The Effect of Chemistry in MLB and the Yuniesky Betancourt Exception

Jeff's note: an excellent fanpost that I've bumped to the front page.


As Mariner fans we have had to read and listen to a great many stories in recent years regarding the effect of team chemistry on performance. My decision to tackle this topic was spurred by this comment and the ensuing discussion in the recent Griffey Poll here on Lookout Landing. Much of what I wrote here is actually from something I put together a couple of years ago, but never finished. It has been updated to be more current. It is also not a short read, so consider yourself warned.

Now I am a person who prefers efficiency in all things, so I will point out right off the bat that my belief is that team chemistry has a negligible effect on team performance at the Major League level. If you care to find out why please continue reading. If you vehemently disagree but have no intention of digesting my argument before responding then I did not write this for you.

A little background on me is warranted here. A few years back I was a bit bored in my life and felt I needed some stimulus to sharpen my mind. I had studied math and science intensively in college while at the same time pursuing a second degree in Comparative Religion that required me to learn large amounts of philosophy and other social sciences. What I did not study during my college years was business. So in 2001 I enrolled in some economics, accounting and other business courses over a year long period at Seattle Central Community College. The experience was amazing and it led to me making a career change. Much of the concepts in this piece lean heavily on my classes with Professor James Hubert. The man is brash, thought provoking, frustrating, anger inducing and he left a huge mark on how I process the world around me and how I view the way people behave.

Now let us move on to the chemistry discussion. When it comes to people who feel chemistry has a large effect on team performance they almost always lean on anecdotal evidence to support their argument. In the recent Griffey Poll thread we were regaled with stories of high school and college successes by teams of lesser talent that won by sheer force of will and cohesiveness. I am 100% willing to accept that this may be true. I do not know it to be true, but it may very well be, so accepting that it may does not bother me. What does bother me is translating that to the Major Leagues.

Major League Baseball and amateur baseball are not comparable in many ways. I say this based on my own personal experience where I umpired somewhere around 500 amateur baseball games in my life while also attending well over 800 Major League Baseball games in person. Other than the fact that they play the same game with nearly identical rules you just cannot correlate between the two. The talent level for an average high school baseball game is bad. Really, really bad. There is almost always one starter, sometimes more, on any high school team who does not possess the ability to catch and throw the ball correctly. This is a starter folks, not a bench warmer. The mere existence of someone in uniform who lacks the basic skills needed to be successful points to the vast difference between the game of baseball in the Major Leagues and at the amateur level. The best in the world play in the Major Leagues. Repeat that slowly because it is of vital importance to the entirety of this discussion. There is no level of baseball higher than Major League Baseball. None, zero, nada, zilch.

So I have already said that I believe it possible that chemistry can have a large effect on performance at the amateur level. I also have said that Major League Baseball is not comparable to amateur baseball other than rules and structure. So it should be fairly simple to see that I do not believe chemistry will necessarily have the same effect on a Major League team. Now this is a discussion without statistical evidence but I do want to lean on some lessons learned in the classroom of Professor Hubert here to show the path of my reasoning. Let us start by looking at a common industry at lower levels and at the highest level and see if there is any correlation. For this study I choose to look at shipping.

For the sake of argument I am going to compare a dispatcher for a small and privately owned courier company to the CEO of UPS. Both technically oversee the movement of goods from one location to the other but very few people would say the dispatcher is in any way doing what the executive at UPS is doing. It just would not make sense to do so would it? Of course not, but why? Well for one the dispatcher only bears responsibility for a small fraction of the shipped goods that the executive is responsible for. He also oversees a much smaller group of people than the CEO, but it is so much more than that. The dispatcher must be hands on in maintaining the daily routine of his staff that deals directly with the end user. The UPS executive manages and maintains a system that enables the staff that deals with the end user to be effective. The executive does not deal directly with his delivery drivers. It is not important for him to do so. His job is to dictate process to next level managers that in turn pass that process on down the line. This should all seem simple enough on the surface, so let us take another step into distinguishing between the two.

Let's say the dispatcher for our fictitious courier company has a driver on his staff that is amazing at what he does. This driver never misses a delivery time. He is always available for the early runs and willing to stay past quitting time to take the late runs. He never complains and always is upbeat around his co-workers. He showers every day to be presentable to clients and has a winning smile that keeps customers thankful they do business with said courier. All in all this guy makes the dispatcher's job much easier. The driver is an incredibly valuable resource just as he is and the dispatcher hooks him up with well paying deliveries to keep him happy. In turn this driver gives the other drivers something to shoot for which increases the productivity of the company overall. His self-motivated way of working can and does reach all corners of this small organization and has a very good chance of making the company more profitable and successful.

Now let us also say that there is a particular UPS driver who has the same skills and attitude as the driver for the courier company. Does he have the same effect on the CEO? Not in the least. Why? Well because if a UPS driver is amazing at what they do they get a promotion to a more demanding task. The function of a UPS driver is to meet certain standards. Going beyond those standards is great but functionally unnecessary. Skills, talents and attitude that are above the norm get rewarded with more responsibility. The goal of the UPS executive is not to have the most amazing drivers in the world. His goal is to have a system that functions as needed. To keep that system functioning people of better abilities will always be pushed upstream until the limits of what they can do are found. The CEO is not concerned if everyone in every corner of his company is happy. What he cares about is if his system is healthy.

Now to bring this all back to baseball. In looking at the small time dispatcher versus the CEO we are also looking at a similar disparity seen between a high school coach and a Major League GM. How so? I will admit this is a loose correlation since baseball organizations are very unique, but disclaimer aside I believe this fits our needs. So, looking at the high school coach, he is dealing in a small pool of talent and must be very hands on in all levels of his team. When he has a player of exemplary attitude he rewards the player while also benefitting from the example that player is setting for a group of impressionable teenagers. By showing his team that rewards are given to players who work hard and go above and beyond he is taking an avenue where it is possible for him to get the very best performance day in and day out from his players. In an arena where talent is scarce this is very beneficial.

The Major League GM on the other hand is not hands on with the players in his system. He has a variety of personnel who handle that for him. What he does is manage a system that pushes players to constantly strive for the next step. Once a player shows proficiency at one level he is promoted again to create a new challenge. The GM is always happy when players succeed at lower levels but only because it provides an opportunity to push everyone further. His goal is to have a healthy system that promotes proficiency and rewards it by providing greater challenges. He does not want players to succeed so they can be the best A ball player in history, but rather so he can give them a new challenge. The entire function of a minor league system is to weed out the players who do not have the skills and makeup to succeed at the highest level while honing the abilities of those who do.

Now you will hear baseball people refer to makeup and character all the time and this is where many people get confused. They are not talking about being friendly or kind. They are talking about people who are properly self-motivated. So what is proper self-motivation? Self-motivation is very simple. It either comes from fear or desire. A person motivated by the fear of being overweight will make a list of things they should NOT do because they lead to obesity. On the flip side a person who is motivated by the desire to be trim and in shape will make a plan or list of positive events that will lead to their end goal. People motivated by desire rather than fear make up nearly all of the subset of humanity that we refer to as successful. So when a GM says his scouts look at the makeup of a player they are referring to whether or not that player has a burning desire to succeed and has a plan in place to reach their goal.

On any given day there are 750 people who populate the entirety of Major League active rosters. When you step back and look at that number you realize how small it really is. Only 750 people are Major Leaguers. To get to that point an American born player had to prove themselves in Little League, junior high, high school, maybe college and then the minor leagues. An international player takes a different route but similar in that there are many steps they must climb to get even to the minor league level. Then once they get one of those coveted 750 jobs they have to prove themselves all over again to keep that job. They in fact have to prove their worth every year. It is a grueling process to become a Major League ballplayer and just as grueling to stay one.

This process almost entirely removes players who were motivated by fear, players of lesser talents, players who lose interest in the game of baseball and the players who were doing it because it had always come easy to them. The vast majority of those 750 Major Leaguers have exactly what it takes in regard to makeup and talent to be where they are at.

I now want to return to the CEO of UPS. He has an array of executives just underneath him who just like the Major League ballplayer have had to prove themselves over and over again to get to where they are at. They have shown that they can and will do what it takes to succeed. They also are self-motivated and do not need an external push to get their job done every day. Do you think the CEO is concerned if his executive team gets along? Do you think he worries if his CFO cannot stand his VP of Facilities? Well, he doesn't and do you know why? The only thing that matters is whether his company is maintaining profits and the way to do that is to have a functioning system. He might prefer people are friendly with each other, but in reality all he cares about is performance. Top notch performance brings with it people who are willing to fight for what they want and desire and in so doing they will on occasion step on toes or hurt feelings. It just simply comes hand in hand with wanting to be the best at what you do.

This translates directly to a Major League roster. The players at the top level of baseball provide a variety of personalities, but nearly all of them have in common that they are driven for success. They have proven themselves over and over again at many levels and in so doing have steeled themselves against negativity from the press, teammates and opponents. To believe that a disagreeable personality would derail someone of such focus and desire is ludicrous. In fact, as it does with the UPS executives, it makes sense that when you put 25 such people in a room together that the collective will of so many top notch people will cause sparks to fly on a rather regular basis. These moments are exactly what a manager is hired to handle. A good manager will recognize that the rough spots are a product of proper motivation and will create lines of communication that allow for players to be honest while not killing their desire.

There is also a reason that Major League managers are not hired from the pool of high school or college coaches. The reason is that they need to be able to relate to the drive to be the best. They need to understand the dedication and sacrifice that it took for each player to get where they are at. If he does not have that ability and drive himself he will not be able to do his job effectively.

In conclusion, what I am hoping people will begin to grasp is that unless you are someone driven to be the best at something then you cannot relate your own personal experiences to what happens in a Major League clubhouse. They do not align. Sure good chemistry makes the small courier operation better, but that is not analogous to what happens at the highest level of competition. Good chemistry at the highest level is more a matter of proficiency rather than camaraderie.

Before I finish I feel I need to touch on the fact that there are exceptions to every rule and there are here also. I will use Yuniesky Betancourt as an example because I am very convinced that his presence on the Mariners in recent years has clouded this issue for the media and fans.

Yuniesky Betancourt played just over 100 games in the minor leagues. That is not very many. So why did he make it to the Major Leagues so fast? Talent and gobs of it. This guy is blessed with talents that we all wish we had and that scouts drool over. The problem is that he did not have the drive to succeed. He merely wanted to ride along on his natural ability and have some fun. On occasion people like this get a crack at running with the big dogs but they almost always flame out the way Betancourt did. This is because when everyone else on the team was working to hone their skills he would be sitting in the clubhouse resting on his laurels. Make no mistake about it, he is and always will be the poster child for wasted opportunity. In fact his refusal to push himself higher is a major reason this team failed in recent years.

This was labeled as a chemistry issue by far too many people. However, it was not an issue of the team having bad chemistry, but rather an issue of the team filling a rather important roster spot with someone who did not have the makeup to be successful. By removing him from the roster the team improves because he is replaced by someone with the proper motivations. The team does not improve because everyone is chummy and buddy buddy. It improves because you now have a team that will come to the park each day and actually work to be the best at what they do.

It is time for all of us to stop assuming that the feel good experiences of our youth baseball teams can be equated to what baseball players do at the highest level. It is also time for us to stop listening to the words of young men in their 20's that have spent their whole lives focused on the one goal of being on a Major League roster. Often times they are so focused that they do not even know why they are doing things correctly. By the same token they may not get why Yuniesky Betancourt will be out of baseball completely in short order. It is not their job to understand all of those layers. It is only their job to be the best they can be.