Catching up to the modern game: Orioles put focus on analytics as they aim to rebuild organization

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Fifteen years after "Moneyball" introduced the use of baseball data analytics to the masses, the likes of new Orioles assistant general manager of analytics Sig Mejdal can credit Michael Lewis’ book — and what it brought into focus — for their jobs in baseball.

Today, analytics are a necessary, day-to-day part of the modern game, one that has driven championship-winning franchises such as the Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros — and an area in which the Orioles have lagged. New Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias and Mejdal won a World Series title with the Astros in 2017, and hope to use their approach to bring similar success to Baltimore.

While the Orioles’ analytics operation under the previous regime wasn't just one or two people in a room, its influence in the organization didn't extend far from those walls. The entire franchise suffered for it.

With Mejdal — the engineer-turned-NASA researcher-turned-baseball executive charged with changing that — the club will seek to build its analytics department while creating an institutional culture in which the department’s insights define everything the Orioles do.

"I think it's going to touch the entire organization," Mejdal said. "That's been my experience in Houston, that analytics isn't something siloed away, but instead, it's something anybody who's making a decision in the organization is using to some degree.

“It's something that touches upon making decisions for the manager, that players are looking at the data, that scouts and coaches from the Dominican [Republic] to Triple-A are also looking at it… It permeates the entire organization."

While “Moneyball” focused on on-base percentage — a stat commonly used today — teams now use piles of information measured via multiple tools. Some teams leverage high-speed cameras, data trends, player and pitcher tendencies, and so much more to create an information base for players and coaches. That data can help players improve their pitch selection and pitch development, swing mechanics, plate approach and plate discipline. It can also help clubs decide where to deploy players in the field and can help catchers with their pitch framing and game-calling.

In the modern game, especially for a team in a division with the World Series champion Red Sox and the perennially strong New York Yankees, the Orioles embracing today’s approach is paramount to the club being successful going forward, many say. Analytics can be a vital tool for teams that don’t have the financial resources of the wealthiest clubs.

"The Orioles are in a situation where they have to be smarter than the Red Sox and the Yankees, because they're never going to spend as much money as the Red Sox and Yankees," said FanGraphs senior writer Dan Szymborski, a Baltimore native and analyst who developed ZiPS, a statistical performance projection system that has been an industry leader for more than a decade.

MLB Network analyst Brian Kenny, author of the 2016 book "Ahead of the Curve: Inside the Baseball Revolution," has been another vocal proponent of analytics.

“The investment you make in your front office people is something that will help you exponentially down the road," Kenny said.

“In order to give you the best chance to succeed, you need to have an entire system built, so you have good people at all levels, consistently making good decisions.”

‘It was essential’

At the Nov. 19 news conference introducing Elias, Orioles ownership representative Louis Angelos said that through the exhaustive process to replace executive vice president Dan Duquette, "the one thing that came through is the move toward quantitative analysis in baseball.”

"We learned from all the candidates it was essential that as we reinvest in our baseball operations, we work diligently to get our staff up to speed and work collaboratively to move diligently in that direction," Angelos said.

Said Elias: "It's something that's not optional in today's game. It's a lot of advanced information. The trick is how you incorporate it into your decision-making and into your baseball practices, so that it's not two different approaches going on but one approach that goes into that.”

None of that is to say the Orioles were opposed to progress under Duquette and manager Buck Showalter. When the Astros were knocked for changing the game too drastically with their defensive shifts in 2013, Showalter's Orioles deployed their infielders in nontraditional spots more than anyone else in the league. With stat-based (albeit traditional) lineup and roster decisions, Showalter and Duquette gained a reputation for squeezing every drop of value out of the players and resources they had.

"The Orioles were exceeding expectations for many years,” Kenny said. "I wondered how they were able to keep it going as long as they did, but once the bottom dropped out? Well, then you're going to be looking for answers."

What became clear is it didn't take the Orioles far enough, and as their competitive window closed, other teams’ opened because of more modern methods of team-building.

When Duquette traded Manny Machado and listed areas the Orioles had financially neglected in favor of major league spending to pursue a championship, he included analytics and technology. Successful analytics departments aren't defined by size — the Oakland Athletics have a four-person analytics staff and the New York Yankees have about 20 — but the Orioles have always been on the smaller side. Mejdal inherited just one employee, developer Di Zou.

Duquette was a strong believer in statistics and used them to inform some of his best acquisitions. Former director of analytics and major league contracts Sarah Gelles was a constant, but for all the work they did accomplish, opportunities to get their insights to the field were rare.

The advanced scouting group that traveled with the team would be assigned projects by Showalter, and distilled information for the major league coaches and players. However, there were limited, if any, avenues for data to get to the minor league players or coaches. The analytics staff thus saw its influence mostly with Duquette in player acquisition.

July's trades illustrated how that affected the players. An analysis by The Athletic found that Machado's defensive ratings at shortstop improved with the Los Angeles Dodgers because they positioned him closer to the center of the infield.

Reliever Zach Britton told FanGraphs there was a "gigantic difference" between the information on his pitches and opposing batters made available to him with the Yankees compared with what he got in Baltimore. Pitchers Kevin Gausman and Brad Brach had similar experiences with the Atlanta Braves. All three were better post-trade in organizations where — along with leaders such as the Astros and Cleveland Indians — success stems in part from what Szymborski called a “horizontal sharing of information.”

"They don't just collect cool stats," Szymborski said. "It's integrated into the decision-making process at all levels. That's not something you'd see in Baltimore. You never really got the feeling that Duquette and Showalter had any kind of relationship in that way, in which they were communicating the analytics.”

‘Users aren’t just the decision-makers’

It wasn’t always that way in Houston, either. When Mejdal joined the Astros in 2012 as director of decision sciences, he and the staff he assembled took to what they called the "nerd cave." That group built a projection model that was first used to aid the team's amateur drafts and grew to include minor league and major league projections.

He'd built a similar system with Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow at their previous stop with the St. Louis Cardinals. And once the Houston system took hold, producing countless All-Star selections along the way, Mejdal moved his attention to the field level.

On some scale, every team had the capabilities to sort through millions of data points and build programs to draw conclusions. The next frontier was bringing that information beyond the front office to the players and staff on the field.

Mejdal spent the past two years trying to find ways to concentrate the information his staff gathered and make it something players and coaches could put into practice. He was a coach for the New York-Penn League affiliate in Tri-City in 2017, and worked as a roving instructor in 2018.

"We're not naïve enough to think that a developer in his office, quite separated from the coaches, is able to create a product that's going to be optimally usable," Mejdal said. "The more we can get someone to see these tools being used in their natural environment and gain the trust of the coaches to share what they like and dislike, the better we can produce more useful tools…. The users aren't just the decision-makers in the front office, but it's the coaches and the players, too."

All that implementation-level focus belies the work required in Baltimore to build the stores of information Mejdal and the Astros had at their disposal. The Astros were part of several data-sharing agreements with third-party statistical providers, invested in pitch-tracking systems and used high-speed cameras at their minor league stadiums. Everything from sensors that measure bat speed to technology tracking player health and fitness can be helpful.

The Orioles used TrackMan, a comprehensive radar system that tracks dozens of data points at once at their minor league stadiums. But its utility was mostly limited to the front office.

Mejdal said the plan is to determine what he's inherited, and expand the Orioles' repertoire in those areas as well.

"We're going to try to reproduce what we did in Houston as quickly as possible," Mejdal said.

Pushing forward

For Orioles ownership, part of the value Elias and Mejdal bring is that much of their experience came from years of trial and error. Mejdal said it was a process to get to the point they reached in Houston, but one he hopes won't need to be replicated at the same length.

"I can't say that there was a point where, voila, we changed, but it's gradual," Mejdal said. Looking back, he said, “the processes we left behind are so much different than the processes that were there seven years ago."

That, he said, came from Luhnow's defining quality: "The one thing that doesn't change is his desire to change, and to challenge convention and to challenge each of the employees to rethink and re-examine if there isn't a better way of doing things."

That's how Luhnow ended up with Mejdal on his staff in St. Louis, what led Mejdal to building his successful group in Houston — and the expectation he'll carry to Baltimore.

"I know that there's a lot of smart people, but he's one of those people who really thinks outside the box, and can kind of see the big picture in a way that sometimes analytics guys — including myself — don't always see it," Szymborski said. "He was the blackjack guy. He was an engineer.”

Kenny devoted an entire chapter to Mejdal in his book, which was published before the Astros' rebuild produced a World Series championship. He believed Mejdal "represented a new part of the game — not just looking at what decisions you're making, but looking at how you come about your decisions.”

Such constant evaluations are how the Orioles' new front office will try to distinguish itself and perhaps pass the Astros at their own game.

"There's a lot that you have to be learning every single day, and you have to be willing to learn," Kenny said. "Maybe that's the answer — you might have the answers today, but who's going to have the answers tomorrow? You have to continually evolve, and the general managers and baseball operations [personnel] who are able to evolve and adapt are the ones that are going to have the most success.”

jmeoli@baltsun.com

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