team going to look past the fact that the decision was (presumably) made to improve performance, and feel bad for the odd man out to the point where they're no longer playing as well? Do any of these really make sense? I am willing to grant that chemistry is important - I already have - but it's only important when considered next to a situation in which the chemistry is considerably worse. Do those situations exist? Don't tell me that you're keeping things the way they are "to preserve the chemistry." That statement doesn't mean anything. I want to know exactly how and why you think the chemistry would change for the worse were you to switch things up, because I don't follow. And until I see an explanation along these lines, I'm just always going to be skeptical.

It's funny - so much of what the Mariners do (or don't do) is explained to us in terms of its impact on the clubhouse chemistry. We're constantly fed insinuations that the chemistry is delicate and fragile and has to be kept in a perfect balance lest everything fall apart. This brittle chemistry is what the organization seems to be relying on right now to pull us through to better days, and it's a big part of why the suits have been in tight negotiations with Jose Guillen for an extension: the prevailing belief is that he brings the perfect spark to the atmosphere in the clubhouse, keeping everything just right without tipping it too far in either direction. And yet, while the Mariners are willing to rely on something that by their own admission could come apart at the seams were just the slightest change to be made, just last winter they dumped Chris Snelling and Raffy Soriano for being too injury-prone and unreliable. There's a disconnect here. Why is something with tangible unreliability a problem, while something with intangible unreliability is a strength of the team? If anything, that seems backwards, since the former makes for much simpler emergency planning. You can acquire depth. You cannot acquire players who're guaranteed to fix your chemistry should it collapse.

By all accounts, Bernie Williams was one of the finest people to ever play the game, and a great guy to have in the clubhouse. Somehow the Yankees were able to move on and keep their heads up, even when Bernie's career was winding down and Joe Torre was looking for ways to reduce his role, if not in playing time, then in importance. Why is that? Did the Yankees just have enough talent to overcome the chemistry drop? Did they understand what was going on, and why he was moved out of center field? Did Bernie himself deliver words of encouragement, telling his teammates not to feel bad for him? Was it something else? We know it happened. How come?

If there's a solution to one problem like this, then there's a solution to all of them. Any dip in chemistry - if such a thing even exists - can be overcome, as it's been done countless times before. If you're in a position where you're relying on the team's psychological dynamic to pull you through, then the only thing you can say for certain is that you didn't give the team enough talent, leaving you crossing your fingers for a push by something unpredictable.

The 2007 Seattle Mariners, like pretty much every other team that isn't making the playoffs, have had good chemistry all season long. Tomorrow afternoon, when you see Jose Lopez and Felix horsing around in the dugout, ask yourself just how far it got us.