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Better living through (team) chemistry

The right mix may mean more than you think

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Minnesota Twins v Detroit Tigers Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

In my never-ending quest to consume all the baseball literature put to pulp, the latest victim was Intangibles: Unlocking the Science & Soul of Team Chemistry by Joan Ryan. It turned out to be one of the most interesting baseball books I’ve ever read.

Without getting into the nitty-gritty details, Ryan uses social-science research and observations from families and the workplace to posit that the concept of “team chemistry” is very much a helpful tool towards the overall goal of winning in sports. Perhaps her most compelling point is that humans are “open loop” organisms in which certain psychological and emotional processes can only be fulfilled by others. As such, the right combination of support from and rapport with teammates can unlock the desire to improve performance in a way that self-motivation cannot.

In one particularly fascinating section of the book, Ryan suggests that seven tenets can be found in most high-functioning team chemistry environments. Here they are, complete with my own brainstorms on which Twins players (if any) filled the roles this season:

  • The Sage: A veteran who has seen it all and can offer words of wisdom in good times and bad. Clearly, this was Nelson Cruz until his Tampa Bay departure. Come to think of it, I think Cruz would be the sage on any MLB club at this point.
  • The Enforcer: A guy who lays down the law relating to his own teammates or those across the diamond. Doesn’t take guff from anyone and prefers to give it instead. Love him or hate him, this is Josh Donaldson’s role.
Detroit Tigers v Minnesota Twins
The Bringer of Rain certainly does not back down from any challenge
Photo by David Berding/Getty Images
  • The Kid: Youngster who brings a youthful exuberance to the ballpark day-in and day-out. Hasn’t yet been worn down by “the grind”. I don’t see a 2021 Twin who fits this mold. Guys like Larnach, Kiriloff, & Rooker all have carried themselves like seasoned professionals from the jump. There isn’t that infectiously positive young presence here.
  • The Warrior: Carriers with him an intimidating swagger and tremendous confidence, imparting both to those around him. Technically Cruz could easily fit this bill too, but I’ll give the nod to another recent withdrawal in Jose Berrios. Whenever he took the ball, one felt as if a win was that much closer to a reality. Byron Buxton would be another obvious choice here when actually between the white lines.
  • The Buddy: Everyone’s pal—fits into all groups and can move between them fluidly. With the clubhouse being closed to media in 2021, it is difficult to project if any Twin filled this role.
  • The Jester: Fairly self-explanatory—the crack-up, comic, or jokester who keeps the atmosphere loose. Bert Blyleven is probably the all-time Jester of MLB, but on the ‘21 Twins? Again, tough to know with a closed clubhouse. Maybe Max Kepler? I’ve heard he has a sly sense of humor.
2016 Minnesota Twins Spring Training
An impossibly-young Maximus shares a laugh with former teammate Oswaldo Arcia.
Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images
  • The Sparkplug: An engine may have all the best parts or bearings, but without a spark to get it humming it remains inert. Luis Arraez often seems like that type of player, but is injured far too often to have real staying power in the role as of yet. Jorge Polanco has been known to spark for short stretches as well.

The 2021 Minnesota Twins will never be a model of the “team chemistry” concept, that is for sure. Between the Andrelton Simmons/COVID-19 pitfall in April to Donaldson chirping at Arraez more recently, things have not seemed copacetic all year long. Other than a strong Sage in Cruz (while it lasted) and a clear Enforcer in Donaldson, all of Joan Ryan’s other categories either went unfilled or were populated by players that couldn’t stay on the field long enough to embody them.

Never does Ryan argue that team chemistry is more important than overall talent when trying to win a zero-sum game. But after reading Intangibles, she has me convinced that the right (or wrong) mix of players certainly has an impact on any given team.

Minneapolis MN, 9/24/02 Twins vs Cleveland ----Minnesota Twins Doug Mientkiewicz swings in the doug out as teamate Dave Ortiz right looks on Tuesday night before the Twins unvailed their American League Championship bannner.
The early-2000s Twins absolutely embodied the team chemistry concept