Baseball is Chemistry: For Losing Teams, Finding the Right Mix of Players is Key, According to Rutgers University–Camden Management Expert

Chester Spell says the right mix of baseball players contributes to a team's success.

Chester Spell says the right mix of baseball players contributes to a team’s success.

As spring turns to summer and temperatures begin to soar, the forecast remains dreary for the Philadelphia Phillies, who, as expected, currently reside at the bottom of the National League standings.

While fans clamor for a winner, a Rutgers University–Camden management professor says the key to righting the ship is simple: better team chemistry.

“Do the Phillies have bad team chemistry?” asks Chester Spell, an associate professor of management at the Rutgers School of Business–Camden. “There are so many other factors — they can’t pitch, they can’t hit, they’re old — I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. But yes, team chemistry plays a role.”

Spell and his research colleague, Katerina Bezrukova, an assistant professor of psychology at Santa Clara University, built an algorithm that quantifies team chemistry. They concluded that in Major League Baseball, the average value of good team chemistry is about three wins per season. That’s no small number, especially in this age of advanced baseball metrics, when everything is multiplied, divided, and added up to try and determine value beyond the box score.

“It doesn’t seem like a lot, but it could be the difference in making the playoffs,” Spell says.

Prior to the 2014 baseball season, Spell, whose research has been cited in publications like ESPN the Magazine, came up with the five best teams in terms of team chemistry. Two of his top five were the San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals, who played in last fall’s World Series.

“We don’t want to say that we predicted the World Series,” Spell says with a smile. “There are so many other factors, talent matters, and some of our picks were wrong, but those two teams scored high based on our research.”

Spell says the Phillies, who lost 89 games in 2014, ranked among the worst in terms of team chemistry last year.

Spell’s team chemistry algorithm combines three factors: clubhouse demographics, trait isolation, and ego factor. He says the best teams have the right mix of age, tenure, nationality, and race. Teams with the most diversity score the highest in his formula, and he says younger players could feel isolated on a team of mostly veterans, or players with larger contracts could cause a rift with underpaid players.

“Sports are an interesting living laboratory to observe how these factors contribute to how well a team works together,” says Spell, who examined rosters of Major League Baseball teams over the last five years to find links between diversity and on-field success.

“These concepts work anywhere,” he says. “Sports teams are such a public entity that you can see it when it’s working. It happens in other businesses, too, but you aren’t as likely to see it happening at an insurance company, for example, as you are with a baseball team.”

Last September, Spell spoke to National Basketball Association team executives about how group dynamics impact team chemistry and on-court success.

“Coaches and general managers care about team chemistry,” Spell says. “They talk about it all the time. They want to know the right buttons to push. Losing can create a stigma and teams can have a reputation for bad chemistry. No one wants that.”

Spell’s research will be published in a forthcoming paper titled “A Multilevel Perspective on Faultlines: Differentiating the Effects between Group- and Organizational-level Faultlines.” He is now expanding his research to determine how team stability affects success.

“If the team chemistry changes, we want to know how quickly it affects winning and losing,” he says. “The average turnover for Major League Baseball teams, at least based on the figure I found, is about 40 percent per year. Teams change all the time, so we want to know what kind of impact that makes on a team’s success.”

A Maple Shade resident and Georgia native, Spell’s research focuses on employee health and wellness and how organizations respond to those issues. His research has investigated organizational justice and employee mental health, employee substance abuse programs, and the alignment of employer and employee interests to improve behavioral health.

Spell teaches courses on human resource management at the Rutgers School of Business–Camden. He earned his bachelor’s degree and his doctoral degree at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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