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Camaraderie a key factor as Rays build team

PORT CHARLOTTE — As the Rays were working to finalize a deal with free agent Steve Pearce in January, they invited him over to the Trop from his Lakeland home to meet informally with team officials.

In theory, the hour-or-so-long session was part of their sales pitch. The Rays wanted Pearce to hear face-to-face how much he was wanted, to show him around the clubhouse and training facilities, to take his wife to see the family and childcare areas.

"It was nice to be courted," Pearce said.

But the Rays were seeking something, too. They used the opportunity, albeit brief, to look Pearce in the eyes and look him over, seeing how he carried and presented himself before making what for them was a significant commitment of nearly $5 million.

"We wanted to get a sense of him," manager Kevin Cash said.

As much as statistical-and-data-driven teams such as the Rays see baseball as a numbers game, they also must account for the reality that it is still very much a people business, with the human element a vital variable and clubhouse an ongoing chemistry experiment.

"We have to," Cash said. "Because of what we're about, we know we have to have that mentality to be successful. We can't compete with payroll, so we have to be better people, better teammates.

"We have to bet on people. And we're going to do everything we can to bet on the right people."

Baseball tends to be a copycat industry. Just look, for example, at the number of teams that now employ the extreme defensive shifts and roster-extending super-utility player the Rays essentially pioneered.

The use of sabermetric data and advanced statistics has become so widespread, even old-school "hold-out" teams such as the Phillies and Tigers have recently embraced and enhanced their analytics departments.

But then there was a seemingly seismic shift back last month. Red Sox owner John Henry said they had gone too far, that they had counted too heavily "on numbers" in banking on past performance and future projections. "We were," Henry said, "reliant too heavily on analytics."

As much as the Rays are known for their cutting-edge analytics, and as much as it has been a part of their past success, baseball operations president Matt Silverman said their challenge is to strike the right balance.

"We are an analytical organization," Silverman said. "More so than that, we are process-oriented. Our goal is to get the most out of every different approach and the interplay among them."

When the Rays are considering signing or trading for a new player, they typically unleash their cadre of numbers crunchers to delve deeply into stats, search files in the proprietary data system they call Uncle Charlie and run myriad projections on how the potential new acquisition could, even should, do.

But the numbers, no matter how high quality the research, can't tell them everything they need to know.

"Analytics definitely play a role," said All-Star pitcher Chris Archer, one of game's more erudite players. "But there are three components that it doesn't compute.

"It's what's in your head. What's in your heart. And what's … (looking down his body) … I don't know how to say it … your … gall.''

Though the Rays use some personality-type tests in compiling scouting profiles of amateurs, they don't while engaging with free agents. They haven't — yet, anyway — bought into the new-wave methods that supposedly can measure intangibles such as makeup or competitiveness. They're not hiring private investigators to follow players away from the field or dig through their trash.

What they do do is talk to a lot of people, asking their staff — Cash, coaches, executives, scouts — for input then to reach out to their friends to do the same.

"We do our homework to find out as much as we can about the player," Silverman said. "There is the analysis of the performance, but there is also a great effort that we undertake to get to know the player and how he's going to mesh with our culture."

For example, when the chance arose to acquire shortstop Brad Miller and first baseman Logan Morrison (plus reliever Danny Farquhar) from Seattle, Cash quickly called buddy Chris Woodward, who had been the Mariners infield coach, to get the lowdown about everything from character to hitting mechanics.

The Rays have had mostly good results even with players who were considered problems elsewhere, such as Yunel Escobar and Fernando Rodney.

But they don't always make the right call. Sometimes a player that is "a good guy" elsewhere may be unhappy with how the Rays platoon and/or use matchups. They may not be a good fit with the Rays' relaxed clubhouse culture. They don't transition well to the American League East. Poor performance changes their personality.

Signing Pat Burrell in 2009 to be the DH he didn't want to be, and guaranteeing him $16 million over two years, stands out as the biggest of a few such failures of the current ownership.

"There is some unpredictability there," Silverman said. "You don't know positively or negatively which way a guy is going to be when he gets into a new situation. It goes both ways."

Acquiring the "right" guys is only the first step.

Next is to have them fit together and develop that bond that seems an integral part of every October success story, evidenced most recently by the Royals, and antithesized by the A's, who at times go all Moneyball in coldly assembling pieces.

Call it camaraderie or chemistry or cohesiveness — and that's just the C's — but understand how much it factors in.

"I've heard people say that that doesn't count, it doesn't matter," Nationals manager Dusty Baker said last week. "If you've ever been on a team, you know it matters a lot. It's very, very important. This game is still played by people with feelings, fears, aspirations, dreams."

Figuring out how to get the most out of a diverse group of players with individual goals can be something of a science — part psychology in keeping them happy and feeling involved, part strategy in putting them in the best roles to succeed.

For example, before each game the numbers crunchers generate a data sheet — "the matrix" — that projects the Rays' best offensive matchups against the opposing starter and their relievers vs. the other hitters.

But it is then up to Cash and the coaches to factor in the human element, the faces and personalities that go with the numbers.

That could be a physical issue, such as a player being fatigued, sick, hung over, limited by an undisclosed nagging injury.

But also the mental side: Who needs a day off because his confidence is low? Who might be frustrated by not playing and could benefit from an unexpected start? Who is distracted by a family matter or a contract issue and needs a personal day?

When Dan Jennings went from the Marlins front office to take over as manager last season, he said the biggest eye opener was how much more those elements factored in than the computers accounted for.

"You can get the smartest people in the world, but this is a people game," said Jennings, a former Rays executive. "It's played by individuals who are going to have good days and bad days. They are going to be beat up a little bit, they're going to be sore. They're going to be frustrated. And all those emotional things. There's no formula for that, period. …

"We can never lose sight that this game is played by individuals, and every day is not going to be like a machine."

Similarly, the Rays believe players do better when they are comfortable. Thus a priority is the relaxed and positive-themed clubhouse environment, albeit less zany than in the Joe Maddon days, that Cash maintains.

For example, the occasional wrestling match. "I can sit here and put (Cash) in a headlock and just joke around with him because we get each other's humor," centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier said. "It's a joy playing for someone like that."

Still, every player is not going to be happy. They're not going to all fit or get along. The "good" guys aren't always good players.

As much as the stats and the scouting reports, it's all part of the game.

"We think that there's value in camaraderie in the clubhouse and the collection of people who make up the roster and essentially live together for seven months of the year," Silverman said. "If that culture and if that vibe is a positive one, it's going to result in more wins and can be a differentiator above the talent level that we accumulate."

Marc Topkin can be reached at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

Camaraderie a key factor as Rays build team 03/05/16 [Last modified: Sunday, March 6, 2016 12:34am]
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