José Altuve is the lone holdover on the Houston Astros’ roster from 2012, when that organization’s analytics-based rebuild began with the hiring of Jeff Luhnow as general manager. So he’s certainly aware that such processes can eventually work.
Houston also in 2012 hired Mike Elias and Sig Mejdal, the duo overseeing an Orioles’ rebuild in its first season as general manager and assistant general manager, respectively. Elias and Mejdal are trying to replicate what they accomplished with the Astros, a path that led to the 2017 World Series title after a lengthy run of losing seasons.
Many of those efforts involve building Baltimore’s analytics department, and no player has seen the growth the Astros underwent in that area more than Altuve, the 2017 American League MVP and Houston’s second baseman.
“It’s not a secret for anybody,” Altuve said sitting at his locker in the visiting clubhouse at Camden Yards before Saturday’s Orioles-Astros game. “It’s really good to have good players with a lot of talent, but at the same time, if you know the information — ‘You hit this pitch better,’ or, ‘They’re using this,’ and all those things — you go into the game with a different approach, and most of the time, it’ll work your way.”
The Orioles aren’t shy to admit there are improvements to be made. Brandon Hyde, in his first year as manager after several years with the data-backed Chicago Cubs, said Baltimore’s availability of data is far less than what he experienced with the 2016 World Series champions. But he thinks the Orioles will match the Cubs, Astros and others in time.
“We’re just starting the process of it here,” Hyde said. “The team I came from, there was a lot more, and there’s more bodies in the department. Sig is just starting it this year, and he’s getting us as much information as he can right now, and it’s going to grow over the next couple years.
“I think as we get further along, I think you’re gonna see Sig and Mike’s fingerprints a lot heavier in the way this team is formed, the way information is gathered, shared, everything.”
At their stage of analytics usage, the Astros can quickly implement change with players they acquire, especially pitchers. Hyde said Astros reliever Héctor Rondón, who served as the Cubs’ closer for part of Hyde’s time in Chicago, throws harder than he did then. Rondón’s average fastball velocity in 2018, his first year in Houston, was a career high. Starter Gerrit Cole, who Hyde saw pitch regularly with the Pittsburgh Pirates in National League Central games, has “completely changed” since being traded to Houston before last season.
The most recent example is right-hander Aaron Sanchez. He has the highest ERA and WHIP among major league starters, but pitched the first six innings of a combined no-hitter in his first start with the Astros by throwing his curveball more than he had in any previous start and emphasizing his four-seam fastball over his sinker.
Orioles pitchers, meanwhile, are on a record pace for allowing home runs and have the worst staff ERA in baseball during the first season of what’s expected to be a lengthy rebuild. But Altuve knows better than most that they can pay off.
“Most of the people knew that the team would become a good team in a couple of years and wanted to be part of this,” Altuve said. “Even though we were losing a lot of games, it was like, ‘This is going to change, and I want to be part of the team when we win a World Series.’
“You have to calm down and trust the process.”
New father Ruiz happy to be back
After being surprised by being optioned, infielder Rio Ruiz tried to think of the positives. Although being sent to Triple-A Norfolk meant he would miss out on the Orioles’ stay in his home state of California, it also meant he was ensured of being on the East Coast when his wife, Michelle, gave birth to their first child.
Luca James Ruiz was born July 27, the day before his dad planned to join the Tides for his first minor league action of the season.
“Really hard to describe,” Rio Ruiz said. “Really hard to put into words. Now, I’m reaping the benefits of being a father, the sleepless nights and all that comes with it.”
Ruiz, who had been with the Orioles all season before getting optioned July 24, hit .227 in five games between Norfolk and Double-A Bowie before rejoining the Orioles ahead of Friday’s game against the Astros. He was hitting .326 in his previous 18 games with Baltimore before getting optioned, but was batting .238 for the season.
Now a father, Ruiz said he wants to “finish strong.”
“You definitely don’t ever wan to go down, especially if you’re up here the whole entire year, but I wasn’t mad,” he said. “Obviously, in the moment, you’re not too happy, but I had the whole flight coming back here to think about the positives in it.
"I was going to go down and get some at-bats, play every day. At the same time, I was also going to be able to go home and go to my wife and potentially be there for the birth of my son. It kind of just worked out in my favor.”
Around the horn
Outfielders DJ Stewart (concussion) and Dwight Smith Jr. (left calf strain) are progressing from their respective injuries, Hyde said. Stewart is symptom-free and is expected to come off the seven-day injured list when first eligible Wednesday. Smith will join the team for its road trip to New York and Boston and begin a rehabilitation assignment shortly after. … Gabriel Ynoa will start one game of Monday’s doubleheader against the New York Yankees. The Orioles’ other starter has yet to be announced.