Chemistry

There was a kind of interesting Twitter exchange the other day between my co-worker and friend Craig and injured pitcher and friend Brandon. I say "kind of interesting" because Twitter is, by definition, limiting, and it seemed like both Craig and Brandon were only able to say about half of what they were trying to say. The conversation was about team chemistry.

The starting point was this story in USA Today about team chemistry. I think the general point of the story is that team chemistry is undervalued by the numbers guys (per John Lackey) and that the San Francisco Giants have won three World Series largely because of chemistry (per Jake Peavy) and that people don't appreciate how much David Ross means to the Cubs even though he's hitting sub-.200 (per Anthony Rizzo) and that outsiders'/numberheads' inability to understand the importance of chemistry is infuriating (per David Price). There was also the mandatory shot at the Oakland Athletics for inspiring a best-selling book and movie without winning a World Series.

"How about let’s make a movie about the good ol’ fashioned baseball people, and how they judge team chemistry, and put together guys that fit in," Peavy said.

Well, yeah unfortunately that didn't work out so well.

I thought the most interesting sentence in Bob Nightengale's article was this one about the Giants: "Maybe they’ve had the best manager in Bruce Bochy, and GM too in Brian Sabean, but never have they had the best talent." I think there's a lot there. What does best talent mean? By definition, could Brian Sabean be a good GM if his team never has the best talent? Or is Bob using "talent" pejoratively, meaning instead "wasted talent?" Or is he saying that Sabean understands that there are other qualities a team needs beyond talent? And if that's what he's saying, don't those other qualities also register as talents?

In any case, this article predictably triggered some backlash, particularly this well-done story with the somewhat telling headline "Do baseball players ever know what 'chemistry' means?" The point here as I read it is that, sure, chemistry plays a role in baseball success -- and it's insulting to say that people who try to quantify performance don't understand there's a very real human side of the game -- but the author's belief is that baseball people tend to exaggerate the role of chemistry, using it as a mystical sledgehammer to separate the insiders from the outsiders (As in: "You couldn't possibly understand").

None of this is new, of course. It's essentially an extension of the scene where Billy Beane throws a chair through the wall in "Moneyball." Baseball people feel like numbers guys dehumanize the game. Numbers guys feel like baseball people try to mythologize baseball beyond reason.

But then Brandon and Craig started Tweeting about it, and I thought that was new and interesting.

Brandon is an unconventional thinker in many ways, and one of the things I like about him is that he's not utterly predictable with his viewpoints. For instance, he's a Bill James fan and he strongly believes in how baseball statistics can tell stories. But he also believes that many of the numbers guys DO underrate chemistry and do not appreciate just how important it is to have players in the clubhouse who help, who inspire, who challenge, who teach, who hold people accountable and who have your back when things are not going well.

Craig is an unconventional thinker too, in many ways, and one of the things I like about him is that he's incisive, gets at that point, challenges the status quo. He believes that much of what people call "chemistry" is fuzzy and unspecific and, in Bill James' and Jon Stewart's key word, "bullshit." That is not to say that chemistry does not exist but to ask that if it DOES exist, why can't people cite actual examples of chemistry beyond such banalities as "the guys really like each other," and "they make it fun to come to the ballpark."

Brandon counters that players CAN AND WOULD go beyond such banalities if writers would be interested enough to coax it out of them.

Craig counters that the chemistry effect, while there, will always be overstated because it's in the best interest of baseball people to overstate it.

I hope -- as Mr. Potter says in "It's a Wonderful Life" -- that I paint a correct picture of their views but as I said, it was Twitter. I might be exaggerating.

The back-and-forth took a turn when Brandon suggested that maybe writers should think about how chemistry affects their own places of work.

@mikelikessports if writers swore that relationships w editors was crucial and we said "no. Writing talent is all that matters"

— Brandon McCarthy (@BMcCarthy32) August 25, 2015

Craig responded by suggesting that using "editors" is not quite right because editors are more like coaches. He came back with a more precise analogy:

@BMcCarthy32 @mikelikessports The more apt metaphor: a story was better because the writer down the hall keeps things loose. — Craig Calcaterra (@craigcalcaterra) August 25, 2015

And it was Craig's tweet that made me think of chemistry in a little bit different way.

When I was a columnist at The Kansas City Star in the 1990s and 2000s, we had an amazing staff. I mean it was absolutely amazing. You look around sports journalism today and you will find so many stars who were there -- Dinn Mann, Wright Thompson, Mike Vaccaro, Mechelle Voepel, Jason Whitlock, Jeff Passan, Liz Merrell, Jason King, Bob Dutton and many others, not to mention fantastic people who are still in Kansas City like Sam Mellinger and Blair Kerkhoff and Mike Fannin and so on. Did we have chemistry? Well, what does that mean? We had talented writers who were young and hungry, and we had some amazing editors who led through sheer force of will, and we spent money to go and write great stories.

But I would say, yes, we did have chemistry -- if you want to use "chemistry" to refer to an almost invisible rhythm that became part of our daily work. We never talked about it. I'm not sure we would have been able to describe it any better than ballplayers do. There was this standard you felt like you had to live up to -- you wanted to write better because all those people were writing better. There was also this closeness that is not easy to explain. We talked about work all the time, even when it didn't feel like we were talking about work. Without even thinking about it, we were bouncing ideas off each other. We were praising each other's best stories. We were offering suggestions. And that silence that followed mediocre stories or lazy work was as loud as anything.

How much better did any of this make The Kansas City Star? I don't know. We were awfully good, I know that. Sure, it was a fortunate collection of talent, but when you are inside that bubble you don't think about "talent" in the same way. We knew each other. And talent is always countered by flaws. Maybe we helped each other overcome some of those flaws. Maybe it would have been different if we didn't have each other to push.

I am writing this from the Darius Rucker band bus -- long story (which is coming soon). And a little bit ago, I was talking with Jeff Marino, the drummer. He was talking about how he has played with a lot of bands, but this one is different. He thinks one of the mistakes people make when putting together bands is that they only look at the quality of the musicians. They don't look at the kind of people those musicians are.

"It isn't about being on stage," he said. "That's the easy part. You get a bunch of great musicians on stage, and they'll give you a great sound. But what about tomorrow? And the next day? It isn't the time on stage. It's the 14 hours your together on the bus. It's the downtime before the show. We have a bunch of great guys now. And that makes a huge difference."

He didn't use the word "chemistry." But I suspect that's what he meant.