Molly Knight's excellent new book, The Best Team Money Can Buy: The Los Angeles Dodgers' Struggle to Build a Baseball Powerhouse, tracks the Dodgers' ups and downs following the era of turmoil brought on by former owner Frank McCourt. It covers the team's new ownership, and through the hiring of Andrew Friedman and Fahran Zaidi to run the front office prior to the 2015 season. Knight, a journalist who previously wrote for ESPN the Magazine, was granted unprecedented access to ownership, the front office and the clubhouse to write her book.
Going into the book, I was most interested in what it says about team chemistry -- the working relationships among individuals who do or do not hold themselves accountable to the team -- based on Knight's clubhouse observations. Team chemistry presents something of a chicken and egg problem. Does good chemistry lead to winning, or does winning lead to good chemistry?
In the midst of baseball's sabermetric revolution, most observers tended to say that chemistry was just something that followed on-field success. But more recently, living, breathing sabermetricians such as Jay Jaffe, and especially Russell Carleton, have delved into the problem and concluded that chemistry can be a cause as well as an effect.
While Knight addresses team chemistry periodically, she doesn't grapple with it at length. But by piecing a handful of the book's many illuminating anecdotes together, and by reading between the lines a little bit, we can draw some insights regarding team chemistry. Namely, that good players aren't necessarily important for creating good chemistry; that there are few players who are simply "good" or "bad" chemistry guys, as most players are a mix of both at different times; and that bad team chemistry is not necessarily a barrier to on-field success.
You might expect the part about good players not always contributing to good chemistry to be about Yasiel Puig, but it's not -- it's about Clayton Kershaw. The Dodgers' ace and three-time Cy Young Award winner (including in 2013) is one of two players to have an entire chapter dedicated to him (with Puig being the other). Knight presents Kershaw as a fierce competitor intensely focused on being the best at what he does. He's probably the most sympathetic figure in the book. Knight also characterizes him as shy and private. She notes that he and Matt Kemp "formed no real relationship," despite being teammates for six seasons.
Kershaw, it seems, is a leader by virtue of his presence, and his presence matters because he's so good. But those traits don't naturally translate to being essential for good chemistry. Kershaw's not one to mediate relationships or enliven a locker room that lacks spirit. None of that means that Kershaw is a bad teammate, it just means that he's not necessarily clubhouse adhesive. In terms of performance, Kershaw is the head to the body of the team, but in terms of chemistry, he's a cog in the wheel.
For instance, prior to Game 6 of the 2013 National League Championship Series against the Cardinals, which Kershaw started, Knight indicates that the Dodgers spoke as if a victory was a foregone conclusion. Knight makes a point of showing that Kershaw's presence provided a little too much confidence, and there was no tempering agent around to refocus the team. Kershaw wasn't going to offer any of his own words because he doesn't make eye contact with any of his teammates on the days he starts, let alone speak to anybody. "We got Kersh going tonight," some Dodgers stated, "then in Game 7 anything goes." In this way, Kershaw is less of a contributor to bad chemistry than a non-contributor to good chemistry, despite being the team's best player. Silently, Kershaw lets the team drift up and down as he goes.
In addition to demonstrating that good players are not necessarily the best for team chemistry, Knight shows that a player's clubhouse presence is too complicated to be classified as either good or bad for team chemistry. For this, the best player example is Puig. Puig is frequently called "polarizing" because he elicits contrasting opinions, especially from the media. In terms of team chemistry, Puig appears to also be a bipolar presence. He's not someone who will keep a clubhouse at ease with light banter. Conversely, he's not a player that will subtly breed ill will in the clubhouse by refusing to give a high-five after advancing a runner on a groundout.
Instead, Puig is either energizing or exhausting -- or both. For instance, Knight tells us that at the beginning of 2013, the Dodgers were languishing in last place. To add life to the team (as well as to fill a hole in a depleted outfield), the Dodgers called up Puig in June. He was there to bolster the team's offense as well as its chemistry. "Puig was raw, sure, but he played like he had bumblebees in his pants," Knight writes, "Even if he failed, he would not be boring. The front office had hoped he would roust the club from its season-long dirt nap."
This is an important point because it challenges the way Puig is generally perceived. His habitual tardiness and over-attachment to an entourage of outsiders most certainly put a strain on clubhouse dynamics, and Knight shows that too, but those actions have to be seen as components of his personality, which is magnetic if nothing else. In fact, because his presence radiates beyond the Dodgers' clubhouse, we can see how Puig might even be the center of team building.
One way the ire of the opposition can be leveraged for good chemistry is to get intentionally thrown at. That's what happened on June 11, 2013, when Ian Kennedy, then of the Diamondbacks, beaned Puig on purpose because "he plays with a lot of arrogance." The fact that Dodgers starter Zack Greinke retaliated and hit Miguel Montero suggests that the Dodgers were willing to subsume any faults they might have found with Puig and stood with him as a member of the team. In a really interesting observation, Knight suggests that the event caused Puig to become more team-oriented.
When the Dodgers met the Diamondbacks again after the Kennedy beaning, former Diamondback and Cuban-American Luis Gonzalez approached Puig. They shook hands, but Puig didn't stick around for niceties. "In a way, Puig was more old-school than anyone on either team. He didn't care who you were: if you wore Diamondback red you were his sworn enemy." This sort of observation shows that it's the players we think we understand the best that are often the most complicated. Puig stood with the team.
It's not clear that the Dodgers followed Puig's lead. In what seems like an oversight within a book filled with exquisite detail, Knight doesn't tell us how the clubhouse responded to the brawl with the Diamondbacks. Like the brawl with the Padres from earlier in 2013 that injured Greinke, Knight defaults to the team's record to say that things didn't improve. She states that "some predicted that after two months of mediocrity, maybe the second brawl would be the catalyst to help the Dodgers turn the corner. It wasn't. Los Angeles dropped six of its next eight games."
But maybe it wasn't an oversight. Another way to view Knight's quick pivot from potentially team building brawl to sustained losing is to understand the most significant takeaway from the book regarding the 2013 Dodgers and team chemistry: they never had it. At least, they never had the good kind. And yet, the 2013 Dodgers were an undeniably successful team. They won 92 games and the NL West. Part of that has to do with Don Mattingly's ability to manage a clubhouse without good chemistry, but I suspect it mostly had to do with the talent fielded.
The Dodgers didn't need good chemistry to field a winning team. They haven't made it to the World Series under new ownership. But Knight states -- and I agree with her -- that the lack of bullpen depth and the vagaries of the playoffs have more to do with the Dodgers' failure to advance to the World Series than a lack of good chemistry.
That doesn't mean that Knight provides the final word on team chemistry -- far from it. What her book shows is that poor team chemistry can be overcome. It doesn't mean it will always be overcome -- the 2012 Red Sox come to mind -- but it does suggest that a team with disconnected personalities can be successful. What the book doesn't tell us is whether good chemistry is enough to compensate for a team's shortcomings, but that's because there are not a lot of examples of good chemistry (the exception being any time Juan Uribe comes up), and the Dodgers didn't have many shortcomings when they were operating on all cylinders.
Or, think of it this way. Knight's book -- in addition to showing us that star players are not necessarily going to be critical ingredients to good chemistry, and that most players are too complicated to be classified into a "good/bad" binary -- fills in one spot on a quadrant of team chemistry.
It's probably too much to ask to have a book like The Best Team Money Can Buy written about every team, so as to map team chemistry as it relates to on-field success. We would be the richer for it, though. Each one would teach us just a little bit more about the chemistry of colliding personalities in a small space without an escape hatch. Prior to the 2013 season and in reference to the Dodgers, Giants first baseman Brandon Belt stated, "You can't buy chemistry." To that, Knight would say, "of course you can." You just don't know what kind you're going to get. And in any case, you can still survive it.
SB Nation presents: The home run derby with a twist