By Chester Spell and Katerina Bezrukova
Its Super Bowl time, but baseball is in the news, doing its best to push football into sports hibernation until next season.
No, not baseball games (no games played yet, but big trades between teams are the hot topic now). One of the most notable involves two brothers, both of them major league players, named B.J. and Justin Upton. Both have been traded to Atlanta, from different teams. While the talent of both Uptons is universally recognized, it was a trade- someone had to go. Sports blogs by fans of both teams and columnists have noted that, in order to get Justin Upton (the younger brother) Atlanta gave up the widely respected Martin Prado, known as a great teammate, with very little ego (for a professional athlete) and someone who was a great “clubhouse presence.” Now, no one is saying either of the Upton brothers are not great teammates or hard to get along with- though there is some notion that both are ‘moody’ and could upset relationships within the team. To be fair, there is also some of the opinion that the Arizona team unfairly treated Justin Upton this past year and expected too much of the young player, no matter how talented. In any case, the next year will show how it all works out-some say the whole notion of moodiness is overstated and their talent will carry Atlanta to sports nirvana- but every year, there is usually a similar question for at least one team making a big trade. The elusive team chemistry part of winning in sports is ever present in sports (and lets face it, exists within all organizations) but how much does it really matter? I know you can all come up with very successful, even championship teams that had players that apparently did not get along (think some of the New York Yankee teams from past years). Beyond pro sports, you may even recall a co-worker, who you did not like, but was very productive nonetheless.
Some of our new groups research looks at this very question- how much does team chemistry matter? It examines baseball teams, the groups of players in them and how demographic structure within groups affects individual and team performance. We think it may shed some new light on the ‘team chemistry ‘ question.
We have found (using data on every Major League player, on every team that played from the years 2004-2008) that, indeed, teams with ‘splits” or faultlines do have a tougher time winning games.
We also find that a number of surrounding circumstances (contextual variables, that is) affect this relationship. One, circumstance, not surprisingly, is money. The big money (high payroll) teams are actually hurt more by group splits and factions than the bottom feeders. This is probably because there is less to lose on such teams; they have a lower potential ceiling of performance. (Teams in the top half of payroll averaged seven more wins a year than lower payroll teams.) Good coaching seems to matter as well. We found that for teams lead by well-respected coaches (e.g., managers of the year or a finalist for that award) the hurt, in terms of lower performance, due to the group split issue was less. So, as sports columnists write all the time, being able to handle ‘team chemistry’ indeed seems worth some extra games won.
We will have to see how the Uptons fare this year in Atlanta; there are certainly different views on how this trade may work out for both teams. Some even say the Arizona team is purposely trying to purge players not fitting the mold of a “gritty dirtball” that their coach, Kirk Gibson, desires. Thus they would be constructing a certain type of chemistry (and depending on chemistry too much may be a risky proposition as well). But the value of people simply getting along and its effect on group performance is hard to deny, based not only on a growing number of academic studies, but also looking at how some teams actually select team members.