A week ago, the Houston Astros fired Cecil Cooper, their manager. Simply put, the Astros are not very good. They’re 72-83, en route to a fourth- or fifth-place finish. At over $102 million, the team’s payroll is eighth in the Majors, and they’re the second-biggest disappointment to the Mets in terms of dollars spent vs. success on the field.
In the world of baseball, Cooper was doomed. When a team performs that poorly, the manager bears the brunt of the blame, and although the General Manager and ownership are generally responsible for the product on the field, the manager is the figurehead. He represents the Front Office to his players, and if he “loses the team,” in the parlance of the game, his days at the helm are numbered. That is exactly what happened to Cooper.
In the wake of the firing, my good friend Tommy Bennett at Beyond the Box Score challenged the narrative of the managerial firing. His argument is that managers just don’t matter that much. Generally, a team doesn’t play better or worse under one manager than the next. The determining factors remain the quality of the General Manager and the make-up of the team on the field. Firing the manager is simply a public relations move. “Do front-offices think fans are so stupid to be satisfied — like vengeful gods — with human sacrifice?” Bennett asked.
I offered something of a rebuttal to this approach. Recognizing that the numbers do not show improvement, sometimes players need a change in the person coaching them. Over my baseball life, I played for a variety of coaches. Some of them had great styles, and others were coaches with whom I could not click. When the latter arrive, it is tough to gear up mentally for the game. Once the first pitch arrives, though, anyone playing baseball generally puts issues with coaches behind them and plays as their baseball instincts teach them to do. The manager might not impact the play on the field much more beyond a handful of strategic bunting and relief pitching decisions, but players may feel better playing for one coach over another.
These ramblings on managerial changes bring me to the topic of team chemistry. In the non-sabermetric world of baseball narratives, team chemistry is popular motif. Teams that have fun together play better together. Or something like that.
This season, we’ve seen the team chemistry narrative surround the New York Yankees. A.J. Burnett and his walk-off pies are creating a looser atmosphere, and Nick Swisher is so care-free. A-Rod is walking around without a gorilla on his back, and Johnny Damon says the 2009 Yankees remind him of the 2004 Red Sox, the kings of chemistry. Plus, Melky Cabrera’s and Robinson Cano’s obvious enthusiasm for the game and for their teammates is so hard to mess.
Leave it up to Derek to rain on this parade. During the post-game, post-clinch interview last night, Joe Morgan and Jon Miller asked Jeter about team chemistry, and his response was telling. “I think winning has a lot to do with that,” Jeter said. “The more you win, the more fun you have.”
Straight from the horse’s mouth comes the definitive word on chemistry. It makes for a compelling story, but that’s all it is. The chemistry narrative is one that helps fans relate to a team they see winning. But just as a group of 11-year-olds playing Little League have more fun when they win, so too do a group of professional baseball players. Winning creates chemistry; chemistry does not create winning.