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What the Cleveland Indians can teach us about chemistry, coaching, and preparation.

A Blue Jackets coffee mug Dan P.

On the surface, baseball and hockey couldn’t be more different. Baseball is a slow grind, hockey is lightning fast. Baseball relies on offense and defense being separate (but equally important) entities, hockey demands the ability to seamlessly transition on the fly. Baseball focuses on the individual, hockey is a total team sport.

Except that, as the Cleveland Indians are proving right now, a complete TEAM in baseball can be a sum greater than its parts. As the fans of a struggling, (hopefully) up and coming young hockey team, there’s something for us to latch onto there.

Stars win games. That’s true in almost any sport in small sample sizes. The Blue Jackets are a team devoid of any true “star” players right now, I would submit. We’ve discussed the merits of tanking for high draft picks ad infinitum on this site; this isn’t a post about that.

Rather, it’s a discussion about how, in the right situation and under the right Circumstances, a team can be better than any sum total of its parts on paper. It’s a reflection on the Blue Jackets’ young players—both here now and potentially down the road—can translate that formula into success on the ice. After all, Stars win Games; TEAMS WIN CHAMPIONSHIPS.

But also, it’s a commentary about preparation and chemistry.

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My dad had a saying (and I’m quite sure it wasn’t unique to him) that he would drop on me every time I half-assed something to disastrous results: “Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance.” It’s catchy, and it’s true.

To wit, consider the Cleveland Indians in Monday’s Game 3 of the ALCS. They went in knowing full well that there was probably no way Trevor Bauer was getting through five innings with his pitching hand a grizzled mess of stitches and scab. I’m sure, deep down, they hoped Bauer could give them a few innings of work. It was not to be, as after 21 pitches and two outs, blood was almost pouring out of his right pinkie finger for all the world to see.

Did the Indians panic? Did they basically throw their hands up and roll over to fight another day in Game 4? After all, with a 2-0 series lead, it would have been easy to manage for the series instead of for trying to win Game 3.

But we all (and especially Mike, I’m guessing) know how they approached it. They had clearly come to the ballpark with a detailed contingency plan for whatever Bauer could give them, up to and including using pitchers that hadn’t pitched in a competitive ballgame in over two weeks. All the way back to Saturday night (after winning Game 2), Terry Francona and Mickey Callaway had their bullpen pitchers throwing a simulated game, simply to stay sharp and face some semblance of live hitting.

Boy, did it pay off last night.

I’m not ready to say whether or not John Tortorella definitively is or is not “that guy” yet, but it’s clear to me on some level that he values this kind of preparation, from the immediate diagnosis of the Jackets’ lack of conditioning to the scripted training camp mapped out back in February.

Tortorella’s job—and his future success or failure in Columbus—will largely depend on his ability to prepare his charges for the season(s) ahead. Terry Francona is thriving right now on baseball’s biggest stage because he’s analyzed his team’s strengths and weaknesses, and he’s getting almost every single matchup that he wants correct. Sure, his players are executing, but it’s clear that the preparation that has been done ahead of time is putting those players in the best position to succeed and to execute the game plan. In six games—all wins—I’m struggling to think of one move that Francona has made that didn’t pay off. At the very least, none of them have conspicuously backfired.

Sum >>> Parts: Sports Math

The Tribe’s slogan for the post-season has been a simple one: #RallyTogether. It sounds trite, perhaps, but there’s a lot of truth there. Sometimes, it can be as simple as proverbially “coming together as a team”. And while this is a big area where I think the Jackets can draw some comparisons to the Tribe, it’s easier said than done.

What the Jackets have now is a young roster without that one true star. And while we’ve conceded above that baseball allows for more individual dominance...

...there are some parallels to be drawn. The Indians have a lot of young guys coming into their own, but (with apologies to the constant Laying Waste that Miller has done each and every night) they’ve also had seemingly a different guy step up every single night in the playoffs. From the stud shortstop phenom to the rookie outfielder scuffling at the plate only to get the most clutch hit of the Boston series. From the backup catcher taking an extra base to the basepaths-speed of the platoon center fielder who got the start because of the left handed pitcher. From the third baseman turned right fielder who never really met his development expectations to the utility man turned slick fielding third baseman turned absolute clutch RBI machine. From the often-maligned DH slapping a bunt down the third baseline to beat The Shift to the second baseman scuffling at the plate turning around a flat fastball to give his team the lead.

Much like the Lake Erie Monsters had a different hero each night in the playoffs, so have these Cleveland Indians. That, in my opinion, does two things:

1) It helps players to “stay in their lane” so to speak. One of the worst things in playoff sports is when someone tries to do too much, to do more than they’re capable of doing. Trust your team. Do your job, do what you are capable of doing.

2) It fosters that sense of chemistry, of belief in your teammates, and of elevation of the collective. You’re going to work as hard as you can for the person next to you, because that person is going to do the same for you.

But, it takes more than that to become a Sum >>> Parts team.

Mike Napoli is 34, on his fourth MLB team, and has provided a much needed in-clubhouse boost through personality as well as experience; he’s got a World Series ring, and he commands the respect of the young players. He was invisible for much of the post-season, but his team needed him to hit last night, and he did.

Coco Crisp also has a ring, and though he didn’t do much of anything in the 20 games he played for Cleveland, his calm demeanor and playoff experience have been invaluable assets for this club. His ability to execute—within himself and within the flow of the games—has been arguably one of the most important aspects of this club’s success thus far.

I’m not saying, obviously, that what the Jackets need to do is to go out and grab a bunch of mid-30s “experience”. Far from it. My point is this, however: there’s something to be gained for a young team from the “right” guys who have been through the battles before and come out on the other side as champions. Brandon Saad could be that guy, despite his young age. Tortorella has a Cup; it remains to be seen whether that can filter down. Brandon Dubinsky and Scott Hartnell have tasted some playoff success in their careers despite not reaching the ultimate goal.

More specifically, though, for this young group: the Lake Erie Monsters’ Calder Cup run this summer in many ways parallels what the Tribe is doing: loads of young guys playing above their heads in small part aided by the boost of older guys showing them the way. Ryan Craig may not be a fair comparison to Mike Napoli, but it’s clear both have embraced the role of mentor to young players.

For the Jackets to become that team devoid of stars that can overcome injuries (like 40% of your starting rotation, your starting catcher, and your All Star center fielder), that can rise above the obstacles put in front of them (say, losing your first eight games in one season and losing your first two in the following season), and that can elevate the collective much higher than the paper sum of the parts, they must complete their internal journey as a group to become one cohesive organism.

There are a few pieces in place that will either make or break that development. It’s going to come down to a combination of things: coaching, designation of roles, and chemistry.

The Cleveland Indians have mapped out how to turn that into success. They may not win the World Series this year (hell, their rotation is hanging by a thread and they still need to win another game against a very good team just to get to the Fall Classic), but they’ve shown how a team with no real stars can use a solid formula of team building to overcome their obstacles.

Figure out what you do well, and accentuate it. Figure out what you do poorly and do your best to hide it. Create a community of mutual accountability among your players. Teach them what they need to do to be successful, and then prepare them to execute when the time comes.

The Jackets are a long way away from where the Tribe now sits, one win away from advancing to play for a championship. But, even though baseball and hockey couldn’t be more different, at the end of the day, building a successful team on ice in Columbus might not be much different than taking a good, hard look at the baseball diamond 150 miles up I-71.