What's wrong with the "chemistry-versus-talent" debate, and why the Red Sox will again exceed expectations in 2014

Since the spring of 2013 there have been a lot of opinions expressed about whether having great "chemistry" really makes a team (in particular the Boston Red Sox) perform better. There seem to be two sides to this debate. One says talent alone wins games and chemistry has nothing to do with it. The other says chemistry can make a huge difference. However, what I haven't heard are very good arguments on either side for why they think they're right. On the "talent alone" side, for example, among the best arguments I've heard is Dan Shaughnessy's unconvincing point that "History is filled with teams that won despite having clubhouses filled with guys who hated one another." (Of course with Shaughnessy one must be mindful of the fact that he sees the baseball world through lenses that only show him the ugly side of people, and therefore he will overstate how much they actually hate each other.) His argument at best only shows that enough talent can overcome a lack of chemistry. But we must also consider that an argumentative clubhouse can be its own kind of chemistry for a certain type of personality. I will explore that idea below.

On the "chemistry" side, about all I've heard is "yeah, chemistry definitely makes a difference". (At least Alex Speier, demonstrating his usual reporting excellence, was able to explain why it worked for the Red Sox.)

This lack of convincing discourse on the topic has been driving me batty. So I am here to try to fill what I have perceived as a void in this conversation.

What gets results? Talent? Chemistry? Both?

I say all of the above, and more.

I'll state what I think those things are below. But first I want to point out what I think is the likely flaw in the thinking of those who equate talent with results. I believe they are using circular logic (without realizing it, of course). They look at the stat line of a player, and if it's a good one, they think, "that player has talent", based on the results they're seeing. Then they look at the players who they've decided have the most talent, and lo, they have the best stat lines! So you get results because you're talented because you get results. (This article applies this logic to the 2013 Red Sox - while mistakenly equating chemistry with desire to win.) It's completely unsound logic, but it leaves them convinced that talent is all that really, in the end, matters.

I wish to dispel this notion in this post. Smash it and stomp on it and destroy it. In the world of team sports, results depend on much more than just talent.

So what are the multiple factors that affect results?

For baseball at least, I say that they are primarily five:

  1. talent
  2. effort
  3. preparation
  4. fatigue
  5. injury

Hmm. Talent is on that list and chemistry is not. Is this really an article that is claiming that chemistry matters? Yes, it is. Chemistry does not lead directly to results; its effect is indirect, by affecting the second item on this list, "effort".

Before we delve into that, let's look over this list of factors that I claim affect results.

I think we're probably all on board with the ideas that talent and injury affect results. Enough said there.

Fatigue is not mentioned as much. But the 2013 World Series Champion Boston Red Sox were very mindful of it. They gave breathers to a slumping Mike Napoli, a slumping Daniel Nava, and a slumping Felix Doubront, all on the suspicion that fatigue was taking its toll on these players, all with good results. And now, aware that a deep postseason run can adversely affect a pitching staff the following year, they have given their starters extra rest this spring. By acknowledging through their decisions the importance fatigue plays on results, the Red Sox may be giving themselves one more competitive advantage over other teams.

The third item on this list is "preparation". By this I mean any number of things that don't truly factor into talent. It could be physical workouts. It could be studying video of yourself or of opposing players. It could be drills that mean you don't have to waste time thinking things through in game action, because you know by heart what to do and you simply react. It could be making sure you have your team's signs down. All these things affect results on the field. And since we're on the topic, the Red Sox coaches and staff do an outstanding job at getting the players as prepared as they can be for game action. As one example, many don't realize that even after subtracting Jacoby Ellsbury's astoundingly good stolen base numbers from the team's 2013 numbers, the Red Sox had second-highest success rate in the major leagues in stolen bases last season (and almost the highest - and adding in Ellsbury's numbers easily pushes them to the top). The reason? Their staff were able to identify factors for success and failure in stolen bases, and use that information to give the rest of the team a high success rate in stolen bases, too. That's all preparation, right there.

Finally, there is effort. Can we all just agree that effort matters? If there are any doubters out there, I will provide these two extreme examples to make the point obvious. An extremely talented team that never leaves the dugout will lose by forfeit to an untalented team that makes the effort to take the field. A ridiculous example to be sure, but the point here is to demonstrate that effort matters, and makes a difference in results. For a more real-world example, compare the results achieved by Manny Ramirez in his last weeks with the Red Sox in 2008 to the results he had in his first weeks with the Dodgers immediately after. Same player, same talent level, same physical state, but obviously different effort levels, and obviously better results when he made a better effort.

Those examples depict huge differences in effort level. But in a typical game, are the differences in effort level really all that great? They're certainly a lot closer than in the above examples. So an important question is, do differences in effort level need to be much to make a difference in the results? I posit that they don't, as teams in the majors are usually close to being evenly matched, and the difference between winning and losing a game so often comes down to one pitch, one hit, one errant throw, one inch's difference in where a ball lands. So yes, I think even a small difference in level of effort can make a difference in wins and losses.

So what makes a difference in effort? One thing does: motivation.

So what makes a difference in motivation? A lot of different things do.

For individual players, it may be approaching free agency, or being in competition for a job, or being in a high-stakes situation (think David Ortiz), or just plain being on a baseball field (think Dustin Pedroia).

For a team, things that lift an entire team's motivation level include success (winning), playing against a traditional rival, and chemistry. Many who argue against the impact of chemistry state that "winning breeds chemistry". So I'm saying no, you're wrong, winning breeds motivation, and separate from that, chemistry breeds motivation.

How does chemistry lead to motivation? This can work in a lot of ways.

At the beginning of this post I stated that an argumentative clubhouse can be its own kind of chemistry for a certain type of personality. I was referring to the type of person on the less-sensitive end of the spectrum from sensitive to insensitive. These people crave stimulation and without it, can become bored and unmotivated. To them, food is boring if it isn't spicy or bursting with strong flavors. And the long, day-in, day-out haul of a baseball season is numbing without something to spice it up. For this type of person, an argument in the clubhouse from time to time may actually provide motivation by alleviating boredom, by bringing them to life. And so on a team of such personalities, as a kind of interpersonal interaction that improves results, the argumentativeness of a team can be a kind of chemistry. But there's a fine line here. The conflict can go too far and the chemistry it fosters can dissipate.

More commonly, chemistry will be based in having a common attitude. Players with similar attitudes about things, especially about baseball, will have less friction between them. Less friction means less dread of going to the ballpark, allowing each player's own natural motivations to be experienced their fullest. More friction means that if you help your team by increasing your level of effort, you're also helping some people who you don't like or are unhappy with. It makes it harder to want to do your best when that is the case. Therefore chemistry based on a common attitude would tend to increase motivation and effort overall - or at the very least a lack of it will deplete motivation, which will deplete effort and lead to poorer results.

But what if the common attitude on a team is one of laziness? A team of players who want to relax when it's not gametime, or not their turn in the game, can have chemistry based on sharing that attitude. You can have a team with chemistry that doesn't run out ground balls, doesn't battle hard on some at bats, doesn't try to catch balls that are close to walls, and doesn't do extra preparation before and between games. Sure, the lack of friction here will help, but the alignment of these attitudes will only reinforce effort-depleting habits, and will drag down overall effort. This is an example of team chemistry actually leading to worse results.

So what kind of attitude will lead to the best, most productive kind of chemistry?

Well, how about a common attitude of giving maximal effort all the time? The kind of attitude we've always seen in Dustin Pedroia, a man who looked out of place at the end of the 2012 season on a Red Sox team whose losing record was mathematically assured, who despite playing through injury was the only guy diving after possible hits and running out ground balls as if they were still in the hunt for the playoffs. Add Jonny Gomes and Shane Victorino to that team, and now you have three guys like that. These guys are motivated by a love of baseball, and will give maximal effort no matter what the circumstance. Surround those guys with a bunch of players inclined toward enthusiasm and getting along with their teammates (David Ross, Mike Napoli, and Ryan Dempster are oft-cited, but I'm envisioning as an example Koji Uehara energetically high-fiving all his teammates when coming out of a game - before he became the closer at least) and you now have a whole team full of guys with a common attitude of giving maximal effort. And on such a team, nobody will feel that their extra efforts are going to picking up the slack of others. And that will just motivate them to give even more effort. A give-your-all attitude can grate on others, so being on a team where it doesn't must feel liberating. And thus even more motivating. It's no wonder that after the 2013 season was over, the core of this Red Sox team engaged in an unprecedented amount of conversation with each other (by text messaging). Now that's some very strong chemistry there, and the best kind for getting results.

I believe Ben Cherington knew he needed not just chemistry on the team, but a certain type of it. He was looking for players with this type of give-it-your-all and get-along-with-others attitude, and he got them, and the results exceeded the expectations of just about everyone.

And it looks as though this year, they will exceed expectations again. Prognosticators are picking the Rays to take the division; even 7 of 12 prognosticators on the Red Sox' home broadcast network WEEI pick the Rays. Yet when a justification for the pick of the Rays is provided, with the exception of Lyle Spencer, every one amounts to a tallying of the Rays' players talent. No attempts are made to measure who will put forth the greatest effort, which team will do best at preparing, which team will do best at managing player's fatigue levels, and which team's player depth will make injuries of least concern. Now I must admit that, because of Joe Maddon, the Rays do quite well at a lot of these things. Yet my impression, biased though it may be, although driven by some actual information, is that the Red Sox may actually be best in the division in all four of these contributors to winning. And they're pretty good in terms of talent, too. Throw in their talent for running up pitch counts, which no other team does as well, and you have yet another largely unconsidered contributor to success.

When I factor in all these generally ignored contributors to success, I see that it's not enough to be a little more talented than the Red Sox. And that's why I'm picking the Red Sox to repeat as the American League East division winner in 2014.

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