At the Swan and Dolphin Resort during this week's winter meetings, there are a lot of baseball experts talking about talent, resorting to on-base percentage and WAR to evaluate value.
But how do you measure chemistry? How does having a good clubhouse guy improve your team and your ability to win on the field? And how do you rebound when you lose one?
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That’s one of the questions facing Orioles manager Buck Showalter right now after the club traded closer Jim Johnson to the Oakland Athletics last week and also lost outfielder Nate McLouth and right-hander Scott Feldman to free agency.
Johnson was just the second closer in baseball history to record back-to-back 50-save seasons, but the lifelong Oriole was also one of the clubhouse’s unquestioned leaders.
He was the glue that held the bullpen together, one of the team’s most respected veterans and the players’ union representative. Showalter trusted Johnson to be one of the guys who could police the clubhouse, keep everything in order and build chemistry among the group.
Simply put, he was a "fireman" in more ways that one. Johnson extinguished fires on the field and also inside the Orioles clubhouse.
Some fans shrugged it off when Johnson was dealt. Some say that he cost the Orioles a trip to the postseason because he blew nine saves, but that's a flawed argument.
But can you measure his value in his ability to keep the clubhouse united? Does that go into the $10 million he was projected to get through arbitration? What’s the cost of losing him and risking a mutiny?
Those are the questions that probably aren't asked enough when assembling a team.
McLouth and Feldman, while not in Orioles uniforms as long, were also solid clubhouse guys. There wasn’t a player in the Orioles clubhouse who didn’t like McLouth and his hustle. And Feldman arrived in Baltimore last July with a solid reputation and several forged relationships from his days with the Texas Rangers.
So how do you replace chemistry? You can’t measure it on Baseball Reference or FanGraphs, but it’s obviously one of the keys to success. Just look at the Boston Red Sox’s transformation from worst to first.
That’s what I asked Showalter on Tuesday during his media session with reporters here at the winter meetings.
“You asked a great question,” Showalter said. “You can't put that sabermetrics on Johnson, Nate. ... We hope to replace them with guys that bring similar contributions other than playing the game. ... There are some other guys that might step up, having a year under their belt they hadn't before. Let's face it, chemistry comes from winning games, to start off with. You can start with good chemistry out in the spring. But if you go 0-30 in April, I bet your chemistry isn't real good. It runs hand in hand."
Showalter is one who works hard on establishing chemistry in his clubhouse. And Showalter always does his homework, and that includes talking to other people around the game to see if a player would be a fit not only on the field, but off it as well.
“You've got to get the people. I don't apologize for spending a lot of time trying to fit that as part of the equation and evaluation,” Showalter said. “Same thing that ... everybody else tries to do. Sometimes some people can overpower the game physically, talentwise, see some clubs do that, but the beauty of our season is so long, some other things get in the way sometimes.”
Some baseball experts will say that chemistry is overrated, that between the lines, physical and mental strength take over. Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon, whose teams have translated chemistry into repeated runs to the playoffs, isn’t one of those people.
“If we don't have that relationship built within our clubhouse that we've done over the last several years, I don't think we'd have won consistently as many games as we've won,” Maddon said. “Beyond all the great information, great scouting, whatever. It's all tied together. Everything's tied together. ... Beyond the good plan or the great research wonderful skilled players, it's the ability to bring them all together that matters the most. So the intangible, immeasurable part of the game, to me, that is a feel thing, and you have to be aware of it and believe that it's important. If you do, you'll look for it, monitor it, try to adjust it daily if it's necessary, and it's something, again, that can't be felt or necessarily seen. It's just something that you've got to be aware of.”
Showalter is one of the biggest subscribers to that theory. And for a field manager, that has to be one of the toughest challenges, especially during the course of a 162-game season.
During the Orioles’ run to the playoffs in 2012, the clubhouse chemistry was invaluable, and even though the Orioles didn’t make a repeat trip to the postseason this year, the stability inside the clubhouse set the stage for success for years to come.
That’s why, when Johnson was traded, Showalter was forced to go on damage control. He received several messages from players who wanted to know why the club traded Johnson.
“That’s part of my job and they care,” he said. “I like to think I do, too, and they deserve to hear from me about those things. So, it’s not pleasant, but you have to. You have to.”
And while Showalter will never say it, he had to be upset about the Johnson trade as well. After working so hard to develop that bond in the clubhouse, it can fracture easily. Showalter said he had multiple conversations with Johnson since the trade -- “The first one didn’t last too long, the second one was better.” -- but it hasn’t been easy to say goodbye.
“I’m not good at saying goodbyes, especially when a guy is leaving our organization,” Showalter said. “The things you ask them to do and the things you ask them to commit to, and then you get it from them and they get a return from it and the team gets a return from it and their teammates get a return from it. And then the business part takes over and it’s ‘bye’. It’s tough. ... I miss the players. I look forward to seeing them in the spring. And there are some guys I won’t see, but I will see them again.”