Can We Measure Clubhouse Chemistry?
This past weekend brought the news that Milton Bradley, the underperforming Chicago Cubs right fielder, was being suspended for the rest of the season. The suspension was brought about by his comments to the Daily Herald newspaper, in which he told reporters he was unhappy in Chicago, and that he was not surprised the Cubs had not won in 100 years due to the aura of negativity which permeates the team.
One can assume that the comments, inflammatory to be sure, but hardly the stuff that usually warrants a 3-week suspension, weren't really the whole story. Bradley, known around the league as one of baseball's biggest troublemakers, has been a clubhouse distraction and has had problems all season long, including a spat with manager Lou Piniella in June when he was kicked out of the clubhouse.
For the Cubs and GM Jim Hendry, the value of Bradley's on-field performance had been eclipsed by his attitude and behavior in the clubhouse. To be sure, part of what went into Hendry's calculus was the fact that Bradley has been a disappointment on the field - it's hard to imagine the Cubs benching him if he were having the kind of year he had in Texas in 2008. And it's that kind of calculation that is the focus of today's article.
With the sabermetric revolution, one of the great immeasurable things is a player's contribution to the clubhouse. How much extra value does a "good guy" bring more than just your average player and, more importantly, how much of a determinant are those infamous "clubhouse cancers"?
These types of questions are tough to get a handle on with statistics alone. One could attempt to measure the impact on his teammates' performance, but of course, the variability is so high, the confounding variables so numerous, and the impact so small, that there would never be enough power to see any real results. Nevertheless, players' intangible qualities and clubhouse presence are purported have an impact on the teams' behavior.
While we probably can't really measure the actual impact of a player's clubhouse demeanor on his team's W-L record (sorry if that's what you came here looking for), it might be possible to examine of how teams seem to value a player's intangible clubhouse presence based upon their behavior.
A case in point is Milton Bradley. Despite the fact that Bradley is not having a year up to his usual standards, he has still been an average right fielder this year, and has been worth 1.2 Wins Above Replacement. Factor in that Bradley probably has been getting a bit unlucky this year due to the regression effect, and his true on-field value is probably more than that. Yet, the Cubs made the calculation that the 1.2 wins he was gaining on the field were less than what he was losing off the field. Hence, the suspension for the rest of the year.
Going with another Cubs example, Sammy Sosa, who was never a peach even when he was breaking home run records, was similarly ousted due to non-performance related issues. After a stormy but productive 2004 season, the Cubs felt the need to practically give away Sosa the following year. His 2.4 offensive WAR was gone and the Cubs received nearly nothing in return, eating most of his salary as well. While age and swirling steroid fears probably made Sosa's 2005 projection only about half of his 2004 value, he was still likely to be a productive player. Yet the Cubs and their fans were happy with the decision to give away Sammy because they were rid of the "clubhouse cancer".
Shea Hillenbrand comes to mind as well. With a 3-year average WAR of 1.4, he was a decent player for Toronto in 2006, and was hitting over .300 at the time, when he was outright released by the Blue Jays for disrespecting the team and the management. The Jays lost Hillenbrand's 1.4 wins on the field, but presumably, in the Jays' minds, gained back at least 1.4 wins by sending Hillenbrand's attitude packing.
Of course, there is a limit to the quality of skill that a team will jettison. Plenty of reported "clubhouse cancers" have had long, productive careers. Albert Belle comes to mind. So does Barry Bonds. Had these players been lesser talents, they would have likely been gone long ago, but teams don't release MVP-caliber players. In fact, I can't think of even a 3 or 4 WAR all-star caliber player ever having been given away or released largely due to clubhouse attitude. Instead, teams learn to deal with these players, rather than oust them. At most, they'll trade them, usually taking less value than his on-field value would normally merit.
It would appear that at max, a team considers even the jerkiest behavior worth about -1.5 wins over the course of a season. From the examples above, and some intuition, it seems that league average players can be released due to serious "cancerous" behavior, but that above that level, teams would rather deal with the player's attitude than give up his talent.
An interesting question is the distribution of a player's clubhouse impact. This is purely theoretical, but I would imagine that the impact of player's attitude is skewed heavily to the left, so that there are many players with small, but positive impacts, but that it's pretty much impossible for someone to have a very large positive impact. Meanwhile, I would imagine that the distribution skews well into the negative, where a few players can have a large negative impacts on a team. As most people who have been in group situations can tell you, the maximum positive impact that any one person can have on morale and attitude is relatively small compared to the disruption and difficultly caused by a few bad apples. At least, that's my hypothesis. As a result, while 1.5 wins may be the maximum negative win contribution a player can have on a team, the maximum positive clubhouse impact is probably much smaller. My best guess at the distribution of clubhouse attitude would something like the following:
No Replacement Level Jerks
The distribution of course, is just a guess, but let's see if it makes sense in another context by looking at bench players. If the average bench warmer has a WAR of 0.5, it would make sense that there would be no benchwarmers who's attitude would be worth -0.5 WAR. If we use the distribution above, it means that that bench caliber players who are among the 90th percentile of jerkiness would not make the major leagues due to their attitude. Put another way, of the 10% jerkiest players in baseball, none are scrubs.
Does this calculation reflect reality? I've never been inside a major league clubhouse, so it's tough to know. However, relief pitcher Todd Jones seems to agree. According to Jones' article for the Sporting News, there are very few jerks who are bench guys and long relievers and most scrubs are usually good guys. Bad players with bad attitudes are non-existent, but bad players with good attitudes might make the club.
All About Chemistry
So, if we assume that each player has a clubhouse contribution, with the mean centered at zero and a small standard deviation of about 0.2 wins, how much can clubhouse chemistry really affect the team's overall performance? Multiplying the SD by the square root of 25, we see that clubhouse chemistry would have a standard deviation of 1 win, meaning that the team with the worst chemistry in baseball will lose about 2 extra games because of it, while teams with the best chemistry gain about 2 extra wins. At least, that's the best estimate we have from looking at teams' behavior with regard to their personnel decisions.
The true value of chemistry is probably so difficult to determine, that it cannot be ascertained directly. If teams are under or over valuing clubhouse chemistry, then theoretically a team could take advantage by assembling an all-jerk team or an all good-guy team to take advantage of the inefficiency. However, by looking at teams' behavior, we have attempted to estimate at least what clubhouse attitude is currently valued at among major league teams. Is it valued correctly? For that, perhaps an even more subjective view is needed.