No sport has seen a data revolution quite as intense as baseball has. Its specialized numbers have been central to the game since the 19th century, but following the work of Bill James and the sabermetric community, the use of strange figures and acronyms sparked first a riotous division and then a gradual acceptance into mainstream usage. The arguments have mostly died down – it’s been a while since we’ve seen a prominent writer complaint about bloggers in their basements trying to ruin the national pastime – but as data accumulate and the game changes shape, it becomes trickier to know what to do with the mass of analysis.

Sportswriter Joan Ryan, without rejecting the numbers community, uses her years of experience and access to consider some of what we might be missing when we focus on spreadsheets and market inefficiencies. Her new book Intangibles specifically examines team chemistry, trying to understanding exactly what brings a group of players together as something more than the sum of their parts. Ryan focuses on baseball as a natural choice given her own work, but also as the sport that offers a particular challenge. Other team sports clearly need a certain cohesion among a group, but baseball largely comprises a series of individual actions. If chemistry affects baseball teams, it must be a significant factor worth considering.

Ryan follows two main threads in building her argument that team chemistry does play a part in a squad’s success. In the first, she looks at relevant work in neuroscience, biology and more. She makes some compelling finds, melding biochemistry and psychology for a nice overview of the interactions that aren’t so measurable. The other tack involves interviews with managers and players, which makes the research more concrete. Understanding the role of oxytocin within a ball team is one thing, but hearing how Aubrey Huff changes a team brings force to Ryan’s argument.

The book makes for a mostly engaging read, but it only achieves a fairly modest point. Ryan successfully supports her ideas about team chemistry, but only so far. Only the most hardened statheads don’t believe in team chemistry at all (even in baseball), so for Ryan to point out that interpersonal relationships help doesn’t advance the conversation enough. To make a more convincing case, it would have been nice to find some sort of data to support her argument (which is, of course, the very paradox of the project of convincing data-driven minds).

The biological arguments work well, but Ryan’s efforts to find archetypes stumbles significantly. She suggests that healthy teams have a variety of types, but it turns out that players can switch roles, have multiple roles, etc. The whole work sounds more descriptive (and maybe reductive) than prescriptive. In a good setting, someone will fill each of the relevant roles.

Ryan also struggles to explain why players like Barry Bonds don’t kill team chemistry (Bonds retired without a championship ring, but his teams regularly won a high number of games). It seems that being really, really talented can’t override the possibility of becoming a clubhouse cancer. If Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent couldn’t tank a team, it feels like no one could (except for the players who do). By the end, Ryan argues that team chemistry really matters, unless your players are very talented because then no one really cares about chemistry, meaning… talent wins? She could have stepped outside of baseball here to look at what happens in sports where player interaction might be more vital to on-field play. It’s easier to ignore Bonds and just wait for him to homer than it is to set a screen for a basketball teammate you can’t stand. As an example, Ryan could have dug into Real Madrid’s galácticos experiments to consider how and why talent isn’t always enough.

If the argument of the book isn’t paradigm-shifting, at least it frequently makes for good reading, especially for baseball fans. Ryan focuses on the San Francisco Giants (she covered the city for over 20 years), and she gets deep into the team’s culture over the years. Her conversations with Bonds are especially fascinating. She develops enough rapport with the superstar to allow him to speak freely. Fans will enjoy the insights into his years and into his relationship with Kent. The more Ryan gets inside the teams, the more exciting the book becomes, regardless of the discussion about team chemistry.

By its close, Intangibles makes a case for a limited role for team chemistry in sports. Ryan doesn’t advance the argument much, but she uncovers interesting material to write about it, both in the laboratory and in the locker room. The book probably won’t sway any SABR-style thinkers, but it should entertain baseball fans and maybe open some doors for further work.

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