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Tying to find that elusive team chemistry

Apr 9, 2013, 3:30 PM EDT

Periodic Table

From Paul White in USA Today, a story about teams wanting good chemistry. To the point where, just maybe, they’re willing to sacrifice production to get it. Whatever “it” is:

 The code words for this quality can vary by clubhouse.

Indians manager Terry Francona uses “atmosphere” to describe what he wants Giambi to help establish. The Arizona Diamondbacks re-made their roster this offseason and the buzzword around the team is “grit.”

It also goes by “chemistry” and “culture.” And it’s sought by organizations as varied as the Tampa Bay Rays, who see their no-rules clubhouse as a crucial piece of their formula , and the New York Yankees, who depend on the Derek Jeter and others to foster nearly a century of tradition the franchise values as a distinct advantage.

Whatever “it’ is requires an all-in approach from clubhouse inhabitants.

I don’t quibble at all with the notion that, all things being equal, people work better in good environments with people they like than they would in a bad environment with those people. All things aren’t equal, of course, and even though no one is claiming you can quantify that good team mojo, I hope that everyone would agree that a significant talent discrepancy between clubs with bad and good chemistry is more than made up for with the talent.

I think this article itself bears that out, using as it does Jason Giambi‘s travels as an example. He played for winning teams in Oakland, which had no rules in the clubhouse and “a frat house atmosphere.” He played for winning teams in New York that were all business and no nonsense. He played for a winning Colorado team that likely fell in between. So too is it the case across baseball. There have probably been just as many “25 players/25 cabs” kinds of teams that have won as there have been teams with “good chemistry,” however that’s defined.

None of which means that wanting that good chemistry is wrong. Jeez, think about anywhere you’ve ever worked and ask yourself whether you would have preferred it if everyone got along really well.  It’s just that I think, always and forever, there will be a much stronger correlation between teams with talent and winning than there will be with teams with “good chemistry” and winning, and that’s the case no matter how defines that term.

  1. tmhofficial - Apr 9, 2013 at 3:36 PM

    You just rocked my world. So chemistry and grit can’t overcome a lack of talent?

    That’s a shock.

    • zzalapski - Apr 9, 2013 at 4:43 PM

      It will be to Kirk Gibson.

  2. chacochicken - Apr 9, 2013 at 4:04 PM

    I’ve watched a lot of movies about baseball; grit and chemistry always beats superior talent.

  3. coryfor3 - Apr 9, 2013 at 4:06 PM

    The key is to get Michael Young on your team.

    And a bunch of small middle infielders and utility guys who each hit about .235. Those guys have grit and character and work ethic.

  4. turdfurgerson68 - Apr 9, 2013 at 4:47 PM

    Team Chemistry? It’s not that elusive…

    For example, take the mid-2000s Yankees.

    Giambi, A-Rod, Pettite, Garcia, Melky; all those guys had plenty of chemistry…HGH, steroids, etc.

  5. bigharold - Apr 9, 2013 at 5:08 PM

    Team chemistry, .. to a large extent, is a function of winning just as dysfunctional clubhouses are a function of losing.

    When a team is winning everything is going well people are happier and get along better. When a team is losing it generally puts people in a bad mood causing stress and less positive interaction. In either case we tend to think about it and rationalize the phenomenon of team chemistry to fit the circumstances. We create our own cause and effect. Usually we’re wrong.

    Some very good teams in the past have had terrible team chemistry but were loaded with talent and won it all. Conversely, I’ll bet there were loads of teams that got along great with each other and you never heard about that because they didn’t have the talent to win. Liking the people you work with certainly is a step in the right direction. Especially, if you sped half the year with them, traveling around and eating EVERYDAY. But, merely liking your co-workers, in this case, isn’t going to do much for your mood if they can’t hit throw or catch.

  6. bh192012 - Apr 9, 2013 at 5:44 PM

    Part of the issue here is framing what constitutes “good chemistry.”

    If you think about actual chemistry it’s about how chemicals interact. Most people don’t think of chemistry as chemicals sitting by themselves. Players sitting by themselves can manifest as bad chemisty. When players share their experiences and facilitate each other to achieve desired outcomes, that’s good chemistry.

    Bottom line, it’s not mainly about whether it’s organized or loose, it’s about fostering communication between players. If they hate each other, or don’t see each other, they won’t talk, they won’t share info on pitcher xyz etc. At least that’s my take on “good chemistry.”

  7. blacksables - Apr 9, 2013 at 5:57 PM

    How come no one ever really defines chemistry/grit/winning-attitude before they dismiss it?

    Not the “I’m going to make fun of it because I don’t understand it” definition, but an actual attempt to actually understand what is being discussed in order to make an informed opinion.

    It’s easy to mock things. It’s much harder to make an effort.

    • historiophiliac - Apr 9, 2013 at 7:12 PM

      What? You mean instead of conflating “good chemistry” and “getting along” or assuming that you can’t have equally positive results in different environments?

      • blacksables - Apr 9, 2013 at 7:21 PM

        The idea of “chemistry” and “winners” has been around for a long time, in many different words. Going back at least to Hal Chase (who was run off of several teams by his teammates) and Carl Mays (most hated man in the game) to Ty Cobb (3 World Series in a row) and the Black Sox ( who one in spite of not having any).

        Or was the Black Sox combined hatred of Comiskey the chemistry they needed?

        All I’m saying is, the concept has been around a long time. Why? If it didn’t exist 100 years ago, then why are people still talking about it today.

        My point is, until someone decides what it is, they can’t say it doesn’t exist.

    • DJ MC - Apr 9, 2013 at 11:09 PM

      The biggest issue is that most of the people who fall back on such explanations for success have problems defining them, too.

      Also, there tend to be problems with usage. I’ve seen plenty of Orioles seasons over the past fifteen that started with flurries of reports about the great chemistry in the clubhouse and how well the year would go, and ended with stories discussing how bad things got during another losing campaign.

      There are prominent examples throughout baseball history as well, from the Tinker-Evers-Chance Cubs to the Finley A’s to the Bronx Zoo Yankees to the Nasty Boys Reds, of teams with anything but good chemistry who win championships.

      All in all, I tend to see chemistry as correlation, not causation. If you generally get along with the other people around you and you are doing something that doesn’t make you feel bad, you will see good chemistry in whatever the situation is. The good chemistry doesn’t bring about those factors. And in baseball, if most of the team likes one another and are playing well as a group, you will see what we call good chemistry.

  8. theskinsman - Apr 9, 2013 at 7:16 PM

    turdfurgerson68, if I could I’d give you more than 1 thumbs up.That was funnier than the current AL east standings.

  9. Sorbet Te Charta Saccus - Apr 9, 2013 at 9:28 PM

    Team Chemistry only comes up as a reason a team won AFTER a team wins. You rarely see something written like “Team A overcame all the clubhouse in-fighting and lack of chemistry to win the pennant” even if it is true.

  10. DJ MC - Apr 9, 2013 at 11:11 PM

    It should be mentioned that, whatever one feels about the usage of one or both of the terms, “chemistry” and “grit” as generally used are not the same thing. The latter is an individual trait while the former involves a larger group.

  11. louhudson23 - Apr 10, 2013 at 3:23 AM

    Team chemistry is defined as players trusting the other to give their best towards winning and feeling an obligation to each other to do the same by exerting maximum effort,playing smart and giving a shit. Many teams that were not close personally had great chemistry.A’s of the early seventies and Yanks of the late 70’s immediately come to mind. Lots of teams are great buddies with each other,but never develop the trust and give a shit factor necessary to win. This is why Championship teams so often feature formerly ordinary players rising to the occasion in the post season and helping their team win. Be it Gene Tenace or Scott Brosius,the feeling of owing something to your teammates is nether commonplace or created by a friendly and loose atmosphere or a tight,serious and even unfriendly one. All the talent in the world will not be successful(as a team)if players are playing for themselves,their stats and their next contract etc…….and not the man next to him……doing what it takes to win and not what it takes to compile stats is the difference and the make up of good chemistry…..

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