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.