Wherever the Orioles end up on their long rebuilding road, the intersection of a dominant Division III draftee and the hitting coach hired from a local junior college at Short-A Aberdeen will be a fascinating one to look back upon.
In New York-Penn League All-Star Toby Welk and Aberdeen hitting coach Tom Eller, the Orioles have the fruits of a sprawling draft coverage strategy. Their work is an example of the emphasis on hiring forward-thinking coaches and shows what’s possible on the hitting side in a year when minor league pitching progress has earned most of the attention.
“The scoreboard is an accumulation of runs,” Orioles assistant general manager for analytics Sig Mejdal said. “It doesn’t matter how or from who you got those runs. If it’s from an overweight shortstop with the yips or a Division III player from a school nobody has heard of, the scoreboard is ignorant of that. It’s our goal to do all we can to maximize runs and sometimes the opportunities are in unusual places.”
That shortstop with the yips was 2011 St. Louis Cardinals World Series hero Allen Craig, who Mejdal said was his favorite analytics-driven draftee.
The Division III player is Welk, the Orioles’ 21st-round draft pick out of Penn State-Berks, who proved he could hit to the tune of a .483/.555/.938 slash line as a senior and has only refined it with Eller’s advice. Welk, 22, is batting .344/.397/.500 with four home runs and 12 doubles for the IronBirds.
Eller was the head coach at Harford Community College and used modern hitting philosophies to build great offenses at the junior college level before the Orioles hired him in January to be the hitting coach at Aberdeen.
Together, they represent an example of the Orioles’ commitment to finding the right players and developing them in a way they know will work.
“You can’t go to battle with science,” Eller said. “It’s all right there.”
Eller was interviewing to be the minor league infield coordinator with the Los Angeles Angels when a friend called him and told him the Orioles were looking for a minor league hitting coach. The friend passed Eller’s name along to the Orioles. Eller came down to Baltimore for a lengthy interview with executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias and Mejdal in January, and his use of technology and his hitting philosophies interested them greatly.
“I was there for four hours, and basically just told them what I taught and how I taught it and my beliefs on things,” Eller said. “They called me on the way home and offered me the job. I think that because they were kind of in a pinch, honestly, and it was January, they needed a guy. I just happened to fall on their doorstep.”
Said Mejdal: “In many ways, he’s a modern hitting coach, that his desire for technology rivals that of an analyst, yet he has a lot of experience on the field, with real players, with real problems.”
Eller began the season at Low-A Delmarva, but was hired to coach at Aberdeen, where the first batch of players identified and drafted by Elias and Mejdal were in his charge. No one on the Opening Day roster had Welk’s track record.
“When he got drafted, I talked to Sig about him,” Eller said. “He said, ‘Let me know what you think of him.’ I pictured this big, strong, muscle-bound [guy], just not really smooth in his swing. Then when I got here, I saw him. This kid is athletic, he’s lean, he can move well, and it was actually a pleasant surprise. I’m surprised he wasn’t a D-I player, honestly. His hand-eye coordination is incredible, and it’s easy to work with.”
Just getting drafted and playing pro ball was a dream for Welk, who grew up in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, and did nothing but hit in four years at Penn State-Berks. The statistics put him on the radar of Orioles analyst Michael Weis, who was building the draft system this past winter.
Welk’s numbers were backed up by in-person reports.
“When somebody’s dominating at D-III, it’s hard to know how real that is,” Elias said.
Welk hit what he called the best home run of his life in front of Orioles associate scout Gary Shesko, who passed his recommendation on to area scout Nathan Showalter — son of former Orioles manager Buck Showalter. Both ended up liking what they saw, and the Orioles brought him in for a workout at Camden Yards.
“He just kept passing these filters,” Mejdal said
For Welk, getting drafted also provided a quick reality check. He reported to Aberdeen confident it was still the same game, and one he’d succeeded at all his life. But the first workout showed him he was in for a big jump in competition.
Early on, his work on the hitting machine with minor league hitting coordinator Jeff Manto and his first live at-bats made him realize he was going to have to adjust to a much higher velocity than he’d seen on a regular basis.
“That was the biggest part, I think, but I was always pretty good at hitting off-speed, and I can always see spin,” Welk said. “That translated pretty well. I was able to stay back on those pitches, see them pretty early, and once I got used to the velo, starting early, and you’ve really got to stay even more relaxed.”
All that natural ability has only been enhanced by the Orioles’ new technology, or at least the teaching points gleaned from it. While the boom in data-generating equipment and philosophies has been used on the pitching side for years, teams are only just starting to harness that on the hitting side. Every swing taken by every Orioles minor leaguer, in practice and in games, is taken with a Blast Motion sensor on the bat knob that tracks their swing path and motion.
Players wear K-Vests from K-Motion, which features motion sensors that track body movement in the pelvis, torso, arm and hand, providing real-time data in the cages.
“It allows us to be more efficient in practice. It cuts to the chase,” Eller said. “It’s not like, ‘Oh I think I see this, I think I see that, I think you’re doing this.’ We have high-speed video. We have motion-sensors. We have 4D motion sensors that are on the body. We know what’s going on, and we know what’s effective and what’s not effective. I think it’s just going to allow the players to develop faster, honestly. It’s going to be great for the hitters.”
It was easy to identify where this would help Welk early, Eller said. Welk, a right-handed hitter, was spinning off toward the third-base side and getting through the zone too quickly. Perhaps it was a way to compensate for the new velocity. Perhaps it went unpunished against the pitching he was facing at Division III.
The K-Vest data showed that inefficiency right away, and “when players can see that, they trust science,” Eller said.
It takes the natural talent of Welk to adapt it so quickly, though. The day Eller passed his thoughts along, Welk took it and “hit about eight balls off that locker room out there,” Eller said, pointing to the visitor’s clubhouse beyond the left-field fence at Aberdeen’s Ripken Stadium.
“I was like, ‘Wow, it’s that easy for you,’ ” Eller said.
Welk said the philosophies in general are in line with what he’d been taught his whole life, but Eller goes “way more in-depth, using different kinds of technology to tell your sequences and if you’re using your body correctly, using the correct sequence with your hips, hands and torso.”
“He’s just got different kind of [ideas], the whole launch-angle movement and stuff like that,” Welk said. “It’s sort of along those lines, but it’s more just keeping a good bat plane. That’s what he mainly focuses on. A lot of coaches will talk hands-to-the-ball, use your legs certain ways, but no.
"It’s more like using your hips and your hands and keeping your shoulder-plane good through the zone and on-plane with how the pitcher is throwing the ball. That’s really a different perspective — keeping the bat as level as you can. Even if you’re ahead, you’ll still catch it. If you’re behind, you’ll still catch it. If you’re on time, you mash it.”
More often than not, Welk has mashed with Aberdeen. He entered the All-Star break among the league leaders in batting average, OPS and extra-base hits.
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“This is the first leg, and these first summers, you don’t want to get too up or too down if somebody’s doing great or doing poorly,” Elias said. “But for a guy coming out of a tiny school like he is and jumping right in with these and being one of the best hitters in the league, it’s certainly encouraging.”