Friday Rockpile: the chemistry must be respected

Hannah Foslien

"[H]e's the kind of player who brings leadership to a team — especially a young team like ours. He does everything the right way." -Michael Cuddyer, on Justin Morneau

It's funny how the word "chemistry" refers to something unquantifiable when used in a sporting sense. In science, chemistry is utterly exact: add substance X to solution Y and observe explosion Z. If you measure the ingredients perfectly and mix them appropriately, the result is always the same.

Chemistry in baseball, though, is undefined, unobservable, and certainly unmeasurable. You can't add two servings of guts, a pinch of grit, and several teaspoons of determination to a ball club and watch a winning team emerge. Baseball chemistry is built on cliche, abstraction, and--quite possibly--post hoc mythologizing. Maybe teams have great chemistry because they win, not the other way around. Chemistry is created through a jumble of ill-defined elements, brought together with no formula or set of iron-clad rules. It's the opposite of scientific chemistry; it more resembles alchemy.

Because of the unquantifiable nature of baseball "chemistry", the statistically-minded baseball community ignores, or even mocks, the very concept. We can count home runs, strikeouts, innings pitched, and bases stolen. We can look to history and calculate exactly how many runs it takes to add a win to a ball club. We can apportion credit or blame to a particular player for virtually every event on the field of play. Those are the building blocks of wins, they say. In order to win you must assemble the correct mixture of talent based on what they do on the field, not what they supposedly do in the clubhouse.

But maybe we have it all wrong.

The Rockies organization obviously places great importance on those intangibles that make up chemistry. Some money quotes, straight from the horse's mouth:

It’s called the human analytics. I think human analytics are just as important as statistical analytics. Hard to measure it because there’s no statistical formula for that, but really understanding what’s inside a guy is actually more important than what comes out of a guy because that’s the only way you know if you’ve got a winning player on your hands.

Like Michael Cuddyer’s case. He’s a perfect example of a guy that gets every little bit out of whatever ability he has and does it solely related to winning that game that night. It’s problematic in the whole industry right now, trying to find those kind of guys because it starts at a very early age with the entitlement factor. So when kids get put into the game based upon what the game owes them rather than the understanding of how appreciative they are of the opportunity, it creates an uphill battle right away. So I think it’s really important in our development system that we address a lot of the issues that we are now addressing as it relates to creating that tougher player that understands how to play for his team rather than play for himself.

Chop

Q: Has anything about Dexter disappointed you?

A: Dexter’s a great kid and he knows that we all feel that way about him. But I think he’s got to get tougher. No doubt. He’s got to show up and play with an edge every day, not just when he thinks he has to. It’s got to be that edge that he brings every day. He’s got to be a passionate competitor in the game. He has to love the game. He’s got to compete because he loves the game and he loves his teammates and he wants to win. It can’t be for anything the game provides. It’s got to be for those reasons.

-Dan O'Dowd, in an 11/25/2013 interview with Dave Krieger

Dexter Fowler would not be long for the Rockies; indeed, the trade was likely all but set in stone as of that interview. And in his place came a couple scrappy guys from Houston and big Justin Morneau, who is a hell of a dude, according to Michael Cuddyer (the paragon of do-it-the-right-way-itiveness).

What do we Rockies fans really know about Dexter Fowler? We know his stat line, which looks mighty attractive for a center fielder. We know his thousand watt smile. We know about those jokey commercials, epic bat flips, and a maddening inability to maximize his considerable tools.

What don't we know about him? Maybe when the season started to slip away he lost focus. Maybe he lacked the toughness to play  while a little banged up. Maybe he was scared his stats would suffer. Maybe he didn't make an extra effort to step up when Tulo and Cargo got hurt. Maybe we overvalued Dexter; as Keith Law said in a chat yesterday, "from asking around [the industry], the Rockies did try to find a better offer for Fowler and couldn't. Maybe they turned down something we would like more than what they got, but other execs aren't telling me that they thought Colorado sold too low."

As observers from a distance, we have no way to know. But O'Dowd is in on the ground floor, and he was obviously unhappy with his center fielder's drive. Why else would he make those comments to Krieger? As some sort of parting swipe? Surely he wouldn't be so vindictive. Maybe he was just calling it like he saw it.

***

What turned a 69 win Red Sox team in 2012 into a 97 win team in 2013? Sure they made some good moves in the off season, but that can't possibly explain a 28 win swing. I think most people agree that players hated playing under Bobby Valentine in '12, but thrived under the steady leadership of John Farrell. What is that, if not chemistry?

What turned the dysfunctional Rockies of the early '09 season, who were 9 games under .500 in late May, into a dynamic 92 win team? Things turned on a dime when Clint Hurdle got the boot. Was their collective under-performance early in the year simply random variation, just bad luck that they all slumped at once?

I used the word "maybe" about a zillion times in this article, and I don't like to do that. I like to be sure about things. I like adding WAR and talking about OBP and taking the piss out of BIG GRAND NARRATIVES.

But maybe (here's that word again!) the Rockies do have a plan, despite every observer's protestations to the contrary. Are "human analytics" an under-exploited concept in MLB? I hate to bring up an often-derided O'Dowdism, but maybe building a "culture of value" isn't some buzz-phrase. Having great players is obviously critical; but maybe they are searching for additional qualities that foster greatness in others.

Who can say if it will work. Michael Cuddyer was supposed to be a model of hustle and leadership, but his Rockies tenure has coincided with two last place finishes. The Front Office has decided to double down on character with the addition of Justin Morneau. It doesn't look great on paper. But now I'm interested to see how it turns out. Perhaps, beyond all odds, the Rockies will find a way to turn lead into gold rings.

LINKS

Bill Geivett says the Rockies aren't done modifying the team, and says there's still room in the payroll. This makes sense based on previous comments about a rising payroll and how the Fowler-to-Morneau maneuver is payroll neutral, or might even have saved a million or two. Patrick Saunders speculates that the team is looking to add a reliever. Also included is a note that Walt Weiss has no concerns that Carlos Gonzalez can't handle center field.

Brian Wilson has re-signed with the Dodgers, to the tune of $18.5 million over two years. Seems like a bit of an overpay, but that word isn't in the Dodgers' lexicon. They must have a printing press running non-stop in Chavez Ravine. He'll be yet another effective piece in a loaded baseball team.

Robinson Cano just signed with the Mariners for 10 years and $240 million dollars. That's a spicy meat-a-ball.

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