Behind MLB chemistry: How teams try to sniff out ‘bad guys’
By Ken Davidoff February 25, 2017
TAMPA — Let’s start by dispelling one misperception: Goose Gossage does not spend spring training chasing kids off his lawn.
The Hall of Fame closer, a Yankees guest instructor, smiles and jokes his way through his time George M. Steinbrenner Field. He befriends anyone and everyone whose path he crosses. That he sounds like a troglodyte in interviews has no bearing on his actual behavior.
Now let’s blow up one misperception championed by Goose himself: Baseball is not, as he put it recently to NJ.com, “being run by a computer.”
Actually, in accordance with the dramatic evolution of statistical analysis, mastery of a player’s intangible and unquantifiable qualities may be more important than ever. Old-school detective work and, really, guesswork remain prominent as front offices try to determine not only a player’s value on the field, but also his assets and liabilities in the clubhouse.
“I do believe that — especially if you’re in a large market and you bring aboard someone that is a massive problem, that has a lot of issues — those issues become everybody’s issues, and they do drain on you,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. “They drain on the collective over the course of spring training and the 162-game regular season. Your teammates’ problems become your problems, which becomes an issue, a distraction and a fatigue factor that’s going to come with it.
“I do think that prevents you from being the best you overall can be. I believe in that. Whereas 20 years ago, you can bring anybody in and survive that. Now I don’t think it’s as easy — with social media, TMZ and stuff like that. Because you’re too busy instead of talking about the game and the results and the competition, you’re too busy talking about something that’s going on off the field or not game-related constantly. It’s a pain. It’s a problem.”
It is, be it positive or negative, real. Some analytics enthusiasts have attempted to conflate the rise of the drastically improved measures with the pooh-poohing of concepts like chemistry and culture. The new generation of front-office executives, these enthusiasts profess, worry only about the concrete.
Nope. You won’t find a GM, no matter how analytically inclined, who doesn’t possess a strong interest in how a player interacts with others.
Matt Klentak, who became the Phillies’ GM in the fall of 2015, still is in his 30s and carries the reputation of a modern thinker. Asked how much he contemplates the personalities of his players, Klentak said, “I think it’s incredibly important, and I think particularly for us, where we stand right now, there are so many young players that are either in the big leagues or on the cusp of making the big leagues. Making sure that those players are entering an environment that is supportive of the growth and the learning that needs to take place, it’s critical.”
In Klentak’s second full season running the Phillies, he acquired a bevy of veterans — Joaquin Benoit, Clay Buchholz, Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders — on one-year contracts. The group collectively (albeit some more than others) carries a strong reputation as leaders.
“That was not an accident,” Klentak said.
The methodology to research a player’s character hasn’t undergone anything approaching the sort of transformation we’ve seen when it comes to a player’s performance. Nevertheless, some obvious updates have become standard operating procedure. Teams will check out a prospective free agent’s social-media accounts.
“But it doesn’t mean that if they’ve got a pristine social-media record, then [it will prevent] all of a sudden when you come over here, next thing you know, all hell breaks loose,” Cashman said. “You try to use everything in your disposal to try to form an opinion, but it doesn’t mean the opinion is going to be accurate. Nor does it mean the opinion is going to hold.”
“The players are scrutinized to a degree we’ve never seen before in this game,” Klentak said. “And with that comes accountability. I don’t know if that by itself is a bad thing. But I think the way we construct a roster, the way the manager manages a group of 25 men, has to account for all of that.”
“Everybody just knows who the bad guys are now,” he said. “Before, it would have to take something to happen. Now, it can be a tweet. It can be anything. … It’s not a big deal. You root them out faster.”
The changes in statistical analysis allow the teams to manage risk like never before.
“You’re in a better position to assess what really is taking place on the field, where before it was opinion on something that you’re seeing 50 to 75 feet in the stands away,” Cashman said. “It’s someone’s opinion on how they perceive someone’s play and action and stuff over the course of a small sample period. Now you have full access to kind of dissect and peel the onion on someone and get a real educated position on what actually that play is and how it projects moving forward.”
On the aspect of a player’s personality, however, the risk hasn’t gone away.
“You can never predict how someone’s going to react to big money,” Cashman said. “Someone who’s hungry playing for a year-to-year versus how they act when they get a five-year deal with big-time money. Does it change their interest and effort? Are they going to become content? You can’t predict stuff like that.”
“I think most teams are looking for an edge, however they can get one,” Klentak said. “And if it comes in the form of elite scouting, or better analytics departments and technologies, or in the form of nutrition or player development … we’re all looking for competitive advantages. If the environment for the players allows them to perform at a higher level, that creates an advantage.”
The optimal environment, with an optimal group of 25, represents baseball’s final frontier. And it always will require a human touch to be as right as possible.