Winning breeds chemistry: revisited


Winning breeds chemistry, and not the other way around. Happy scores make happy players. That’s one of the longtime philosophies of Dodger Thoughts, a firm stance in a debate that came up often during the clashes of the Jim Tracy-Paul DePodesta era.

The 2012 Dodgers are the first team in 10 years to tempt me with second thoughts. How else, one might ask, can a team with serious talent deficiencies in April, compounded by the loss of several players — including a superstar in Matt Kemp — to the disabled list in May, have the best record in the major leagues? In fact, since July 6, the Dodgers are 75-42, a pace that translates to 104 wins over a 162-game season, with a roster admired by few outside of Los Angeles and few others within the city limits.

Don Mattingly and his coaching staff have nurtured what would seem to be the best clubhouse atmosphere at Dodger Stadium since at least Manny Ramirez’s arrival in 2008. This is a happy, determined, focused bunch. Confident without being cocky, as the warm cliche goes.

But is that why they’re winning?

That would require us believing that chemistry is the reason Scott Van Slyke and Ivan De Jesus got their game-winning hits this week, instead of just a friendly ruling from the law of averages, that it’s the reason that Ted Lilly (Wednesday notwithstanding) and Chris Capuano have pitched beyond the highest expectations, that it’s the reason Kemp and Andre Ethier and A.J. Ellis are All-Star candidates, that it’s the reason Elian Herrera looks like a revelation despite seemingly being found on Craigslist.

It would also require us ignoring how players like Dee Gordon are performing gamely but as if immune to the good vibes, that Chad Billingsley and James Loney can’t seem to derive any consistency from them, that they can make Van Slyke heroic off the bench but do nothing for him as a starter, when he is 0 for 13.

If Herrera, for example, comes back to earth after starting his career with an .854 OPS in 28 plate appearances, we wouldn’t infer that Chemistry has left the building. We would assume that it’s because Reality has entered.

There’s more than a bit of chicken-and-egg origin theory going on here. Winning and chemistry may well feed upon each other — you don’t need to rely exclusively on one to explain the joy of the 2012 Dodgers. It’s likely that a good environment works more for some players than with others.

Still, my view remains that baseball is a sport that motivates the individual to such a degree that clubhouse factors will be secondary to talent. It is not your typical workplace. Whether you’re a ballplayer fighting to keep a roster spot or pushing for extra millions on your next contract, you have every reason to try do well.

Right now, the Dodgers have a lot of guys who are succeeding in these efforts. They have, in a sense, mostly winners — more than anyone else in baseball on this day. And that’s what feels so good.

The true mystery isn’t how it happens, because it can happen at any time. The true mystery is how long these guys can make it happen.

  • Anonymous

    Bruce Bochy on Theriot’s return from the DL: “He’s going to play,” Bochy said. “We need another bat in the lineup. He’s a proven hitter. I know he got off to a bad start….What’s going to be important for us is to get production everywhere in the lineup.”

  • Anonymous

    The Dodgers are winning this year like Arizona did last year.  What mirrors are Mattingley using this year that maybe Gibson has misplaced from last year?

  • Anonymous

    Winning and chemistry likely have a symbiotic relationship.  While examples can be found, such at the 1972-1974 A’s who won while not getting along, the 1988 Dodgers proved that attitude and camaraderie have their place in the game.  I would bet most managers would say that it is hard to have one without the other.

    • Anonymous

      I seem to recall Garvey and Sutton going after each other at least once. Other things being equal, though, I would think the manager’s job a lot easier if everyone gets along.

  • http://www.dodgerthoughts.com/ Jon Weisman

    People keep talking about the chemistry of the 1988 Dodgers, but no one mentions the 1989 Dodgers, who had largely the same team but finished fourth. 

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=713935344 Jason Ungar

      looking at it, I wouldn’t have guessed that Orel’s ERA+ were the exact same in 88 and 89 at 149. Maybe the difference is simply Gibson and 150 games of 148 OPS+ vs 50 games of 95OPS+

    • Anonymous

      I call out the 1988 Dodgers only becasue I would have expected a finish closer to the 1989 team.  An example that their success can be, at least partly, contributed to chemistry adding to talent.

  • http://www.facebook.com/seanchandra Sean Chandra

    What I hear you saying, Jon, is that motivation to succeed can only take you so far, and everyone at the highest levels of baseball has it; thus, the only thing separating a more successful team from a less successful team is raw talent. 

    I happen to think you have it backwards: everyone at the highest levels of professional baseball (and yes, this includes triple-A) has the talent to contribute to a winning big league ballclub. That talent has to be unlocked by a combination of mentoring, experience, preparation, and hard work. A supportive team-first environment helps sustain an atmosphere where players are encouraged to draw on team resources–instead of relying solely upon their innate talent–such that they are able to make the most of their abilities.

    I know this sounds touchy-feely but after all we are social creatures and although sometimes we ignore the importance of these so-called “intangibles,” I think they are of paramount importance, even in a sport like baseball where most achievement is measured individually.

    • Anonymous

      “to draw on team resources–instead of relying solely upon their innate talent–such that they are able to make the most of their abilities”.  Not sure what that means.  Could you provide examples?

  • Onlyatriple

    Do we actually know that the chemistry in this clubhouse is any better than it was say a year ago?  Whatever chemistry is, can it be measured at all? Or more precisely, would we really know if it is good or bad, or better or worse than average?  

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=713935344 Jason Ungar

      Yes we do. or I should say if you believe some of the player quotes then we do.

  • Anonymous

    The winning ways of the Dodgers – and thier team chemistry – is interesting when juxtaposed to the losing ways of the cross-town Angels, who were pre-season favorites to have a great season with the addition of Pujols and thier already formidable rotation getting the addition of CJ Wilson. Obviously, winning begets winning and losing begets losing. Momemtum, wether up (in the case of the Dodgers) or down (in the case of the Angels) is, and has always been huge in baseball, and all team sports. It’s great when you’re riding the wave, and miserable when the wave crahes down upon you. One of the great things I love about baseball is the long season – will be interesting to see how long the Dodgers can continue riding the wave, and if the Angels can ever pull themselves together and swim to the surface.

  • Anonymous

    Winning breeds chemistry::Losing erodes chemistry~# Is this true?
    I remember in recent years (perhaps 2010, 2011), but maybe 2009 and 2010, the Dodgers had approx. 10 game winning streaks followed within days by similar losing streaks. I just hope the people who have been in rapture about the Dodgers recently don’t moan if there is a reversal of fortunes. The good things about this team are real, from the minor league contribution, to A.J. and the pitching depth. If they end up over .500 I will be proud. Go Dodgers!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=713935344 Jason Ungar

     Donnie did a great thing in regards to Kemp. If your superstar is on board then the rest will follow.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t know if it’s all chemistry, but also attitude, coaching and talent.  Even when we were out of contention last year, mattingly got the attitude changed and the coaching maybe took a little time to kick in.  The talent we can debate, but Kershaw, Kemp and Ethier certainly have it. 

  • http://www.dodgerthoughts.com/ Jon Weisman

    NPUT

  • Anonymous

    It’s both.  There is very little question that the reason that the Dodgers have had a great record since July is, in large part, because they have the best pitcher and the best everyday player in the league.  Two guys who are immensely talented superstars (it is hard to think of a team that has such a clear 1-2 punch from both a pitching and an offensive side).  And, they have been surrounded by guys who have had a lot of talent (and used it) themselves–Andre Ethier is an All-Star who has proven that when he is fully healthy, could be a superstar himself.  Loney is a great gloveman who since July has been hitting pretty well (and is starting to come through this season).  And the beat goes on–even if people don’t pay as much attention (not a lot of folks pay attention to 30-year old rookie catchers with limited pop, but AJ Ellis’s successs is not a fluke.)

    And young guys like Scott Van Slyke and Ivan DeJesus are incredibly talented baseball players.  They could well become superstars for all we know at this point–it’s always easy to see at the end of a career that a baseball player was going to be great or not great, it’s hard to know at the outset.

    But even then, I may not say that the Dodgers have the best talent in baseball , so what makes a good team great?  I think that the other half of the equation (or 20%) is how a team approaches a game and a season.  The comparison of the 1988 vs. 1989 Dodgers is a good example.  Orel was just as good in 1989 as in 1988, but just without a period of inhuman domination (not just 59 scoreless innings, but 67 innings, into his first playoff start, back-to-back shutouts in the NLCS and World Series, and a post-seasons ERA just over 1, pitching entirely on 3-days of rest or less).  But Gibson was hurt all year, and never the same, Sax left to Free Agency, and the “chemistry” was not the same.

    The 2012 Dodgers certainly have some of that chemistry in common with the 1988 Dodgers.  Moreover, Donnie’s Dodgers have had that same attitude since he took over.  Last year’s team could have easily phoned-in the second half.  They were under .500, way back in the standings, and had all of the ownership drama surrounding the team.  They did not have much to play for.  But they kept coming at you.  They did not stop, and had an August-September run that would have been legendary if they did not start so far in the hole (or if Arizona had not played just as well).  And that attitude has carried over into 2012.  The D-Backs game the other night when they were down 6-1 would have been easy to just give up on.  Put the reserves in, let a position player pitch, get in there and swing at first pitches and maybe try the next day.  I admit it–I couldn’t bare to check back in on the game (I could not watch it, but did not follow it on espn.com mobile when I saw the score.  But the Dodgers did not do that.  And instead they came back to win.  And that happens a lot.  They may not always win, but they don’t quit.  And a few successes (the comeback against the D-Backs, like Gibson scoring from second on a wild pitch) are the types of games that teams will remember to motivate them to not give up the next time–and that builds on itself.  And thus, success breeds chemistry.

    Most importantly, it takes talent to win.  And if you have enough talent to win, it all seems like better chemistry. But good chemistry, or attitude or approach, still matters.  If you have good talent, but the season seems like a lost cause, or the game seems like a lost cause, the talent just won’t come out and take over.

    It’s a one-in-a-million shot that Gibson hits that homer in Game 1.  That’s just luck.  But attitude, chemistry, approach–whatever you call it–is what got Gibson off the trainer’s table and hitting off the tee, to allow him to get that chance.

    THe 2012 Dodgers have some of that same attitude.  They are not going to stop.  They are going to battle, and if they lose, they are coming at you the next day.  There are a lot of reasons–I give plenty of credit to Mattingly and his coaches, but it helps that Matt Kemp has transformed not just into a superstar, but a leader on the point.  It helps that Clayton Kershaw has a seemingly unstoppable fire (to the D-Backs’ and Gerardo Parra’s disastisfaction).  But whatever the cause, the Dodgers have an approach which means that their talent is always playing hard, every inning, every day.  And in “a game of inches,” that can make the difference.

    • Anonymous

      But the numbers indicate that they are not a “comeback” team.  Even with that most recent comeback they are only 2-9 when behind at the beginning of the 5th.  They are a get-ahead-and-stay-there team with a record of 14-3 when ahead after the first.

    • Anonymous

      Scott VanSlyke and Ivan deJesus are incredibly talented players who could become superstars?  Hello?

    • Anonymous

      Nice post leekfink but I disagree with Gibby’s homer being luck. “Gibson would later recount that prior to the Series, Dodger scout Mel Didier had provided a report on Eckersley which claimed that with a 3–2 count against a left-handed hitter, one could be absolutely certain that Eckersley would throw a backdoor slider.[3] Gibson said that when the count reached 3–2, he stepped out of the batter’s box and, in his mind, could hear Didier’s voice, with its distinctive Southern drawl, reiterating that same piece of advice.[3] With that thought in mind, Gibson stepped back into the batter’s box; and thus when Eckersley did in fact throw a backdoor slider, it was exactly the pitch Gibson was expecting.” That ain’t luck.
       Furthermore, before Gibson was even sent to the plate : “With a one-run lead, Oakland closer Dennis Eckersley, who led the AL with 45 saves during the regular season, was brought in to close out the game and seal the win for starter Dave Stewart. Eckersley quickly got Scioscia to pop out to shortstop and struck out Jeff Hamilton. Left-handed Pinch hitter Mike Davis followed; if he got on base the next batter due was the pitcher’s spot, which would certainly be filled with a pinch hitter. Not wanting the A’s to realize that Gibson was available, Lasorda sent Dave Anderson to the on-deck circle during Davis’ plate appearance.[3] A’s catcher Ron Hassey got Eckersley’s attention and pointed at Anderson on-deck.[4] Eckersley, who had seen Davis hit for power in the American League, decided he would rather walk Davis, assuming perhaps that the right-handed hitting Anderson would prove to be the easier out. Instead of risking making a mistake that Davis could hit for a game-tying home run, Eckersley pitched carefully and did in fact walk him.”
      Instead of sending Anderson to the plate, Lasorda sent in Gibson. There was a lot going on leading up to that blast by Gibson – none of which was luck.

      • Anonymous

        Bob_Hendley–I am going to selectively use your stats to make my point.  The walk-off losses are not, to my mind, a sgn of a failure of “character,” but rather just a result of bad luck or getting beat that day.  But comeback wins demonstrate that a team, talented or not, does not give up–even if they do not always win.  I admit, it’s a bit broad, but I think it fits within the whole line of the issues.

        Dondemester–I admit I may be overstating it.  It was very late.  But my broad point is that these are clearly good players.  Will they be short-term big leaguers who never make it, or superstars.  Hard to know.  Andy LaRoche was the most vaunted of the Jacksonville 5, and he is the only one that does not have a major league job.  On the other hand, AJ Ellis, even though drafted the same year as Matt Kemp, was never expected to be a major factor in the big leagues.  So my only point is you never know.

        AaSsWW–There were definitely strategic decisions, training, scouting, etc., that went into Gibson’s home run.  I agree with that.  it adds to my point, I think.  There are factors beyond talent–which can be part of chemistry, which made the difference for the 1988 Dodgers.  That being said, the home run was still pretty lucky.  Even knowing that Eck would throw a backdoor slider, Eckersley gets that pitch past most hitters most of the time (for 16 years, everyone has known that Mariano Rivera is going to throw the cutter, and they still mostly cannot hit it).  If Gibson, in his conidition, and Eckersley, in the top form he was in back in 1988, faced each other 100 times, Gibson hits that home run maybee once.  I don’t mean to downplay that home run, but the fact that it is so unlikely helps make it what it was.