There’s been a lot of discussion about leadership and chemistry around Major League Baseball recently. Much of it has stemmed from the disarray and dismissals in the Seattle Mariners organization. First, there was the dugout confrontation among Chone Figgins (who had a reputation as a great teammate), Russell Branyan, and manager Don Wakamatsu. Then there was the firing of Wakamatsu, pitching coach Rick Adair, bench coach Ty Van Burkleo, and performance coach Steve Hecht. The former incident coaxed USS Mariner and FanGraphs author Dave Cameron to invoke the now-(in)famous words of Detroit skipper Jim Leyland:
“Shucks, I can find a nice bunch of guys you want in the clubhouse. I can find that…. Take all that clubhouse [stuff] and all that, throw it out the window. Every writer in the country has been writing about that [nonsense] for years. Chemistry don’t mean [anything]…. don’t mean [a hill of beans]. [The Nationals] got good chemistry because their team is improved, they got a real good team, they got guys knocking in runs, they got a catcher hitting .336, they got a phenom pitcher they just brought up. That’s why they’re happy.”
This sort of statement tends to make a certain type of fan very happy. It supports the conviction that veteran leadership and clubhouse chemistry are overrated, at best, and that what’s important is, by and large, what can be measured.
Now, somehow I seem to have developed a reputation as a “stathead” or a “stat geek” in the Rangers’ stretch of the Intertubes. That’s certainly nothing I’d claim for myself; I’m no Tom Tango. (I wish I were.) So it may come as a surprise to some that I disagree.
But my disagreement doesn’t fly in the face of my predilection for the numerical. Just because I can’t tell you how many runs leadership and chemistry are worth, or how many wins they buy a team, doesn’t mean that they aren’t important.
It also doesn’t mean these admittedly abstract concepts can’t be quantified. It’s certainly plausible that an enterprising researcher could develop measures and models that try to capture the effects of leadership and clubhouse camaraderie. (Seem outlandish? Read up on the Wonderlic, the wonderfully named PAPI, and other similar tools, and think about how they might be applied to the question at hand.)
I will, however, agree with Leyland on one point: the way that many in the media write about leadership and chemistry makes them easy targets for critics.
Only July 30, Jeff Wilson printed a mailbag item from “Marla” in Arlington. “Marla” wrote,
“Stat-head websites that claim they only root for team laundry will tell everyone within earshot that the Rangers need to get rid of Michael Young ASAP because his weirdly obscure secondary stats such as FLIP, BATTY (and whatever other acronyms they come up with) are not good enough.“
Wilson responded sympathetically:
“Silly things happen when statistics dictate the way someone views a player. Unfortunately, for players like Young and Dustin Pedroia and Todd Helton, there is no statistic that measures professionalism, leadership, respect from peers, and importance to a franchise. Not even Jeter is immune to the stats lovers. His range, for instance, is an easy target. But would the Yankees be a better team without Jeter? The stats can be manipulated to show that they would be, but there would be an enormous hole in the clubhouse that no stat can possibly explain. The Rangers would also take a giant hit if Young weren't around.”
I’d argue that far sillier things happen when sensationalism dictates the way journalists answer a question.
I haven’t read a single analysis by any knowledgeable “stats lover” who has manipulated stats in order to prove that the Yankees would be a better team without Derek Jeter. If I’ve missed seeing such research, I hope Jeff Wilson will point it out to me, and explain the statistical manipulation it’s based on. I would be game to read and respond to it.
Meantime, though, consider this: According to FanGraphs, Jeter has been worth at least 3.5 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) in every single season since 1997. In six of those 13 seasons, Jeter has been worth 5 WAR or more. In four of those seasons, he’s been worth 6 WAR or more – and twice, he’s been above 7 WAR. At the same time, Jeter has consistently ranked near the bottom of all shortstops by Mitchel Lichtman’s Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and John Dewan’s +/- system.
For those who might object to WAR, UZR, and +/- as batty or flippant measures employed only by “stat-head websites,” let me boil it down: overall, Jeter’s been really good for most of his career. Really, really good. That doesn’t mean that his defense hasn’t been really bad.
Now, does that mean that a hypothetically unplanned Jeter departure wouldn’t hurt the Yankees? Don’t be silly. Of course it doesn’t. In fact, if I had to bet (and if there were actually some way that the matter could be objectively and definitively settled) I’d bet that Jeter leaving the Bronx would hurt the ballclub – not just because of the reduced performance by any expected replacement at short, but also due to the loss of his leadership and contributions in the clubhouse.
At the same time, I’d imagine that any such wounds could be healed by a sufficiently awesome replacement. If the Yankees somehow swapped Jeter out for Hanley Ramirez, for example, or even Troy Tulowitzki, how much angst do you think the clubhouse hole would really generate among Yankees players? How many wins would it cost the team? How much damage would the Yankees’ 2010 World Series chances take – and what would the deal do for their outlook in 2011 and beyond?
Bringing it back to Texas: it’s not as if the Rangers haven’t dealt with the unexpected vanishing of popular clubhouse leaders before. Think back to early April 2006, for example, when Jon Daniels pulled the trigger on a deal sending David Dellucci – the player responsible for the most famous double in Rangers history – to Philadelphia for pitcher Robinson Tejeda and Hank Blalock’s littler brother Jake. Key Rangers were, safe to say, not pleased:
"It was a huge shock," shortstop Michael Young said Sunday morning. "I didn't see it coming. I'm absolutely shocked that one of our better players and a perfect teammate was traded before Opening Day.”
"I was very disappointed," first baseman Mark Teixeira said. "David was my best friend on the team. He'll be missed by everybody. I don't think anybody is happy about it. He's probably the most popular player on the team and a big part of our great team chemistry."
Dellucci joined the Rangers in 2004. That year, according to FanGraphs, he put up a .242 /.342/.441 line (a .339 wOBA). In 2005, also with Texas, he hit .251/.367/.513 (a .378 wOBA). He was 32 that season.
In 2006, with the Phillies, he nearly duplicated his 2005, going .292./369/.530 (.377 wOBA). Subsequently, his wOBAs were .293, .311, and .236 respectively, in seasons in which he played 56, 113, and 22 major-league games. He retired in 2009.
2005 was, far and away, Dellucci’s best year by WAR. The Rangers literally sold him at his peak value. And even at that point, Dellucci was only the seventh-most valuable position player for Texas, trailing Teixeira, Young, Gary Matthews, Jr., Rod Barajas, Kevin Mench, and Alfonso Soriano in WAR.
And remember: that wasn’t a very good 2005 Texas team. The Rangers finished 79-83, 16 games back of the division-winning Angels and seven back of the second-place A’s. Maybe Dellucci was the perfect teammate, the most popular player, and a big part of some great team chemistry – but how much would all of that have helped the 80-82 2006 edition of the team, which finished 13 games behind the AL West-champion A’s and four behind the second-place Angels? The 2006 squad underperformed its Pythagorean by six games. Anyone want to argue those were all due to Dellucci’s effect on team chemistry? If not, how many more wins would Dellucci’s leadership and popularity have garnered? (And how does that compare to the number of wins Dellucci’s bat would have created, against the compensation that Tejeda represented?)
For a more recent case, consider the handwringing over the departure of Marlon Byrd, Kevin Millwood, Eddie Guardado, and Omar Vizquel this past off-season. In early December, for example, Evan Grant observed,
If the Rangers deal Millwood and fail to sign Marlon Byrd along with letting Eddie Guardado and Omar Vizquel walk, there is going to be virtually no veteran leadership in the clubhouse. It would all fall on the shoulders of Michael Young and one man can't lead an entire team by himself. Don't think a team lacking in clubhouse policing would be an issue? OK, just wait.
OK: we’ll wait. While we do, we’ll have time to reflect on this:
“There are a lot of reasons why dealing Millwood would make sense now, namely that the Rangers would be trading him at higher value than he's probably worth. And I'm not advocating that the Rangers shouldn't deal him. But any suggestion that the Rangers can take the one veteran presence in their rotation out of the mix and still contend in 2010 is simply incongruous. If the Rangers deal him, they should also announce at the same press conference that the timetable for contending moved back at least one more year.”
Granted, the Rangers have taken a hit by losing Marlon Byrd to the Cubs in free agency. Veteran leadership and clubhouse policing, however, aren’t the first reasons that leap to mind. Those would be Byrd’s continued performance at the plate (.311/.371/.465 – a .370 wOBA) and in centerfield (16 DRS and 16.7 UZR/150 in 916 innings – though it’s worth noting that Byrd’s CF UZR and DRS have bounced around considerably over the last several years). Sadly, neither those numbers nor Byrd’s "emotional leadership" have helped the Cubs climb within 15 games of the NL Central lead – or, for that matter, of a .500 record.
Maybe it’s just that I don’t understand what media types mean when they write about these concepts. A recent piece at ESPN.com, for example, listed three primary reasons the Rangers are in first place in the AL West. The third was “veteran leadership,” and under that heading, the piece cited Cliff Lee, Young, Nelson Cruz, Josh Hamilton, Vladimir Guerrero, Elvis Andrus, and Ian Kinsler as examples. It’s worth noting that Lee has been with the Rangers for a month; Guerrero, seven months. This is the second full year for Cruz and the soon-to-be 22-year old Andrus, and the third full year for Hamilton. (I’ll leave it to readers to debate whether Kinsler qualifies as a veteran leader.)
And so nearly 1,800 words later, we arrive at Michael Young. You knew we would. I know you’ve been waiting for it. I know you’re expecting me to bash him.
So here it is: I think that Young is a Rangers version of Jeter. His bat still plays well at his position; he doesn’t field his position well at all, and never really has; and although his annual salary may at times outstrip his seasonal performance, cumulatively, he’s probably worth the price the Rangers have been paying for him.
I also agree with Evan Grant. Young can’t lead this team by himself. I agree with Jeff Wilson, as well: Young means a lot to this team as a leader, and (to borrow Young's words about Dellucci) is a big part of the Rangers’ great team chemistry.
And all that said: if the Rangers could trade Young for Evan Longoria straight up, I’m willing to bet that the giant hits (and great glove) Longoria would bring to the table would far outweigh any “great hit” to the Rangers chemistry, especially if Longoria chewed out Julio Borbon once or twice.
Despite my lack of expertise on the subject, I’ll hazard the claim that it’s an advantage for a team to have good chemistry, and to boast strong leaders – veteran, emotional, and otherwise. I’ll speculate that the claw, the antlers, the shaving-cream pies, and the pink backpack help keep players loose over the heavy grind of the season. I’ll venture that guys who’ve been there and done that – and who won’t accept anything less than a full 162-game effort – most likely help a team maintain focus and intensity, even when boasting a 7.5-game lead in the division.
More than anything, though, I’m willing to bet that over the next several years, the number of plaudits for Young’s, Jeter’s, and others’ leadership qualities will be directly proportional to the numbers they produce at the plate and the number of wins and playoff successes their teams rack up. Because as happy as this “stats lover” is to concede that leadership and chemistry are most likely noteworthy elements of building a contender, I’m also willing to wager that the most valuable leaders in baseball score as highly on the leader boards as they do in any popularity contests – and that in the end, the best catalyst for good chemistry is winning.