A Blog by Jonathan Low

 

Jul 15, 2017

Quantifying Team Chemistry

Making the intangible tangible. JL

Jared Diamond reports in the Wall Street Journal:

The study is part of a growing push to understand and quantify one of the most elusive and tantalizing concepts in workplaces everywhere: the true effect of team chemistry. Can something as nebulous as “chemistry” be quantified, and if so, can it be weaponized? Increasingly, forward-thinking franchises think it’s possible not only to measure the impact of chemistry, but to cultivate positive chemistry in an intentional and systematic fashion. “If you can create an advantage, you might be able to sustain it for a long period of time."
This season, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have embarked on an ambitious experiment in an effort to solve one of the deepest mysteries in sports. They received permission from the San Francisco Giants to put GoPro cameras in the dugout of the franchise’s San Jose minor-league affiliate. With that access, they will monitor players’ interactions, expressions and behavior during games to determine how they relate to production.
The study is part of a growing push to understand and quantify one of the most elusive and tantalizing concepts not just in baseball, but in workplaces everywhere: the true effect of team chemistry.
There was a time in baseball’s not-too-distant past when the game’s brightest minds dismissed the very notion of chemistry. The analytics revolution of the early 2000s valued only what could be proven with empirical evidence and cast aside anything predicated on intangible qualities as a charming anachronism evangelized by out-of-touch old-timers.
Fast forward nearly two decades, and the thinking has changed. In a sweeping shift, many of the industry’s wonkiest stat-heads now acknowledge that how players get along with each other likely can affect how they perform on the field over a six-month season.“Chemistry is absolutely critical, but very few teams or managers or general managers know how to create it or even have any idea how to create it,” said Houston Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow, the leader of perhaps the most data-driven front office in the majors. “You know it’s important, but you don’t know what the levers are to change it.”
But what if they did? Corporate managers and armies of consultants have wrestled with this question for decades, and now baseball is tackling it head-on: Can something as nebulous as “chemistry” be quantified like on-base percentage or ERA, and if so, can it be weaponized?
Increasingly, forward-thinking franchises think it’s possible not only to measure the impact of chemistry, but to cultivate positive chemistry in an intentional and systematic fashion. That belief has sparked an information arms race in an area often discussed but rarely analyzed in a scientific way.
And whoever solves the riddle first will have earned a competitive advantage over their peers that could come with far-reaching ramifications.
“We know that our general satisfaction in our job and with the people that we work with probably has an impact on our job performance,” Milwaukee Brewers GM David Stearns said. “There is a quest within the industry to figure out and learn a little bit more about that interaction and whether there’s any predictive ability in that interaction.”
The problem with trying to comprehend chemistry is the inherent challenge of separating it from talent. Teams that win have chemistry. Teams that lose don’t. It’s easy to assume that the best way to generate chemistry in a clubhouse is simply to fill that room with the best baseball players possible. Any differences they may have will be cured by success.
Research across various disciplines is underway designed to cut through that noise. The ongoing study in San Jose is one manifestation of that. The Giants, who didn’t commission the study and will not have special access to the results, declined to comment. The researchers also declined to comment until the study is complete.
Meanwhile, at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in March, two economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and an assistant professor at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University presented a paper on quantifying chemistry.
Using a mathematical model, they concluded that certain teams, like the Giants and St. Louis Cardinals, consistently outperform the individual statistical contributions of their players, a phenomenon they attributed in part to chemistry. They also found players that consistently showed up on teams that seemingly overachieved, including David Ross, a recently retired catcher known for his leadership qualities.
Despite a .229 lifetime batting average, Ross lasted 15 years in the major leagues, consistently finding work because of his perceived—but unquantifiable—clubhouse presence. He appeared in the postseason five times between 2010 and 2016.
“It suggests if there are other guys like him and teams can identify them, there is a competitive advantage for them,” said Scott A. Brave, who authored the paper with R. Andrew Butters and Kevin Roberts. “You’ll get them at an undervalued price on the market.”
Brave and his colleagues decided to investigate this subject as a way to understand the reigning champion Chicago Cubs, who put an unusually heavy emphasis on chemistry and character. Whether the Cubs have had a breakthrough in measuring it remains unclear, but there’s no doubt that their front office believes that chemistry is crucial, creating a loose environment and welcoming individuality.
“That is the next thing that everyone is trying to measure, how that’s brought to a team and how you put that in the formula to building a good team,” said Ross, now an ESPN analyst. “That’s something that the Cubs definitely pay attention to.”
When the Cubs opened a new home clubhouse at Wrigley Field last season, they built the locker room in a circular formation as opposed to the typical rectangle in part to encourage interaction among players. Their manager, Joe Maddon, is steadfast in his belief that chemistry matters and is known for his efforts to try to create it. The Cubs recently parted ways with catcher Miguel Montero, despite a strong .805 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, after he publicly criticized a teammate.
“Because we lack an organized understanding of this issue does not mean that we have zero knowledge or zero understanding in this area,” Bill James, the godfather of statistical analysis in baseball, said in an email. “A lot of the stuff that Joe Maddon does that people think of as stunts and jokes is actually a very sophisticated way of managing the chemistry of his locker room.”
Of course, not even the best chemistry can compensate for a lack of talent. As James said, in the case of a superstar, “You will put up with whatever he does and work around it.”
Where quantifying chemistry can help a team is on the fringes of the roster—players like Ross, for instance. When teams look for their final pieces, they are often picking from a vast pool of players with relatively similar ability. Former major-league catcher David Ross, center, lasted 15 years in the major leagues, consistently finding work because of his perceived clubhouse presence. Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
But if a team knows, with hard data, that one of those players elevates his teammates with his clubhouse presence—and the rest of the league lacks the ability to recognize it—that team has an enormous advantage. Astros manager A.J. Hinch said that a theoretical chemistry quotient statistic would be “a great tiebreaker.”
The margins of a roster might not seem all that important, but in 2017, they can make all the difference between winning and losing. These days, everybody is using advanced analytics to evaluate talent. In that area, all 30 teams are far more alike than they are different, which wasn’t the case, say, 15 years ago.
As a result, teams are actively looking for any edge they can find, recognizing that even a minor breakthrough in a previously unexplored area can have an outsized benefit. In other words, the race to figure out chemistry is on.
“If you can create an advantage, you might be able to sustain it for a long period of time,” Luhnow said. “It’s going to be hard for anybody else to figure out what you did or what your formula is or why it works.”

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