The World Series has just wrapped up, and the customary character-profile fluff pieces about Clubhouse Chemistry and The Will to Win (TWTW) were plentiful. While these types of articles tend to lack substance, they serve a purpose. Namely, they help to engender a sense of familiarity with, and affinity toward, the players and teams that are their subjects. They stoke the flames of fandom, if you will.
However, it would seem that many fans—and even some MLB personnel—latch onto these nebulous "TWTW" and "chemistry" labels, and embrace them as a sort of gospel of player development and wins and losses; but in reality, do these "TWTW" concepts have any substance to them?
ESPN, for its part, seems to have taken it seriously, as it developed a metric that purports to measure the impact of "clubhouse chemistry" on a team’s record. While there are reasons to be skeptical of ESPN’s metric, it nevertheless represents something interesting and something, moreover, one doesn’t hear about very often: an attempt to study and account for psychological, or "intangible," factors in baseball. There could be valuable knowledge to obtain in that realm; but notwithstanding a few exceptions, there doesn’t seem to be much interest in seriously pursuing it.
The impediment to honest research in the realm of "intangibles" in baseball is probably attributable to a number of misconceptions, biases, and other factors, the most visible and accessible of which, perhaps, is the seemingly polarized nature of the dialogue among baseball media and fans.
At one end of the spectrum are those who seem to completely buy into the spirit of aforementioned "TWTW" pieces, and who seem to believe that the presence or absence of certain so-called intangible characteristics in players and teams are the truly important determinants of success. The people in this camp seem to reject and even mock the usage of advanced statistics, or, for that matter, any attempts to attain a deeper understanding of baseball via empirical study.
And at the opposite end of the spectrum of extremes are those who seem to almost completely discount, ignore, and dismiss the influence of intangibles on baseball teams and players. Accordingly, it sometimes seems as though any observations or statements concerning the effect of a team’s apparent cohesiveness, or of a player’s apparent intensity, on success are met with a dismissive "LOL" from people in this camp.
Both extremes represent understandable, if somewhat flawed, perspectives. The former is nothing if not fun. After all, it suggests that winning teams and players possess superior levels of "winning" personality traits, and even that they are innately "winners" somehow. What fan doesn’t want the chance to revel in and identify with the winning ways of his team? In a sense, participating in the creation and projection of character-driven narratives onto players and teams is what being a fan is all about.
The other side makes sense, too. Baseball statistics have evolved such that many aspects of the game can be measured, explained, and valued with a level of precision that was, perhaps, unimaginable in bygone eras; furthermore, modern fans have almost unfettered access to data on MLB players and teams (and their minor league affiliates). Given these developments, it follows that a diligent and rational fan would seek to discount that which cannot be proven or demonstrated—such as the influence of intangible factors—and instead favor cold, hard statistical evidence.
The truth is likely inclusive of both perspectives to an extent, or, at the least, floating along the continuum at some point (or points) between them. In other words, it is true that objective data and robust statistical tools are invaluable and necessary in modern baseball; it is also true that human beings comprise baseball organizations and play baseball games and, as such, human psychology is, necessarily, a factor.
The instructive question, then, concerns the extent to which psychological, or intangible, factors actually do play a role in the success of players and teams. In theory, the discoverers of such knowledge could potentially hold an advantage over their competitors. So, how could such knowledge be discovered, and how could it be applied?
One answer might seem a little creepy at first blush: the administration of (valid and reliable) personality and behavioral assessments. Plenty of these assessment tools already exist and are utilized in a variety of professional contexts. For example, Gallup, Inc. administers a validated assessment tool called StrengthsFinder that helps individuals and the organizations for which they work gain insight into their strengths, and, accordingly, to guide the informed, strategic construction of work teams comprised of individuals with complementary strengths. Additionally, organizations such as RoundPegg have developed a method for quantifying company culture, which, among other things, enables its clients to recruit and retain employees who "fit" the role and the organization, and who are demonstrably more likely to remain engaged and productive on the job. In other words, RoundPegg helps companies improve bottom-line results by way of quantifying "intangibles" such as culture, character, and fit.
Granted, human strengths and characteristics are extremely difficult to measure, and are a far cry from the relatively cut-and-dried phenomena that occur on a baseball field. Put another way, a base hit is a base hit, and everyone can agree on that fact; but the concept and appearance of, say, psychological resiliency is widely open to interpretation—unless it is operationalized and studied methodically. As such, if the study of intangibles is to be carried forth and applied in baseball, the likely first steps will be to identify specific "intangible" characteristics hypothesized to be of import, operationalize them, research their existence in "successful" players and organizations, and develop a measurement tool that could accurately and reliably report existent levels of the characteristic.
As to the question of applicability, there could be certain personality characteristics that tend to present more strongly in those who successfully ascend to MLB than in those who don’t. So instead of relying upon subjective and biased observations of an amateur or a minor league player’s "makeup," what if an MLB team developed an assessment tool that suggested which minor league players actually do have the right "makeup" to potentially succeed in ascending to the Major League level?
Of course, until there is actual research, discovery, and application, this is rather speculative. There are many factors—probably the most important of which are sheer talent and health, to say nothing of luck—that determine the success of a player and a team. But it seems logical that there would be great utility in being able to account for as many of those factors as possible; that is, the entity with the best information is setting itself up for success. It’s time to find out.