King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Chemistry experiment: Did deadline trades that changed things in the clubhouse make a difference for the Dodgers and Red Sox? Plus: Marketing the Washington Grays.


Salon Staff
October 4, 2004 11:00PM (UTC)

It's too bad the Dodgers gave away their heart and soul at the trading deadline, sending catcher Paul Lo Duca to the Marlins for pitcher Brad Penny and first baseman Hee Seop Choi at the end of July.

If only they'd had the clubhouse presence of Lo Duca down the stretch, they might have been able to win the N.L. West by coming out of a 10-day mid-September swoon to win seven of their last 10 meaningful games, including three of five against the second-place Giants. They might have been able to clinch the division by entering the bottom of the ninth down 3-0 to San Francisco Saturday, scoring three to tie the game, then winning on a for-the-ages grand slam.

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Oh, hang on a second ...

Two months ago I wrote that the last two months of the season would be a good test of what I consider the metaphysical concept of team chemistry.

The Dodgers, leading the West by three and a half games over the Padres, were heavily criticized for busting up their chemistry by sending away Lo Duca. Also, the Red Sox got rid of sulking shortstop Nomar Garciaparra by trading him to the Cubs, so I thought following those two teams' fortunes would offer some clues about chemistry. Much less significantly, the Red Sox also picked up Doug Mientkiewicz, the Twins first baseman who had likewise been sulking since his name had come up in trade talks.

So let's look at how all those teams did after the deadline trades. Team chemistry is a concept that's slippery enough that just about any evidence can be used as either support or rebuttal, but let's look anyway.

The Dodgers did play better before they traded Lo Duca than after. They were 60-42, a .588 winning percentage, before the trade and 33-27, .550, after it. But it sure took a long time for the chemistry effect to kick in: Before they went into that 10-game tailspin in mid-September, the Dodgers had played .590 ball (23-16) in 39 games after trading Lo Duca, almost exactly as well as they'd played before.

But we have to count that tailspin. It's not as though that .588 pre-trade winning percentage didn't include some cold stretches. The Dodgers had eight- and six-game losing streaks with Lo Duca onboard.

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The drop of 38 points in winning percentage translates to two extra losses over the 60 games after the trade. I'm sure believers will attribute that to the loss of clubhouse chemistry, and, as with all good religious arguments, I can't prove them wrong. It also should be noted that after acquiring Lo Duca, the Marlins improved from .500 (52-52) to .534 (31-27).

But I think the falloff in L.A. had more to do with the fact that on the field, the trade was a bust for the Dodgers. Penny hurt his right biceps and ended up pitching three games, 11 and two-thirds innings, in a Dodgers uniform. Choi, who had been OK with the Marlins in his first full, injury-free year in the majors, was an absolute disaster in Los Angeles. In 31 games he hit .161 with no homers. His OPS in Florida had been .882. In L.A., it was a pitcherlike .531.

And how does the loss-of-chemistry argument account for the way the Dodgers recovered from that September cold streak and played well down the stretch -- the exact opposite of what this team has been known for in the last decade? And what about that come-from-behind division-clincher? Aren't these the sorts of things you need good chemistry to be able to do?

By the way, the Dodgers also got Bill Murphy, a pitching prospect, in the Lo Duca trade. They turned around and sent Murphy to the Diamondbacks for Steve Finley, who provided some production in center field and hit that division-winning grand slam Saturday.

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The Red Sox played way better after unloading Garciaparra and getting Mientkiewicz as a reserve. They were 56-46 (.549) when the trade was made, one game out in the American League wild card race and eight and a half games behind the Yankees in the A.L. East. From that point, they went 42-18 (.700), walked away with the wild card and gave the Yanks a scare for the division. Score one for chemistry.

Problem is, the Cubs also played better after getting Garciaparra. They were 56-48 (.538) before the trade, 33-25 (.569) after it. Garciaparra was clearly a much happier camper in Chicago than he had been in Boston, but more important, he played better.

Although he'd hit a little more in Boston than he did with the Cubs, he'd been atrocious in the field. He reverted to being about an average shortstop after the trade, but he'd been so bad with the Red Sox that his replacement, Orlando Cabrera, who didn't play particularly good defense, looked spectacular to Sox fans. Remember, even before the trade, the Sox had already been much better with Garciaparra out of the lineup (37-28) than in it (19-18), even though he was still around excreting bad chemicals even when he wasn't playing.

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They didn't trade away bad chemistry. They traded away a lousy shortstop.

Mientkiewicz, a slick-fielding, light-hitting first baseman, isn't the impact player Garciaparra is, or even Lo Duca, but for what it's worth, the Twins were about the same (58-45, .563) before trading him as after (34-25, .576).

I think it's pretty clear from all this that team chemistry is a lot of hogwash. And if I believed in team chemistry I would think all of this proved its existence.

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If I were a believer I'd also point to the Houston Astros switching managers at the All-Star break, when they were 44-44, ninth in the wild-card race, four and a half games out, and then going 48-26 (.649) to make the playoffs. Atheistic rebuttal: The Astros went 12-16 in their first month under new manager Phil Garner before they got hot. How do we know they wouldn't have gotten hot in mid-August with Jimy Williams still at the helm?

That's the great thing about religious arguments. They really can't be won or lost. But if you and I both somehow become general managers of major league teams and you ever want to trade me some home runs and solid pitching for some clubhouse chemistry, I'll answer the cellphone on the first ring.

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Clarification: The Washington Grays [PERMALINK]

I want to clarify something from Thursday's column about the Expos' move to Washington.

"Mayor Anthony Williams favors the Washington Grays, after the Pittsburgh Negro League team the Homestead Grays, who sometimes played home games in Washington," I wrote. "A nice thought, but Gray is hardly a whiz-bang concept for marketing purposes." I also suggested the name Big Trains, after Senators pitcher Walter Johnson, "by far the greatest baseball player in our capital's history," as well as the way the stadium deal was being railroaded through the D.C. Council.

First, I was wrong about the Grays' connection to Washington. The Homestead Grays weren't just a Pittsburgh team that opened a second home front in Washington during World War II, playing some home games. This was made clear by several readers who were annoyed by my calling Johnson the greatest Washington player, when Josh Gibson, the legendary slugging catcher, was a Homestead Gray.

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I called Brad Snyder, who wrote a history of the Homestead Grays called -- and this really should have been a clue -- "Beyond the Shadow of the Senators." He told me that the Grays moved to Washington in 1940, and while they still claimed Pittsburgh as a co-hometown, they were really a Washington team until they folded in 1950.

"By 1942 or '43, Pittsburgh became so unprofitable, they almost never played in Pittsburgh anymore," Snyder said. They called themselves the Washington Homestead Grays, and in photographs from the 1940s, you can spot a "W" for Washington on their left sleeve.

So yeah, Josh Gibson, the greatest catcher of all time, was a Washington player too.

Readers also wrote to say that Grays would, in fact, be a whiz-bang name for marketing purposes. Look at all the Negro League merchandise that's sold these days, especially to young African-Americans, and wouldn't it be a great way to market in the District, which is 60 percent black, according to the 2000 census.

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These sentiments echoed a Michael Wilbon column in the Washington Post, Wilbon writing, "One of the huge dilemmas baseball faces across the country now is trying to appeal to a much-needed but recently lost market: African-American fans. There have been more than a few meetings on what to do about black folks' dwindling interest in baseball, as it increases to the point of saturation in pro basketball and football."

Like I said, nice idea. I'd like to believe that baseball has a real interest in marketing to black people beyond the occasional paying of lip service, the odd tribute to Jackie Robinson or occasional throwback uniform day with the players wearing Negro League suits. And I will believe it. When I see it.

The Negro League connection would be a winner in the black community, but I don't know how much appeal beyond initial novelty it would have for the much larger, richer and whiter fan base in the suburbs.

I'd be all for renaming the Expos the Grays, and maybe it would be a more valuable marketing move in the long run than naming the team something -- Senators -- that would probably sell more hats right off the bat. It would be a wonderful gesture to the African-American community, and if it proved over time not to be a token one, it could mark the beginnings of building a strong relationship, and not just in Washington.

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But baseball doesn't have a very good record of thinking about the long run. Baseball has proved over and over in the last 15 years or so that it's only interested in what produces the most cash right now. I don't think naming the team the Grays would be that thing.

"I think if Major League Baseball tries to market this team to suburban whites, they're going to fail like they did before" in Washington, says Snyder, the author.

I don't know if that's right or wrong. But I'd be willing to bet that we're going to find out.

Previous column: NFL Week 4

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