Standing on the field, addressing the crowd after the Giants clinched the NL West, manager Gabe Kapler sought to explain how a team projected to win 72-75 games had won 107.
He cited his players, of course, and his coaching staff. And then the man who was hired for his fluency in analytics revealed his appreciation for the unquantifiable value of clubhouse chemistry.
“At the beginning of the season,” he said, “dating back to spring training and what the expectations were and what the industry thought of us as a club, what I realize is there are some intangibles that those projections and viewpoints failed to take into consideration.”
Joan Ryan was among those in attendance last Sunday. Ryan wrote the book on intangibles and then watched the Giants prove her point.
“Intangibles — Unlocking the Science and Soul of Team Chemistry” was published in April, a 10-year project that went into print just as the Giants were getting started on the season that would shock the baseball world.
“So much of it is the culture that Gabe Kapler and his coaches have created, a culture of trust,” Ryan said later. “Gabe can make any move he wants and that team will 100 percent trust him even if they don’t understand it. They totally trust he’s making the best decision for the team.”
A former Bay Area sports columnist and author of four previous books, Ryan has been a media consultant for the Giants for 14 years. She had long been fascinated by the concept of chemistry and interpersonal relationships and how they factor into success or failure in team sports.
Skeptics remain, and not just in baseball, which has become increasingly data-based in its thinking. In her book, Ryan sought out disbelievers as well as believers. She had her own doubts, but like the Giants, eventually went all-in on the concept.
“As simplistic as it sounds, it’s really difficult get 25, 26 guys on the same page and really committed and it says so much about Kapler and his staff — how they got everybody to buy in so completely,” Ryan said.
Giants analyst and former pitcher Mike Krukow was an early sounding board. The book was dedicated to him, although at one point he was unaware the project was ongoing as Ryan painstakingly sought sources of information to explain the unexplainable. The bibliography lists 63 separate sources, which don’t include her own interviews with players, coaches and professionals in the field of neuroscience, sociology and psychology.
“When she first told me she was doing this, I thought she’d spit it out in a year,” Krukow said. “When she came to me and said, ‘I’m really close to being done,’ I had forgotten all about it. When she finally unveiled the thing, I was like, ‘No wonder it took so long.’”
The Giants’ chemistry and willingness among the players to sacrifice for the good of the team has been a year-long theme, cultivated by president of operations Farhan Zaidi, his front office and Kapler in terms of player acquisition.
“We take our clubhouse mix very seriously,” Kapler said.
An environment has been created whereby players who split time based on lefty-righty matchups pull for each other, and relief pitchers whose roles are not always clearly defined have melded into a bullpen with an all-for-one mindset.
“Oh, it’s definitely unique,” right-hander Tyler Rogers said. “How everybody gets along with everybody, a close-knit group, you don’t get that often. It speaks to the camaraderie we have. We don’t care what inning we throw in and we have confidence in everyone to do every job and we honestly root for each other.”
None of which would have happened, Ryan contends, without Kapler getting complete buy-in from veterans such as Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford, Brandon Belt, Evan Longoria and Johnny Cueto. (Belt, in fact, suggested “Intangibles” as the title for the book.)
“If you don’t get them,” Ryan said, referring to the core veterans, “you don’t get anybody.
“The other reason they’re all in? Because it’s fun to be all-in and start to win. There’s nothing better than being part of a winning, committed team. Most of us haven’t had that since we were kids, to be surrounded by people that totally have your back. It’s like a singular pleasure I don’t think we get to experience anywhere else.”
When Zaidi and Kapler unveiled their 14-member coaching staff, including several who had no experience at the major league level, Krukow had his doubts.
“For the longest time there has been a huge prejudice that big-league players have in terms of listening to coaches that don’t have big-league time,” Krukow said. “It’s been a relationship that borders on rudeness. A lot of these men and women didn’t have big-league experience. I wondered how it was all going to fall out.”
What compelled the Giants veterans to sign on? Krukow believes the answer is simple: the new staff convinced them they could be better players even at an advanced (in baseball terms) age.
“All of them saw the regiment of work, thought it through and felt, `You know what? I can get better at my age,” Krukow said. “And it is rare for one guy to do it, let alone five guys. It’s remarkable. Absolutely remarkable.”
Although reporters haven’t been allowed in the clubhouse since the pandemic, Ryan has been told players are spending more time than usual together, talking baseball over a cold beverage.
” A couple of players have told me this, that after games, it’s almost like the 1980s again,” Ryan said. “The entire bullpen and the position players are sitting around, grabbing a beer and talking ball. That didn’t create chemistry, it’s just the evidence of chemistry.”
The seven archetypes
Whether it’s baseball, football, basketball or hockey, Ryan observed patterns of behavior that she distilled to create seven archetypes that are present in locker rooms and the clubhouse and contribute to team-building and success.
They are as follows: The Sparkplug, The Sage, The Kid, The Enforcer, The Buddy, The Warrior, and The Jester.
One athlete might encompass more than one archetype. For example, Ryan believes the Warriors’ Stephen Curry qualifies in all seven categories (He can be “The Kid” because of his youthful innocence and joy while playing).
A look at which Giants fall into which archetypes:
The Sparkplug–There isn’t your classic Hunter Pence type sparkplug, but Belt qualifies because of his ability to stir things up. Wearing the captain’s C on his uniform in electrical tape is a prime example.
The Sage–Posey, Belt, Crawford and Longoria qualify as wise veterans who have seen it all and can give timely advice to younger players that need soothing and counsel.
The Kid–The obvious choice is Game 1 starter Logan Webb, a 24-year-old right-hander with a puppy-dog eagerness which gives way to a bulldog mentality on the mound.
The Enforcer–Posey has been known to take players aside in a matter-of-fact fashion and make sure standards of team play are upheld.
The Buddy–Starting pitcher Kevin Gausman is a go-to for pitchers, Webb in particular. Kris Bryant is even-tempered and inclusive.
The Warrior–Posey has produced for three World Series champions, Crawford two and Belt two. They are postseason tested. Crawford, as well as infielder Wilmer Flores, have a reputation for playing and producing through injury and illness.
The Jester–Kapler stopped in midsentence this week to get a laugh at Johnny Cueto having the time of his life taking infield practice. Belt, with his deadpan delivery, has made teammates (as well as the media) laugh for years.