Behind the ScoreboardSeptember 22, 2009
Can We Measure Clubhouse Chemistry?
By Sky Andrecheck

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.

The Intangibles

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.


This is fascinating. Sometimes the press will print an article about how great this or that bench player's attitude is, and how much that helps the team. What this post is arguing is that yeah, that's why they are there.

Very nice work. This reminds me of an old Bill James comment (maybe from the 89 book) about how the 25th roster spot/3rd catcher spot tends to be awarded based on community service (and being white, but that's another story.)

Interesting and plausible ideas, but I can't help thinking that with sufficient work it ought to be possible to demonstrate either the presence or apparent total absence--as things may work out--of any "chemistry" effect. For myself, I don't believe in it: I just can't see ball players doing better or worse at the plate or on the mound because there's an aggravating jerk on the team, unless the jerk's jerkiness manifests in on-field performance (say, over-casual fielding), which in any event transforms the discussion to another topic altogether. Chemistry is Na+Cl=NaCl, not baseball performance; what front offices believe is, as it so often is, irrelevant.

It may actually be possible to look at whether a player has a discernible effect on his teammates, at least on the field. Obviously, if a player shows up and everyone else on the team seems to get a little bit worse in the field on a consistent basis, then he leaves and people get better, you've got a pretty good case that he's a cancer. You could probably model that with a hierarchical model or a mixed linear model or something like that. It'd be a fun one to set up, but probably just an engineering problem.

Eric and Pizza,

Thanks for the comments. I do agree that it would be possible to model such a thing, although I still am not sure there would be enough power to see results. Certainly it would be very difficult to determine the effects for an individual player, though with an HLM you might be able to get a distribution of the chemistry effect. It sure would be interesting to try and find out.

Really interesting, fun article. Thanks, Sky. Like the other commenters, I would love to see even more work done on this topic.

Articles like this, by the way, are why I read this site. I mean, where else do you see someone use the phrase "90th percentile of jerkiness" in reference to an actual distribution (with figures!)?

The Yankees also dumped Raul Mondesi on the D-Backs for David Delucci when he made some kind of comment about Joe Torre being racist. He was worth two wins in 98 games that season before the trade.

In our daily lives, people in a good mood, affable people, and so forth make a big difference in our performance. And people in a bad mood, nasty people, and so forth make a big difference as well. We tell better jokes, tell no jokes, etc. in the presence of the good and the bad, respectively. All sorts of performance factors pick up with better psychological indicators, according to study after study. Why is it so implausible that there would be sports effects as well? But just to re-frame the question a bit, why don't we think about the good clubhouse guys sometimes not as guys who brighten up the locker room and cheer on their teammates but as veterans who give good advice and provide coaching or mediate between the manager/assistant coaches and players, serving as a conduit for information that helps in player development. Players develop in their twenties, some more than others. That is not only from playing the game more or gaining strength. Sometimes other players tell them to flatten their swing or whatnot and the performance improves. If the performance of one player improves significantly because of the advice of the 'good' clubhouse guy, then there is the important, unseen contribution. So, that might be the place to investigate to see if there are such effects. But of course it might not be consistent. Maybe it takes a rare combination of a guy willing to give advice and one young, with tools, and ready to put it into practice with hard work. Clearly, it never happened with a Felix Pie or Cory Patterson.

Sometimes it only takes one bad moment to really hurt your team's playoff chances -- even from a terrific "chemistry" guy. Ian Kinsler had been slumping for a good three months, and probably moping a little bit about the press' and fans' growing grumbling that he swings for the fences way too much. On top of that, nearly the entire team's offensive production has been really disappointing for most of the season. During the 2nd game of a double header on the 1st of September, he hit a pretty hard ground ball to the right side that was corralled by the 2nd baseman initially, but then he lost his grip on the ball. He hurriedly grabbed the ball and was rushing to try to beat Kins' great speed when he looked up to see Ian was loafing it down the line -- he ended up being out by several steps according to the team radio announcers.

So, what does that lead to? The very next batter is Mike Young who hits a hard but very routine ground ball, then sprints like crazy out of the box as if to say, "Kins, I love you Brother, but in baseball, this is how you hustle your butt down the line"...what do you know but Young lands awkwardly on the bag at full speed and tears up his hammy. He's been out for 4 weeks except for one abortive game a little while back, and the Rangers are only 11-12 since then -- meanwhile, despite a slump of their own, the Angels Magic Number is down to 2 with 7 games remaining.

Ian, I love you, too, Brother, but you HAVE been swinging for the fences too much (worst line-drive rate in the AL), and as such, in more ways than one, it's been real harmful to the Good Guys' win totals. We still believe in you! I know things are only looking brighter in the future for you and Texas. Go Rangers!

Tthink that there is a fundamental problem in the assumptions here. Namely, Andrecheck assumes that players are signed or released purely due to their impact on wins.

What if players are signed and/or released partly because of their impact on wins, and partly because they make their bosses lives easier. That is, not issues that impact productivity, just issues that impact life.

Think of your school days. Sure, you can get good grades by being smart and working hard. But you could also get good grades by being nice and helpful to the teacher. This did not impact learning or test scores, but it DID make the teachers' jobs a bit more pleasant.

Decision-makers (e.g. managers and GMs) could well be making these decisions for personal reasons, not for reasons of impact on the bottom line.

Interesting but flawed article. You are looking at personality as driving chemistry. But sometime a negative personality drives a team. Look at the Yankees in the 1970's. It was the jerks that made the team volatile, but also drove it. Other teams are too passive, even if filled with "good guys." In other words, a guy is a positve or a negative to chemistry, given the interactions with the whole team.

It's been my observation that good chemistry is usually the result of winning, not the cause of winning.

Andy, I would say that teams like the 70's Yankees and A's won in spite of their clubhouse chemistry, not because of it. Then when a team like that wins, the press attributes it to the volitile personalities driving the team to victory. Same thing when a good clubhouse team falls flat in the postseason. The press needs to explain away what happens somehow, so they put whatever spin on it fits the story.

Josh, thanks for your comment - I definitely agree with your redefinition of "good guys".

Ceolaf, Interesting point. You may be right, although that would mean they would be sacrificing the team's fortunes for their own personal comfort. I'm not sure there's a lot of that going on in this industry.