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Back-to-Back Lousy Seasons Bring Chemistry Questions to Forefront for Twins

Warne openly questions whether chemistry is a big thing for teams in the major leagues.

Jesse Johnson-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

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]. He’s up here because he’s good.
That don’t mean [a hill of beans]. They 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.
-Jim Leyland, Detroit Tigers manager on chemistry, June 2010

As you can probably well glean from the quote selected, I’m not a huge proponent of clubhouse chemistry. When a club is winning chemistry is often good, and when a club is losing, chemistry can be good, bad, or otherwise.

Let me set the scene:

Scott Baker ambles through the clubhouse. He hasn’t pitched all season, and is probably going to be a free agent at season’s end. He stops briefly to talk to Glen Perkins, the team’s best reliever, before moving past reporters to go out and play catch on his way back from rehab. The team is going nowhere, and Baker may well pitch for someone else next season, yet the two engage in conversation -- which appears cordial -- like most would expect from two teammates without any well-documented animosity.

What does this say about the club’s chemistry? Maybe something, maybe nothing, to be frank.

Let’s consider another interaction:

Reliever Tyler Robertson shuffles over to the corner locker which used to be occupied by Michael Cuddyer. In the Twins clubhouse, the four corners are occupied by pillars of the organization. Last year the four corners were occupied by Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Joe Nathan, and Cuddyer. This year, the two lockers vacated are occupied by Carl Pavano’s equipment -- not a slight on Pavano whatsoever -- and Jamey Carroll, whom Robertson specifically wants to talk to. So what’s on Robertson’s mind? Fantasy football. "Which defense do I start?" Robertson asks the grizzled vet. "I have the Packers or the Lions." Carroll considers for a minute before dispensing what could pass for expert-level analysis, advising -- if I recall correctly -- the tall lefty to go with the Packers D because he liked that matchup better than the 49ers-Lions one.

The roles for Carroll and Robertson could not be any more disparate. As an aside, the Twins do an excellent job of setting up locker arrangements, having placed Carroll right next to youngsters Pedro Florimon and Eduardo Escobar. Robertson’s locker is across the room, and in a sense it works. Carroll is a veteran shortstop in the twilight of his career. He’s a team leader, essentially replacing Cuddyer as the guy who has to stand up and take the heat when reporters need answers or someone to just casually chat with. Robertson, on the other hand, is a quiet, unassuming reliever who at best is probably 50-50 to make next season’s club out of spring training. Carroll is under contract for next year with an option for the year after that. And still, these guys find common ground, and chat as though they’re brothers.

This would seem to illustrate -- certainly on the small scale -- good ‘clubhouse chemistry’, no? How about one more story:

Tom Kelly’s voice can be heard clear down the hallway. He enters the clubhouse wearing a suit, and Carroll greets him with "that’s an awful lot of days in a row wearing a suit, isn’t it TK?" TK spouts back something no doubt unquotable -- profanity-laced but somehow still charming -- and leaves the reporters in the room in stitches. Wayne "Big Fella" Hattaway -- the venerable clubhouse attendant who is constantly donning a ballcap with "Boss" embroidered on it -- makes the mistake of trying to traverse the room while TK is holding court, and TK unloads with an amazing, gut-busting -- and again, probably unfit for print -- story about Hattaway on a bus trip, leaving the entire room, including a small smattering of position players, writers, clubbies, and Big Fella himself all gasping for air from laughing so hard. Entering play today, the Twins and Miami Marlins are separated by 1.5 games, but I can guarantee you there is nobody laughing like that in the Marlins clubhouse. When Greg Dobbs has to clear out the clubhouse so the team can listen to their own manager talk -- somewhat derisively at that -- about a player, you can tell that situation is toxic.

Again, this clubhouse in a lot of ways looks and sounds like the clubhouse of a winning team. If one didn’t know the backstory of this group, they might even think it was a good club. Part of our enjoyment of baseball tends to be how we can relate, whether it was because we played as kids, or an older family member or friend took us to games, or whatever reason. But as is the case with human behavior, a lot of times we try to normalize things to our limited point of view. When we see a guy trot to first base on a routine groundball, we hearken back to the time coaches told us to run it out. Similarly, we see Andruw Jones take a pitch from Glen Perkins that was way outside and pull it out of the ballpark, when all along we were told to go with the pitch, pulling inside offerings and pushing those to the contrary.

But baseball players at the pro level -- or the big leagues, at the very least -- are governed by a different set of rules. A big league shortstop has what essentially amounts to a clock in his head regarding how fast a runner is and how long he needs to take to get the ball to first on time. Pretty much 100 percent of the time he is undeterred by a runner who is busting it out of the box. For one, most of the guys don’t give much more than a cursory glance to that runner. Secondly, the whole process takes a grand total of about four seconds beginning (contact) to end (first baseman receiving the ball). There just isn’t a ton of time to really do much differently.

A lot of it is programming from the minors or college, where players take grounders for hours and hours and hours until it’s just second nature. Now, is this to say that a hitter ought not bust it out of the box every time? The answer is almost assuredly yes. But there’s an inherent amount of risk-reward there, as it’s not really worth risking pulling a hamstring to try beat out a routine grounder to second. As we saw with Robinson Cano’s play to end the game on Monday night, almost no effort is required to make that play. At least that’s how it appears, which is most certainly a feather in Cano’s cap, as I don’t know anyone makes it look easier than he does.

But before I get too far down the wrong road, back to clubhouse chemistry. When we play club baseball or beer league softball, we know it stinks to play with people we don’t like. It can bring your whole attitude and perception down. But when I play with a guy or two I don’t like in Class A amateur ball, let’s be honest, that’s an entire world away from guys in big league clubhouses. The amount of time spent together is astronomically more for a big league guy than it is someone who plays 20 or 30 games over the summer. And let’s be honest, if guys like each other, they’ll congregate outside the clubhouse in clubs, bars, or each others homes/hotel rooms. If they don’t, well, they feign friendship on-field as part of the battle, and go their separate ways afterwards. It’s a branch of psychology all unto itself, if you ask me.

So how does any of this relate to the Twins?

In a lot of ways, the cataclysmic season in 2011 has continued to manifest itself in 2012. There are still some baffling errors made on the field, and the starting pitching has been a complete disaster. The Twins did well to distance themselves from all the bad parts of 2011. Fair or not, Terry Ryan replaced Bill Smith at the helm in the GM spot, and even before that, perceived ‘bad seed’ Delmon Young was shipped to Detroit. Same with Kevin Slowey and Cleveland via Colorado. But then, why is the club still lousy?

And while people will lament the loss of Cuddyer and all he brought to the clubhouse -- and make no mistake, he was the backbone -- the Rockies are lousy this season with Cuddyer in a leadership role on what’s one of the oldest teams in the NL. By the same token, Carroll has assumed the same role essentially -- with other additions Josh Willingham and Ryan Doumit also excellent teammates by as many accounts as I've gathered -- and the Twins clubhouse hasn’t skipped a beat. Unfortunately, neither has the play on the field, as the Twins are poised for a second-straight 90-loss season. Essentially, the net effect with the Twins dumping the guys that didn't really fit the mold, as well as adding a small handful of really, really good guys, has been another lousy season.

So what does it all mean? Well, teams with Barry Bonds -- one of the more notorious bad character guys in this or any era -- won plenty of games. I’m of the persuasion, now more than ever, that winning teams will more often than not have good chemistry, but lousy teams can be pretty much anywhere on the spectrum. I think clubhouse 'chemistry' is a phrase that was cooked up to sell newspaper, appease the need for quotes to reporters, and essentially sum up the feeling a good team has when all things are going right.

I'll close with another Leyland commentary on 'chemistry' from a few seasons earlier, regarding Dontrelle Willis' tumultuous tenure in the Motor city:

"That [stuff] is all overrated. Write that. All that [stuff] is overrated about the clubhouse. We've got a great clubhouse. We had a great clubhouse before Dontrelle got here, and we'll have a better clubhouse since he got here, because he's a good guy and a wonderful person. I'm interested in pitching and getting outs, hitting, making plays. I'm not interested in the clubhouse.

"All that [stuff] has been media [stuff] for years -- great chemistry, great clubhouse. That's the biggest bunch of [baloney] in the history of sports. Every time somebody wants to talk about great chemistry, [forget] the chemistry in the clubhouse. I'm interested in winning games, period. I don't know who came up with it, but the worst word ever used now is chemistry. That's something you take in school. That's a class you take. If he gets people out, he'll be fun in the clubhouse. If we win games, I'll be fun in the clubhouse. If we don't, I won't be fun in the clubhouse, either. He's a wonderful, wonderful person with a great personality. We've got a bunch of them.