At the SABR Analytics Conference on March 13, 2020, we held a panel discussion on Intangibles: How do Teams Evaluate, Value, and Encourage Team Chemistry?
Panelists included Joan Ryan, award-winning journalist and author of five sports books, including Intangibles: Unlocking the Science and Soul of Team Chemistry ; former major-leaguer Jonny Gomes, now a coach in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization; former major-leaguer Rickie Weeks Jr., who spent 14 seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers and three other teams; and moderator Brian Kenny of MLB Network.
- Video: Watch a replay of the Intangibles panel at the 2020 SABR Analytics Conference (YouTube)
- Audio: Listen to highlights from the Intangibles panel at the 2020 SABR Analytics Conference (MP3)
Here are some highlights:
ON PLAYING HARDER FOR YOUR TEAMMATES
- Gomes: “Back in the day, when you’re on the sandlot and you have two captains, ten years old. You got twelve people out in front of you. Who do you pick? Do you pick the kid who lives a couple of blocks away or do you pick your best friend? You’re gonna play better with your best friend and you’re gonna be more accountable with your best friend. You kind of know the way he ticks, what he likes to do, and you eventually could find yourselves in a situation where you can shine. … There’s also scenarios when you’re on deck with the bases loaded and one out. The guy in front of you punches out and he’s dragging his bat back. And you have a smidge of an itch in you to want to get a hit for your buddy so he can get his head up instead of having his head in the sand, and [that can give you] that extra edge. The game’s too hard to turn on and turn off. But there are situations where you can turn it up and the majority of the time, it is for your teammates.”
- Weeks: “A lot of time throughout the course of a season there are ups and downs. To me, I feel like when … you may not have the best of games but that one person or that collective group of guys in there, they have an ability to pick that guy up. So I think that where we’re going to talk about the clubhouse atmosphere: How can we improve that, but also keep the numbers and players there? A lot of time we can be so driven toward numbers that you lose that real factor of, ‘OK, that guy may not be the best player, but he brings something to the table where he makes a team better.’ ”
ON CHEMISTRY IN THE CLUBHOUSE
- Ryan: “Team chemistry is a biological, physiological construct. It’s not just some explanation we give to every team that has matching beards and who seems to overachieve. We’re wired [to be] the most social animals on earth and [after] 3 million years our brains tripled in size — it wasn’t for our intellect, it was for all that social wiring. It’s innate in us to be affected by each other. … So tone of voice and body language, all of those things you know, our brains just send out those signals and we react by totally recalibrating our own tone of voice. We know that we influence each other every moment of every day. It happening in this room right now. So of course, why wouldn’t it happen in locker rooms? And it affects our performance because why would we talk about unless it affects performance? We know that in our personal relationships — Brian, I know you love your wife and I know she makes you a better man. So if that can be true for all of us in our relationships, then of course it can be true in the rest of the parts of our lives.”
ON SEVEN ARCHETYPES YOU MIGHT FIND ON A TEAM
- Ryan: “One is the sage, and we all know the sage. The sage is like the grandpa. The guy who’s a veteran. No judgment, any guy can go up to him, and he gives him advice. He feels safe and cared for. The kid is the guy who comes in the clubhouse and is so excited about everything. He goes into the dining room and it’s like, ‘Oh my god, we have a cappuccino maker!’ That sort of thing. And everybody remembers why they love the sport. And then there’s the buddy. You know, nobody eats alone [when he’s around]. The sparkplug, like a Hunter Pence. The enforcer who says, ‘We don’t do it like that here.’ Who keeps everyone on track and not straying. And there is the warrior who is sort of that guy, a Barry Bonds really, or in basketball a Kevin Durant. He the embodiment of what we all want to be. As long as we have that guy on our team, we always feel like we can win.”
ON THE NEED FOR ‘CHEMISTRY PLAYERS’ IN ANY GROUP
- Weeks: “I think a lot of times we throw around our title too much in baseball. He’s a captain because he’s been in the league so long. He’s the best player on a team, so he’s labeled a captain. But sometimes it’s just not that guy. Sometimes it’s that player who exudes the hustle, the mentality, who says the tough things to people sometimes. Sometimes … we say [about a player], ‘He has all these numbers, he’s going to make changes and make this team better.’ Sometimes, that’s just not true.”
- Ryan: “Team chemistry is not camaraderie, it’s not cohesion, it’s not a lot of things we think it is. If you want any research about how trust and bonding affect performance, just look at the military. No entity has done more research on how trust and bonding affect performance because guess what, they know that when you are on that battlefield, that noble purpose, god and country mean nothing. You fight for each other because it’s the depth of commitment and really, they talk about the love they have for each other is the only thing powerful enough to keep them performing at such a high level under almost unbearable stress. Which is why you have boot camp, which is so stressful because it bonds them and builds trust. Armies have known that for centuries and centuries, and when teams know it, they can really harness that to their advantage.”
ON PROPERLY DEVELOPING CHEMISTRY
- Weeks: “I think team chemistry or team bonding kind of grows organically. … When you get to a situation where you need that next person to step up or when you need that next pitch thrown that, you exude the promise of that team chemistry. I know [that] what Johnny told me last week, it’s gonna help me out today. For me, it’s the fact that when you’re able to come to a ballpark and for 162 games and 180 days, you have to rely on your family. Your family is the baseball team in there. And you’d be surprised what helps the player out from day to day.”
- Gomes: “I’ve been fortunate enough to go to the playoffs six different times with five different teams. … Everyone wants championships talk. Everybody wants to do what the greats do. The greats and the champions are elite. You can’t be those people; you have to do so much more to be those people. People wanted to compare the 2013 Red Sox and 2015 Royals … [but] the winning teams I’ve been on were all totally different. They’re all totally different. But the losing teams I was on were all exactly the same. … They all suck. The titles Joan gave of the individuals, the warriors and the enforcers, there’s none of those [on losing teams.] … You go to the 25-man roster on the all-star teams and they all have different routines. They all have different diets. They all look at the game different. Then you go to the 25 worst guys on MLB, I guarantee you they are all the same. There’s not really a formula but we always do these team-building to get better. We need to focus on what doesn’t work and nip that in the bud first.”
ON HOW TO BUILD FROM THE BOTTOM UP
- Gomes: “I think to have a proper culture you all [have to be] chasing the same goal, pulling the rope in the same direction. There can’t be culture without a goal. There has to be an end result. … On the 2014 A’s, the young guys were starting to get it and they all made the All-Star team. We went from no All-Stars to seven All-Stars. And then you look at the second half of the season, they all laid down because they hit their goal. This is my perspective, but they hit their goal. They wanted to make the All-Star team. They did it. And then we kind of laid it down. We were in the division lead the whole way down. We ended up playing in the wild card game. … The culture is set by the end result, which is your goal. You have to get all those people on board. At the end of the day, if you have 25 guys in the clubhouse, you don’t really need 25. You really don’t. If you have 23, well those 23 all have to bully those two. And those two can’t be the clubhouse cancers. When you let those two ruin a whole clubhouse, your 23 weren’t strong enough as those two. … And your manager can screw it up or go the other way. You want to lose a team really quick, tell them they can’t bring their phones into the clubhouse. They won’t win.”
For more coverage of the 2020 SABR Analytics Conference, visit SABR.org/analytics.
Transcription assistance by Nicholas Digrispino.
Originally published: March 13, 2020. Last Updated: November 2, 2020.