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The Strike Zone

A stathead reconsiders his position on chemistry

Oakland Athletics Oakland's off-field bond may have contributed more than first thought to its on-field success last season. (AP)

By Jay Jaffe

Like most statheads, I avoid spending much time discussing the concept of clubhouse chemistry. The media, though, tends to focus on it, in part because reporters and players in locker rooms need something to talk about besides what pitch it was that was that Joe Slugger hit into the seats or how many days at a time the team is taking things at the moment, or whatever other clichés need to be dusted off to fill column inches. In that context, "good chemistry" is often offered up as an explanation for a team's success and "bad chemistry" for failure rather than the more plausible alternative, which is that success can create good chemistry — everybody's happier when a team is winning — and that lack of same can create bad chemistry. The reality is probably "a little from column A, a little from column B," as potential causes for friction among teammates or with managers and coaches are easier to overlook in good times but exacerbated by adversity. But even upon acknowledging that it does exist, throwing a value-based number on it would seem to be a futile exercise.

So it raised my eyebrows when I read about Diamondbacks pitcher Brandon McCarthy's comments at last week's SABR Analytics Conference. As I've noted before, McCarthy is one of the more sabermetrically-oriented players out there, a former top prospect who resurrected his career after gaining an understanding regarding the value of groundballs, of which he didn't generate many because of his tendency to pitch higher in the strike zone. On the heels of a breakout 2011 season, he spoke of his evolution at last year's inaugural conference, and it made for a fascinating discusssion.

Invited to return for an encore after a winter in which he left the A's for the Diamondbacks via free agency, McCarthy surprised the audience by asserting that had Brandon Inge and Jonny Gomes — a duo that combined for a modest 2.8 Wins Above Replacement Player — not been part of last year's team, the A's would have finished with 70 wins instead of 94, the difference being those players' efforts "behind closed doors." Elaborating to AZCentral.com's Nick Piecoro afterwards, McCarthy explained:

It sounds stupid, but if you have a rookie that comes up and rookies are filled with self-doubt, filled with worry, and now you’re in the big leagues and you come to a team where nobody makes you feel welcome. So now you’re already nervous, you’re kind of worried about your lot, and then the guys around you, you’re not comfortable and you don’t feel like you’re one of them. You don’t feel kind of free and like you can do what you do. But if you have a guy like Jonny Gomes or Brandon Inge or someone who just comes up and is just kind of (BS-ing) with you and it just sort of loosens you up and then everyone else can kind of get in the mix. I know it sounds really stupid, but it’s kind of like being an artist where the more comfortable you feel, usually your better work comes out… It goes for veterans and everybody. There’s guys that make you feel more comfortable. That loosens you up... there’s a whole trickle down effect to it that’s impossible to quantify but it does exist in there.”

A gain of more than 20 wins through such means sounds implausible, though I don't doubt there's more than a grain of truth to what McCarthy is saying. Consider the number of rookies and newcomers who played huge roles in helping the A's capture the AL West title last year. Pitchers Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone, Bartolo Colon, A.J. Griffin, Ryan Cook, Sean Doolittle and Dan Straily, and hitters Yoenis Cespedes, Chris Carter, Stephen Drew, Brandon Moss, Derek Norris, Josh Reddick and Seth Smith — none of whom played for Oakland in 2011, and some of whom didn't join the team until mid-2012 — all contributed substantially. So, too, did Gomes, an offseason free agent signing, and to a lesser extent Inge, a midseason waiver wire pickup. Moss and Carter were among those who had passed through multiple organizations and acquired Quad-A labels after failing to live up to expectations in years past; together they hit 27 homers in 420 plate appearances as a first base platoon, and 37 homers overall. Straily and Griffin patched the rotation when injuries felled McCarthy and a PED suspension shelved Colon.

Somehow all of these players found more comfort and adapted to Oakland better than anyone expected. A welcoming environment may have made that easier, even if it wasn't worth nearly as much as McCarthy suggests, or as much as general manager Billy Beane's modernized Moneyball methods may have contributed.

On the other side of the coin, it's worth noting that the sabermetrically-minded Red Sox, who spent last season in turmoil under one-and-done manager Bobby Valentine, and who were reputed to have clubhouse problems that carried over from their 2011 collapse, signed Gomes to a two-year deal based not only on his productivity but his reputation as a clubhouse leader. The Diamondbacks' trade of Justin Upton to the Braves brought back Martin Prado, who has earned a similarly strong reputation in Atlanta and was particularly targeted as the type of player Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers and manager Kirk Gibson wanted. Granted, I'm among those who scoffed at that deal, but that's more because of Upton's tremendous upside and the way that he's been handled than a judgement on Prado's value off the field as well as on.

I'm not suggesting that I'm about to trade in my Baseball Abstracts and Excel spreadsheets anytime soon, and I don't suggest any other stat-minded fans should, either. I'm not going to claim that Miguel Cabrera's intangibles were enough to outweigh Mike Trout's tremendous WAR(P) advantage when it came to the AL MVP race, nor am I likely to pick the A's or Diamondbacks to win their divisions solely due to harmonious clubhouses.

Even so, amid the tiresomely polarizing war on WAR, I do think it's important to reiterate the idea that there's a difference between saying something intangible can't be quantified versus saying that said intangible has no value. The next time I hear a player talking about good chemistry, instead of waving my hand dismissively, I'll hope that he's up to the task of elaborating with insight as to why it might exist.

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