The intangible known as chemistry is one of the things that make baseball such a mystery. Chemistry is obvious in basketball--where it can take the form of an extra pass for an open shot or a helping hand on defense. But because baseball is such an individual sport--it all comes down to the battle between pitcher and hitter--team chemistry would seem to be inconsequential. Yet it no doubt exists, and not just as a pitcher and catcher working well together or a second baseman and shortstop forming a fluid double-play combination. Ask this year's Cubs.
On paper the Cubs appear to be vastly better than last year's team. Corey Patterson is greatly improved, and I'm not even factoring in the clods who shared center field with him in 2001. (Remember Gary Matthews Jr.?) Moises Alou is an upgrade on Rondell White in left, and I'd argue that so are shortstop Alex Gonzalez on Ricky Gutierrez and first baseman Fred McGriff on Matt Stairs and Julio Zuleta, et al. If the Cubs' catching is weak, so was it last year, with Todd Hundley, Joe Girardi, and Robert Machado sharing time. The only downgrade is at second base, where Delino DeShields took the job full-time after platooning with the superior Eric Young late last year. The pitching staff, meanwhile, remains much the same. If one can quibble with the erratic Matt Clement replacing the steady, if sometimes mediocre, Kevin Tapani, that change wasn't the catalyst in the Cubs' downfall this season. Neither was new closer Antonio Alfonseca replacing the injured Tom "Flash" Gordon. Going into this week Alfonseca had converted all five of his save opportunities; in fact the Cubs had converted all six of their save chances, with Joe Borowski picking up the other.
But that was six saves in a mere 13 victories against 27 losses. The Cubs entered the week playing under .333 and in last place in the National League Central Division after nine losses in a row, their worst skid in five years. At this juncture last year, a quarter of the way through the season, they were 21-19, though in an eight-game skid after leading the division at 21-12. They'd follow that skid with a 12-game winning streak that would put them back in first at 33-20, and finish with a respectable--if not quite good enough--88-74 season. This year's Cubs haven't looked like they could win 12 games in a month, much less in a row.
What's been the difference? The sabermetrician in me--that is, the baseball-stats head--pointed immediately to DeShields. As I warned in the winter, if DeShields didn't get on base at the top of the order, it wouldn't matter how fearsome the middle of the order was with Sosa, McGriff, and Alou. DeShields entered the week hitting a measly .190, with a .257 on-base percentage. Briefly revived when he platooned with Young, he's returned to the form that got him released by the Baltimore Orioles a year ago. His failure has had a direct impact on Sosa. Going into the week, Sosa was tied for the league lead with 15 homers but had driven in only 24 runs. The baseball insider in me could also point to the departure of pitching coach Oscar Acosta, who was replaced by Larry Rothschild. Though the Cubs retained most of their pitching staff, entering the week its earned run average was 4.31, an increase on the 4.03 for all of last season although scoring is down across the league.
I'd also argue that the loss of Acosta helps explain the change in chemistry. A hard-nosed, competitive coach, he got the Cubs' pitchers to believe in themselves and take a more aggressive approach to attacking hitters' weaknesses. Jon Lieber, for one, gave Acosta a large portion of the credit for his winning 20 games. When Acosta was fired at the end of last season for clashing too often with manager Don Baylor, the Cubs staff all but mutinied. Baylor and Rothschild knew going into this season that they'd have to repair the relationship with their pitchers, and though all have claimed that all is well, the results argue otherwise. When Kerry Wood--sickened by a listless 3-0 loss to the Saint Louis Cardinals last week (the Cubs' fifth loss in a row)--came out and said the Cubs needed someone to show a little more fire, it was a not-so-indirect attack on Baylor just as word was circulating that Baylor's job might be in jeopardy.
Last week Lerner columnist George Castle wrote a piece saying the Cubs clubhouse was the quietest he'd experienced in more than 20 years of covering the team--quieter even than when it was occupied by the surly, miserable Dave Kingman-led teams of the late 70s and 1980. Here again is a marked contrast with last year's team, which was full of characters like the boisterous Young and the chummy Stairs, Tapani, and Ron Coomer. Yet this also is where my analysis strays onto thin ice. It seems obvious that in baseball or anywhere else a friendly workplace is more conducive to success than a dreary one. Yet what makes it friendly? Nine years ago the Cubs were said to have a divided clubhouse because a clique led by Mike Morgan, Randy Myers, and Mark Grace supposedly resented Sosa. Yet during the 1998 campaign, Grace led a group including Tapani, Rod Beck, Mickey Morandini, and Jeff Blauser that was famous for sitting around for hours before and after games talking baseball; it was a group that came to terms with Sosa and what he brought to the team, and the Cubs reached the playoffs in return. What was the difference? Chemistry.
I've always argued that Bang the Drum Slowly is one of the great baseball movies precisely because it does such a fine job of representing this difference. The bathetic story of cancer-stricken catcher Bruce Pearson aside, it captures the magic of a team coming together. Yet that scenario seems far removed from this year's Cubs. It's a team of veterans, but--except for Sosa--quiet, businesslike veterans: Alou, McGriff, Bill Mueller. And they've been powerless to alter their fortunes. Entering the week, McGriff was the only one of the three with a batting average above .200--and that barely, at .209--and his disastrous fielding gaffes had led directly to losses. Last Saturday his throwing error was responsible for two unearned runs that made the difference in the Cubs' ninth straight loss. Alou and Mueller struggled back from injuries only to do nothing when healthy.
The recent promotion of phenoms Bobby Hill and Mark Prior to the majors was supposed to upgrade the team's talent, but Baylor seemed eager to alter its chemistry as well. Normally loath to celebrate rookies, he immediately said he liked Hill's "swagger." Prior, who was to debut Wednesday, figured to improve the team's mood simply by supplying a quality start every five days. But I believe these moves contributed to the team's poor chemistry because they weren't made coming out of spring training. Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver, in his book on baseball strategy, wrote that players expect their manager to put the best team on the field. A manager can't afford to be sentimental toward an old veteran or biased against rookies because to do either will hurt him with the team. In hindsight, Hill and Prior should have come north with the team from Mesa, Arizona. Considering how many writers and fans, including myself, thought so at the time, I can only assume that many players did too. No doubt Hill was sent down because Baylor didn't want to risk putting a rookie at the top of the batting order; Prior--whom Baylor actually wanted--was surely sent down because management wanted to make him earn an extra year's service time before he could qualify for arbitration or free agency. As defensible as those decisions were--tactically or financially--I think they hurt the team. The Cubs knew that even though they were better than the year before, they weren't the best they could be. The result was a flat start.
Of course, a strict phenomenologist might argue that "chemistry" is nothing more than the good humor, camaraderie, and confidence that comes from winning. If that's the case, the Cubs improved their chemistry Sunday by winning in Milwaukee against the Brewers. Down 3-1 in the eighth, the Cubs tied the game on McGriff's two-run homer. Hill put the Cubs up in the ninth by leading off with a single, beating the throw to second on a force, going to third on a bunt, and scoring on a Mueller pop-up to short left field--no doubt the weakest sacrifice fly of the season. Alfonseca gave up the lead in the bottom of the inning on a solo homer, but Hill put the Cubs up again in the 11th by leading off with a walk and coming around to score again on a more legitimate sacrifice fly, this one by Patterson to deep left field. Hill even finished the game, spearing a high liner and doubling Young (now in Milwaukee) off second to end it.
Yet even with Hill and Prior, it may be too late for the Cubs to reverse their fortunes this year. They've dug themselves a tremendous hole and now must combat simple mathematics--they'd have to go 76-45 to get to 90 wins. There's no formula to produce that kind of result.