Teams in MLB are always looking for an edge over the competition. Baseball evaluators are passing on talented headcases and now valuing the impact to team chemistry when looking to draft a player or add a free agent to the most fragile of places – their team’s locker room.
Is a sixth tool about to be introduced when evaluating baseball players? It seems that the trend among GMs is placing a heavier focus on psychological make-ups and considering how a player fits into the puzzle that is locker room chemistry and bypassing talent that comes with unwanted baggage (re: character issues).
Other sports have seen overall performance improve with positive changes to team chemistry – crediting improved organization dynamics, highlights from Steve Kerr’s first three seasons as coach of the Golden State Warriors include a championship, the best regular-season record in NBA history, signing Kevin Durant to leave an environment where he was the number one option, and just this week, the Warriors clinched a playoff spot by the earliest date in NBA history.
Similarly, and granted this season hasn’t gone to form, the team ethos (multi-millionaires fought hard for rewards like pizza lunch) set up by Claudio Ranieri at Leicester at the start of last year’s English Premier League is credited with the most unexpected league championship ever in a major soccer league as Leicester overtook some of the most expensive teams ever assembled to win the title in England by ten points.
The sport that pioneered the Moneyball-style analytics that now has a significant role in all major sports could be leaning back to a time where a player’s character was part of a scouting report. Leading this charge, as you might have guessed, are the Chicago Cubs under Theo Epstein. In an interview with the New York Times, the Cubs have formalized as part of their draft process the philosophy of “scouting the person more than the player.”
“In the draft room, we will always spend more than half the time talking about the person rather than the player,” Epstein said. “What are their backgrounds, their psyches, their habits, and what makes them tick?
Cubs scouts are also asked to dig deep into their backgrounds and find three examples of how a player handles adversity on the field but also three examples of handling adversity in their life so that the Cubs can evaluate how someone will handle a sport “built on failure” with a success rate of three in ten (if they are a good hitter) or losing at least sixty times in a season (for the best teams).
It’s not just the current champions that are focusing on character and team chemistry. The free agents that the Phillies signed this offseason were mostly veterans with high character reputations brought in on one-year deals to create a positive locker-room atmosphere and act as role models for younger players expecting to be on the major league club for the first time and will ultimately replace the same group of veterans brought in on one year deals.
Phillies GM Matt Klentak describes the impact personalities can have on his young Philadelphia club this way:
“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.”
While character is becoming an important consideration at the draft and in free agency, the negative effects of character can sideswipe the ambitions of even the most talented teams. New York Yankees GM Brian Cashman talks about the ‘drain’ a talented player lacking that sixth tool can have on a team, particularly in the large media markets. When negative questions about a teammate are front and center, it becomes a problem for everyone in the locker room.
With MLB teams using similar evaluation tools and the talent levels among teams being at (relatively) comparable levels, the margins for winning in baseball are so thin that any edge can make the difference. Locker room chemistry looks like it could be the next big ‘Moneyball’-style trend for baseball.