Friday, June 1, 2007

Do Closed-Door Meetings Work?

This story about the Cubs' closed-door meeting before Wednesday's game was the first time I can ever recall a reporter actually asking the players whether such meetings make a difference:

[Derek] Lee didn’t want to talk specifics other than to say it was “obvious” why the meeting was called, but he did admit that the immediate success rate of such meetings isn’t overwhelmingly high. "I would say they’re 50-50 in my experience, so we’ll see what happens,” Lee said.
Immediately speaking, nothing happened, as the Cubs left their meeting and went out and got shellacked 9-0 by the Marlins.

But is Lee right? Can teams expect closed-door or player-only pep talks to light a fire about 50% of the time? Now is certainly time to ask the question, because we are entering high season for closed-door meetings. Those magical, pre-batting practice affairs during which troubled teams try to talk their way out of jams that their bodies played their way into. My guess is that they don't work, mostly because the teams that hold such meetings are already in bad shape to begin with, and no amount of air-clearing or touchy-feeliness is likely to right a sinking ship.

But what do the numbers say?

Unfortunately, doesn't keep track of such things, so I had to resort to some illicit Lexis-Nexis research on my law firm's dime, trying to track down as many reports of "closed-door" or "players' only meetings" that have taken place since June 1, 2006. Ignoring those meetings which seemed to deal with issues other than a team's poor performance (e.g. Boston had one last year to announce Jon Lester's Lymphoma diagnosis; the Marlins had about a dozen following last year's Girardi-Loria dust up.), I found twenty-seven of them, nineteen after June 1st of last season, eight through May 31st of this one. There were probably a handful more that some reporter didn't find out about, but I'm guessing I nabbed the lion's share.

So, do they work?

To figure this out, I looked at a team's record at the time the meeting took place, the results of the first game immediately following the meeting, the results in the first ten games following the meeting, and then looked at the team's final record. Some findings:

  • The average winning percentage for a team holding a closed-door meeting was .474;

  • Teams holding a closed-door meeting were 14-13 (.518) in their first game following the meeting;

  • Teams posted an average winning percentage of .471 in the first ten games following a closed-door meeting;

  • The average end-of-season winning percentage for teams which held closed-door meetings -- or in the case of 2007, the current winning percentage -- was .481.

Upshot: while a closed-door meeting gave teams a modest boost right after adjournment, teams which went the Dr. Phil route actually performed worse in their first ten games following the meeting than they had before the meeting. Over the course of the season, the closed-door meetings meant a .007 boost in winning percentage, which translates to 1.1 wins.

While these numbers seem to suggest that closed door meetings don't work particularly well, Derek Lee was being a bit pessimistic regarding how often the gambit works. Sixteen of the twenty seven teams who had closed-door meetings finished the season with better records than they had at the time the meeting was held, which beats his guess of 50-50.

Some random fun:

  • The best team to call a closed-door meeting was Mets, who had one on August 9th of last year, when they were 67-44 and running away with the NL East. The reports I saw didn't say why a team that was cruising decided to convene a meeting. Maybe they just wanted to play some Cranium in private?

  • The Mariners, Marlins, Phillies, Yankees, Dodgers, and Nats have all had multiple closed-door meetings during the period I reviewed. The Braves, Cardinals, Astros, Reds, Padres, D-Backs, Red Sox, Orioles, Twins, Tigers, and A's had none. I had hoped to find some common thread among teams that either had or didn't have closed-door meetings. Eyeballing it tempts me to make an argument that teams with respected gray-hairs at the helm (Braves, Cardinals, Tigers) tended not to, but with a couple of odd exceptions, it's mostly the losing teams that have them. Not really a surprise.

  • The Dodgers are the kings of the closed-door meetings. They had three of them after June 1, 2006 last season alone. The first one sent them on a 17-28 skid until the next meeting, after which they won 28 of their next 42. They must have figured that they had tapped into the secret of meetings at that point, because they had another one in early September, ended the season winning 13 of their final 21 and made the playoffs;

  • The Nats also had three meetings last year, though they didn't help at all. The first two were a mere thirteen days apart in June, and went a combined 8-12 in the ten games after each meeting. They were a .447 team before they started conclaving and .438 at season's end. Clearly, they should have just kept the doors open;

  • The Phillies like their meetings to be a bit dramatic. Each of their two confabs were, according to the news reports, called by Jimmy Rollins, the first on the Fourth of July and the most recent on Opening Day. Maybe the stars-and-stripes bunting goes to his head.

Apart from the fact that I really need a research assistant, what did we learn here today? Not much, really. At least not much we didn't already suspect. Losing teams are the ones that most feel the need to clear the air, and all of that air-clearing doesn't do much to help matters. Despite whatever your local columnist is going to write round about the All-Star break, your sorry team needs more than some motivational rah-rah in order to turn things around, and bad clubhouse chemistry is the symptom, not the cause, of a losing team.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to a meeting.