Throughout his impressive career, Theo Epstein has always been in search of the next edge, the next competitive advantage, the next market inefficiency.
In the early stages of the analytics revolution, that edge was as simple as valuing players who get on base more often than others. You know the story. After that, there was defensive shifting, matchup relievers, groundball pitchers, the fly ball revolution and, of course, a whole lot more.
But whenever we think about the next competitive advantage Epstein might be seeking, we think about two things: (1) pitcher health, and (2) finding the right players in terms of who they are as people. Focusing here on that second one, team chemistry – previously thought to be the stuff of old school poppycock – is something Epstein values highly.
Of course, it’s not exactly a science. In fact, it feels like a far cry from the data-driven mission of most Epstein-led front offices, right? Well, maybe it isn’t.
At the Wall Street Journal, Jared Diamond writes about an on-going research project from the University of California, Berkley, wherein players of one of the Giants’ minor league affiliates are wearing GoPro cameras in the dugout at all times. The study is meant to monitor, categorize, and quantify the effects of team chemistry.
“Chemistry is absolutely critical,” Said Houston Astros GM Jeff Luhnow via the Wall Street Journal, “but very few teams or managers or general managers know how to create it.” Perhaps that’s about to change. According to Diamond, forward-thinking franchises wills soon be able not only to measure the impact of chemistry, but also, and ultimately, “weaponize it” to their advantage. Whoa.
And the Giants, Astros, and Cubs are not alone. Brewers GM David Stearns echoes the sentiment and suggests that there’s a “quest within the industry” to find out more about this particularly interesting and potential edge.
A separate group of researchers recently presented some additional and Cubs-related data on the matter of team chemistry. Using a mathematical model, they were able to pinpoint certain teams that consistently outperform the individual contributions of their players (you’ll be unsurprised to learn that the Cardinals and Giants both made the short list). Similarly, they tracked down individual players who consistently show up on teams that happen to overachieve.
One of those players: David Ross.
When these researchers turned their attention to Ross and the 2016 Cubs, Ross suggested that it’s not only something the whole league is searching to crack, but something to which the Cubs have paid special attention.
Taking it a step further, Bill James, one of the foremost statistical analysts in baseball, added that what some people perceive as silly stunts and jokes (referring specifically to Joe Maddon’s creative events and trips), are actually “a very sophisticated way of managing the chemistry of his locker room.”
The Cubs’ new circular locker room comes in for some praise (as does the decision to let go of Miguel Montero, despite his contributions with the bat), but I don’t want to digress.
So what about this Cubs’ season, in particular? Obviously, the Cubs are without Ross, but they still have Maddon, the locker room, Theo Epstein, and, hey, let’s be fair, Anthony Rizzo, to bring everyone together. Is the team still, somehow, losing its chemistry?
“No,” says Joe Maddon in an article at CSN Chicago, “because there’s no reason to.” Patrick Mooney, who wrote the article at CSN, seems to imply that Maddon may not be entirely right about that, quoting John Lackey’s frank post-game comments about Maddon’s (lack of) involvement with his pitchers. But Maddon sticks to his guns and adds that the lack of chemistry is due to the fact that there’s not only a lot of youth in the dugout, but also a lot of injuries to key guys throughout the year. Both of which are certainly true.
At one point or another this June, alone, the Cubs were playing without Addison Russell (shoulder, personal issues), Ben Zobrist (wrist), Jason Heyward (hand), Kyle Hendricks (hand), Kyle Schwarber (Triple-A), and Miguel Montero (DFA’d). While, at the same time, fielding rookies like Victor Caratini, Jeimer Candelario, Ian Happ, and Mark Zagunis. That’s a lot of personnel changes to go through in a month (and it’s hardly everyone/everything).
What about Epstein, himself? How does he see this team differ from last year’s iteration? Well, for one, Epstein told CSN that last year’s team really rallied around this idea of breaking the curse. More specifically, he said that they knew they were in a position to do something special and they all felt like they were apart of something bigger than themselves. This year, obviously, that’s a bit different, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
After all, Epstein says that a new identity has to form every season no matter what it and the Cubs are just still in the process of discovering it. Hopefully, they find it soon, because the more we learn, the more we’re realizing that chemistry matters. A lot.