Will Braves repeat chemistry with most players returning?

With baseball especially, I tend to focus on the numbers when evaluating and projecting. But I know the statistically inclined have our own biases. High on the list is the tendency “to assume that if something cannot be easily quantified, it does not matter,” as stats guru Nate Silver wrote in his book, “The Signal and the Noise.” 

Just because team chemistry is impossible to measure doesn’t mean it’s insignificant. And my eyes told me the 2018 Braves had something going beyond having a bunch of good players. Sure, they got unexpected contributions, most of all a monster rookie season for Ronald Acuna, but they also had a palpable esprit de corps. 

I know it was a factor even if it can’t be captured by WAR or any of the many other baseball metrics. Yet the analytical part of my brain still tries to view it as a chicken-or-egg dilemma. Did the Braves win because they had good mojo, or did they have good mojo because they won? 

I think it’s the former because there were no signs of the Braves fraying even when things went bad in 2018. The Braves staggered before the All-Star break and swooned again in August, but they always had the look of a spirited ballclub. 

That’s why I think that, to repeat as National League East champions, the 2019 Braves will need to develop a disposition similar to the 2018 Braves. Theoretically, that should be simple because Brian Snitker still is the manager and they return many of the same players. 

“We had a good vibe last year, and we’ve pretty much got the same guys,” Braves outfielder Nick Markakis said recently at Braves spring training. 

Markakis is among six everyday players from 2018 who project to be in the 2019 lineup. Tyler Flowers again will be one of two primary catchers. Three pitchers who made 30 starts last year are tabbed to be part of the rotation again (a fourth, Kevin Gausman, made 10 starts after joining the Braves in a July trade). The front end of the bullpen features the same pitchers as last year. 

So, on paper, the Braves should have good chemistry this year like they did last year. But, as mentioned, chemistry is a nebulous thing. If chemistry can’t be measured then it follows that, unlike baseball performance, it can’t be predicted with much confidence. 

“Sometimes a team has that ‘it’ factor and you really don’t know how they get it,” Snitker said. 

The Braves have many of the same players, but circumstances change from year to year. It’s easy to see how the dynamic for this year’s Braves will be different, both internally and externally. 

The 2018 Braves were fueled in part by their unexpected rise to the top of the division. They were beating low expectations. Now, general manager Alex Anthopoulos and the players all say they expect more in 2019 and so do the team’s fans. The rest of NL East is chasing the Braves.

Related to that, a big part of the Braves’ team identity in 2018 was the energy provided by its young players. The Braves fed off the exuberance of Acuna, Ozzie Albies and Johan Camargo. If those young Braves players don’t continue their ascent, will they lose some of their vigor? Would that drag down the team’s liveliness? 

Of course, the Braves have plenty of veterans to counterbalance the precariousness of youth. They added two more with Donaldson and catcher Brian McCann. 

Anthopoulos is an so-called analytics guy, like pretty much every baseball GM nowadays, but he cited the importance of “fit” for Donaldson and McCann. Both players have the reputation of holding teammates accountable. The Braves are intimately familiar with each: McCann played for them from 2005-13, and Anthopoulous traded for Donaldson when he was the Blue Jays GM. 

Those two players should do their part to maintain the good team atmosphere that buoyed the Braves last season. Snitker said it helps that the core players on the team are players who came up through the Braves system because the organization has always prioritized how individual players fit with the whole. 

“Usually, that ‘it’ correlates with a team with a bunch of guys pulling for each other and are in it for all the right reasons,” Snitker said. “That clubhouse in there is just like that.” 

That matters. I try to make sure my blind spots don’t cause me to overlook it. I also don’t want to overstate the case. 

I still think talent matters more than anything else. That’s why there have been championship teams that had seemingly bad chemistry. There also have been bad teams with good chemistry — as an example of the latter, Snitker cites the 2016 Braves, who were 9-28 when he took over for Fredi Gonzalez and finished 68-93. 

“It’s just we weren’t a real good team,” he said.

The Braves were a good team in 2018 because they had a lot of good players who created a synergy that was fueled by intangible elements. If good chemistry mostly is a matter of players getting along, then it would seem the Braves have that covered. 

You could see that as players reported for spring training. Old teammates reconnected and new ones were welcomed. 

“You kind of know (the chemistry is good) when you have the confidence to not only talk about baseball, but talk about other stuff with your teammates,” Braves center fielder Ender Inciarte said. “That’s when you realize they are not only teammates, they can be your friends, too. I’ve got a lot of friends here and I enjoy being around them. I feel like everyone else feels the same way,” 

It showed in the way the Braves played in 2018. That team was fun to watch, so I hope they can keep the good feelings going this year. I don’t know if they will. You can’t predict team chemistry, but if the Braves create those good vibes again, I’ll know it when we see it.

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About the Author

Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010. 
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