Clubhouse chemistry is a baseball term that has been used for decades to describe the psychological health of the clubhouse. The idea of clubhouse chemistry is that players that get along well play better as a team, leading to more runs scored, fewer runs allowed, and an overall better environment for winning.
Yet recently clubhouse chemistry has been called into question. Fans of advanced baseball analysis (sabermetrics) argue that clubhouse chemistry is not as important as traditionalists believe they are. At the same time, many baseball fans arduously disagree, claiming that clubhouse chemistry still plays an extremely important role in the success of a baseball team, and that if you want to field a good team, you need to keep them free of players with bad attitudes. Players that have been deemed “Clubhouse Cancers.”
The Clubhouse Cancer
One of the most well known “clubhouse cancers” is a player named Milton Bradley. Milton Bradley has been with eight different teams, and in almost every time he was cited for severe behavioral problems that led to his being traded to some other team looking to take a chance on a talented ballplayer.
Although recently he has started to struggle at the plate, Milton Bradley had several years with some outstanding production, and on talent alone he was a benefit to any team in baseball. Yet his attitude caused serious friction with every team he was on, and was an extremely popular topic with the media that tended to blame Milton Bradley for a team’s struggles. Recently, the Seattle Mariners traded for Milton Bradley, and low and behold: they were terrible. This raises the question: Are players like Milton Bradley the cause of poor performance, or is something else at play?
The Sabermetrics Argument
Sabermetricians believe that clubhouse chemistry is not important when it comes towards building a team. The argument is fairly simple: it is impossible to measure, and equally impossible to predict. It is not an argument about whether or not clubhouse chemistry matters – rather, it is an argument about whether or not it should be taken into account when a general manager builds a team.
There is no way to measure clubhouse chemistry. You can go to the clubhouse and ask each one of them if they like the rest of their team, but there is no way to know their account is accurate, nor is there a way to know how much of a player’s contribution can be attributed to clubhouse chemistry. In addition, how does one measure a change in clubhouse chemistry based on players that are signed/traded/removed?
For example, if you have a team with moderately good clubhouse chemistry, and you trade for a player that is known to be a nice person, does that increase the clubhouse chemistry number? If so, by how much? And how much does that increase effect production? It is impossible to measure the effects of clubhouse chemistry of either a team or individual player, and if there is no way to measure it, there is not necessarily a way to believe it has any effect.
Perhaps the most damning evidence against clubhouse chemistry is with prediction. Bill Bavasi – General Manager of the Seattle Mariners between 2003 and 2008 – was a firm believer in clubhouse chemistry. So much so that he built his team around players that were reported to be great teammates in the clubhouse.
Then the Mariners got terrible. Abysmal. For several years they were the laughing stock of the AL West, and although they had a good year once in a while, they were otherwise one of the worst teams in the American League.
However, their performance is not an issue. What is an issue is the reported level of clubhouse chemistry during their performance. Even though the team was filled with so called “great clubhouse guys,” the team was reported to have terrible clubhouse chemistry. Even though the team was built on “great guys,” the team was still fighting, with the entire clubhouse openly hostile.
Clubhouse chemistry has shown no predictive qualities. A team that gets along one year may not get along the next year, even if all the players remain the same. Because clubhouse chemistry is impossible to predict, just as it is impossible to measure, sabermetricians believe that it is not something that should be considered when building a ball club.
One Predictor of Clubhouse Chemistry
Sabermetricians have one surefire method of predicting clubhouse chemistry: Wins. Teams that win are always reported to have great clubhouse chemistry. The problem is that traditionalists often use this as an example of how teams with great clubhouse chemistry win. Yet again, if the winning was due to good clubhouse chemistry, then the clubhouse chemistry shouldn’t change year to year based on win totals of the team (even when the team has the same players). Analysis has shown that it does.
Trading for Milton Bradley
Because clubhouse chemistry cannot be measured or predicted, sabermetricians believe that teams should be built on the only things that can be measured, because trying to build a team based on perceived clubhouse chemistry is not possible. History has shown they are right.
The question becomes whether or not to trade for players that have known attitude problems, like Milton Bradley. He’s a known commodity: The likelihood that he suddenly becomes a great teammate is slim, no matter how impossible clubhouse chemistry is to predict.
Yet current evidence suggests that yes, a player that has a checkered history is still worth playing if he can bring a positive athletic contribution. Journalists like to point to players like Milton Bradley as examples when their team does poorly, but many other players with negative attitudes have helped their teams succeed when they have the baseball skills necessary to help them succeed, and their attitude has not impacted the team’s ability to win.
Clubhouse chemistry does exist. Teams either get along well or they get along poorly, and it would not be a surprised if a player’s mood impacted how well he played. However, it has also shown itself to be both immeasurable and unpredictable, and teams have also been shown to win despite having “clubhouse cancers” on their team. As such, while clubhouse chemistry is interesting during the baseball season, analysis has shown that no matter what the player’s past, it should not play a role in how to build a baseball team.