When Orioles catcher Matt Wieters went down for the season with an elbow injury in May, baseball savants were ready to throw dirt on the team's chances. The three-time All-Star not only played a key position, he was a crucial part of the team leadership.
The Orioles front office, led by Dan Duquette, swung into action. They traded for a veteran catcher and gave more playing time to a rookie. The pair handled pitchers well, hit more than a dozen homers combined and helped drive in more runs.
Now the Orioles lead the Detroit Tigers 2-0 in the best-of-five American League Division Series, en route to what Baltimore hopes is its first World Series in more than three decades. It's an unexpected outcome after many predicted the team would finish well behind the Boston Red Sox, Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees in the AL East.
But to those at the Orioles Warehouse, the team's success this year has been a carefully calculated outcome, one based on countless moves such as the ones to replace Wieters.
Turns out the Orioles in uniform aren't the only ones who function as a team. Behind the scenes, Duquette's front office relies on a range of contributors, from old-school scouts who gauge talent by watching players compete to younger executives adept at the statistics-driven approach captured in "Moneyball," the best-selling book and motion picture.
"The front office is a lot like the club you see on the field," said Loyola University Maryland economist Stephen J. K. Walters, who uses the advanced statistical analysis called sabermetrics to advise Duquette on player moves. Sabermetricians take their name from the wonky Society for American Baseball Research.
"In addition to a great work ethic, everyone here has skills that complement each other," Walters said. "Dan collates information from more sources than you can imagine. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts."
Duquette, a former catcher at Amherst College, called the position "the foundation of any defensive team." The response to losing Wieters, he said, was an exercise in collaboration.
He described a team response to the loss of Wieters, when the club acquired veteran Nick Hundley and called up rookie Caleb Joseph.
"It took people throughout our franchise to pull it off — scouts, analytics people, coaches, the manager," he said. "If you want to see how the organization worked this year, that's a great place to start."
Duquette, whose formal title is executive vice president for baseball operations, got his start in the professional game 34 years ago under Milwaukee Brewers general manger Harry Dalton, an architect of the powerhouse Oriole teams of the 1960s and early '70s.
Duquette, a Massachusetts native, later helped turn the 1990s Montreal Expos into perennial contenders, then laid much of the groundwork for the Red Sox team that would win the 2004 World Series, breaking that team's 86-year championship drought.
A glance at his current crew suggests the lessons he learned along the way.
Duquette, 56, relies on both approaches described by "Moneyball" author Michael Lewis: traditional, scouting-based player evaluation and cutting-edge statistical analysis.
"It's all geared toward identifying talent and measuring performance," he said. "There are a lot of weights and measures today. We use them to take a 360-degree look at player contracts before we acquire one."
Duquette has his baseball "lifers," the sages who were educated in the game's school of hard knocks. Some have stellar resumes.
Special assistant Lee Thomas, 78, a former major league executive of the year, helped run the St. Louis Cardinals when they won three National League titles in the 1980s and served as general manager of the pennant-winning 1993 Philadelphia Phillies. He has eyes on players at every level.
International scouting director Fred Ferreira, 77, who signed slugger Vladimir Guerrero and Yankees star Bernie Williams and more than 70 other players to their first pro contracts, discovered Orioles starter Miguel Gonzalez toiling in the Mexican leagues. He still combs Latin America for potential major leaguers.
Gary Rajsich, 60, who drafted pitcher Jon Lester for the Red Sox in 2002, heads the club's scouting program. John Stockstill, is the director of player personnel and Dean Albany scouts the Mid-Atlantic region.
"The veteran baseball men who have made their livelihood in the game — I find them absolutely invaluable," Duquette said. "They all have a knack for identifying talent, and all of them are great teachers."
Duquette also has his analytics types. These team members have seen much less baseball, but bring more formal education. They're experts in such new metrics as range factor, adjusted production and wins above replacement — attempts to express objectively the traits that scouts intuit on the field, in numbers that can be weighed, analyzed and compared.
Sarah Gelles, a fellow Amherst graduate, is the team's director of baseball analytics. Mike Snyder, a Princeton alum, helps Stockstill direct player personnel. Matt Koizim, who has an MBA from University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, coordinates professional scouting. All are under 30.
Among the sabermetricians, Walters, the Loyola professor, is the anomaly; he's 60.
"The kids we've hired in the front office have extremely high intelligence," Duquette said. "They also have a great work ethic and a great passion for baseball. We screen for those qualities. You have to have them to put in the hours we do."
Front office team members say each group complements the other. An analytics type can test the hunch of a scout who likes the sizzle of a pitcher's fastball. A baseball person can run an eye test on a stats geek's theories.
The interplay between the camps can border on the comical. Albany, a Baltimore native and longtime local scout and coach, said one statmeister tried to tell him a certain player had good range.
"I said, 'good range?! Ever seen his slow [backside] move? You know where you can put your analytics,'" he recalled, laughing. "These [kids] see me coming, they lock the door."
But Albany says working with the new metrics is essential in the modern game.
In the front office, that kind of teamwork is a daily thing. A few young executives watch every game with Duquette. If the starting pitcher gets knocked out early, one might call minor league director Brian Graham or Ron Johnson, the manager at the Orioles' Triple-A affiliate in Norfolk, to find out who's available and put a move in motion.
"While the game's going on, behind the scenes, we're trying to make sure we're already ahead, we're OK for the next day," said Ned Rice, another young exec.
The group also plans further ahead. As the season entered its final phase, slugging first baseman Chris Davis was struggling with a season-long slump that left his batting average below .200, but with his 20-plus home runs, he was still seen as a power threat from the left side.
Duquette still wanted more left-handed pop, an idea some critics viewed as unnecessary.
His network found and added Jimmy Paredes, a Royals infielder, and Alejandro De Aza, a White Sox outfielder. Two weeks after final deadline for trades, Davis was hit with a 25-game suspension for using a banned stimulant.
Those late-season acquisitions lessened the sting of Davis' absence.
Walters said Orioles manager Buck Showalter "is famous for asking the question, 'What if?'"
"What if Adam [Jones] gets hurt? What if [Wei-Yin] Chen blows an arm out? So many things can and will go wrong in a baseball season. We also work long hours to make sure there's a Plan B."
When acquiring a new player, Duquette said, the club checks to make sure he brings a strong work ethic, mental toughness and a passion for baseball — qualities evident in team leaders such as Jones, J.J. .Hardy and Nick Markakis, and traits likely to resonate with Baltimore fans.
Those were factors in the all-out mission to replace Wieters.
When the starting catcher first felt soreness in his throwing arm in May, the front office assembled a list of available major leaguers. Internal scouts vetted prospects in the system.
Dave Engle, 57, who scouts California for the Orioles, had seen Hundley, a seven-year veteran, play for the San Diego Padres, and liked the catcher's smarts and occasional power. Front-office metrics showed him to be a good defender and handler of pitchers.
Brady Anderson, the Orioles vice president for baseball operations, and others liked Joseph, who had spent most of four years at Double-A Bowie but had good power and a great attitude.
Duquette saw the pair as complements — one a major league veteran who handled right-handed pitchers well, the other a rookie good with lefties.
Hundley, 31, the son of a football coach, was also familiar with effective teaching styles, and Joseph, 28, was a great student.
Rice and operations director Tripp Norton finessed the money side, making it work within the Orioles' middle-of-the-pack payroll, which stood at about $107 million when the season began.
"You have to be sensitive about price in this market," Walters said. "There's a huge opportunity cost to wasting money. … Some people complained when we traded [closer] Jim Johnson [in the offseason], but the $10 million we didn't pay for him, we paid for Nelson Cruz."
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Johnson foundered with the Oakland Athletics and eventually was cut. Cruz led the major leagues in the regular season with 40 home runs.
The Orioles didn't get that kind of pop out of their new catchers, but they got value.
Showalter, bench coach John Russell, bullpen coach Dom Chiti and pitching coach Dave Wallace, all known as fine teachers, worked closely with Joseph, Duquette said. So did Wieters and Hundley, elevating the rookie's skills to major league readiness.
"That shows good player development at the major league level," Duquette said.
The catcher is the only position player who's in on every pitch and out, and serves as the manager's representative on the field. If the Orioles manage to beat the Tigers, it won't be because Joseph or Hundley turned into Yogi Berra or Johnny Bench, or even Wieters.
"Every good organization has a mission statement," Walters said. "Ours is basically to outwork everybody else. And to work as a team."