Carleton: Why sabermetricians don't talk about team chemistry (and why maybe they should)

From Russell Carleton at Baseball Prospectus on October 11, 2013:

On Thursday’s episode of ESPN’s Baseball Tonight podcast, host Buster Olney, while discussing the Cardinals’ NLDS victory over the Pirates with ESPN’s Pedro Gomez, made a comment that sabermetricians do not often discuss matters of team chemistry or clubhouse culture. (Well, maybe once in a while…) Olney then proceeded to talk about how he believed that one reason for the Cardinals’ success, both within the NLDS and more broadly over the past few years, has to do with the culture that the club has worked to cultivate. Olney cited, among other things, that Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, himself worthy of some legitimate MVP support this year, is also one of the hardest workers on the team. Olney pointed out that Cardinals management (Tony LaRussa and, later, Mike Matheny) has gone out of its way to specifically ask its star players to set an example for the rest of the team. He reasoned that other players on the team see this sort of commitment from Molina and are inspired to commit themselves to similarly hard work, and pointed out that it’s rare for sabermetricians give much credence to this as a reason that some teams win while others fall by the wayside.

Buster is right that chemistry and culture are not common topics, for the semi-obvious reason that most of what’s referred to as chemistry takes place behind closed doors and isn’t measurable even if we wanted to measure it. There’s probably also a healthy suspicion that some of the common wisdom about chemistry is post hoc, ecological fallacy-driven narrative building that would fail an undergrad research methodology course. The Cardinals won and Molina is a good player and a hard worker. Therefore, Molina’s work ethic must have been the difference between the teams. Science just doesn’t work like that. (That’s also a straw-man argument, but one that I’ve jumped to plenty of times. How unscientific of me!)

It’s often assumed that the problem is that because the matter doesn’t lend itself to being quantified, sabermetrics dismisses the idea of culture affecting performance altogether. There have been times when I’ve been guilty of that, but the real reason that I’m shy to speak definitively on matters of chemistry in baseball is that it’s just so hard to do good science on the matter. In that case, the best thing to say is “I don’t know” and be done with it. Maybe “I don’t know” has been interpreted as “I assert that it has no effect at all.” I would suggest that the former is a much better answer than the latter.

But maybe there’s a little bit of room for Molina’s work ethic after all.

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This page was last updated October 11, 2013 at 11:14 am MST.

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