Illustration of beakers with various sports balls


illustration by Eric Piatkowski

Baseball never lacks for newfangled stats. Want to know Derek Jeter’s batting average against left-handed relief pitchers when he came up to bat with a runner in scoring position after the seventh inning with the Yankees trailing? There’s a number for that.

Now a Rutgers professor has helped devise a formula to quantify what has always been that most unquantifiable element in any sports club’s success or failure: team chemistry. Chester Spell, an associate professor of management at the School of Business–Camden, drew on decades of research into group behavior to identify those nonbaseball traits on any club’s roster that contribute to good or bad chemistry.

Working with research partner Katerina Bezrukova, a former Rutgers University–Camden psychology professor, Spell studied Major League Baseball rosters and records from 2004 to 2008 and devised an algorithm to measure team chemistry. Their formula is based on three guiding principles, which they call the ego, demographic, and isolation factors. Regarding the isolation factor, Spell says, “If there’s one player who’s very different, we call him a token player. And, of course, that’s a bad thing.”

The demographic factor considers the players’ ages and ethnicities: the more diversity, the better the chemistry. “Yet within any team’s subgroups, it’s important to have players from similar backgrounds,” Spell says. “They work together better. It’s easier to share information.”

The ego factor takes into account salaries—more specifically, whether one player earns, say, three times more than everyone else. “You don’t want isolated players with super-high salaries,” Spell says. “That’s probably a detriment to chemistry.”

The researchers contend that chemistry can be worth three additional wins (or losses) per season, more than enough to decide, come October, which teams make the playoffs and which go home. Earlier this year, in an eight-page feature in ESPN The Magazine’s preseason issue, they projected the impact of chemistry on all 30 major-league teams. (They forecast the Yankees, Mets, and Phillies to each lose two additional games based on their chemistry.)

“Chemistry is not just about players liking each other,” Spell says. “If you have good chemistry, that will contribute to winning.”