Orioles assistnat general manager for analytics Sig Mejdal talks about his rise from being a job seeker at winter meetings to a decision maker, and on the melding of his analytics and player development roles. (Jon Meoli, Baltimore Sun video)
Brayan Roccio is a 17-year-old, switch-hitting infielder from Venezuela who just hit .343 in the Rookie-level Arizona League in the Cleveland Indians system. Allen Craig delivered the St. Louis Cardinals a World Series title almost on his own in 2011. Neither would likely be recognized if they walked around at Orioles FanFest last weekend.
But right before another celebration of the past with Orioles legends (including Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer, Eddie Murray and Boog Powell) at the Baltimore Convention Center last Saturday, those two players were evoked by a pair of new Orioles executives as successful examples of their technology and data-driven player evaluation processes at work as they prepare to build the club’s next wave of talent.
On the "Analytics in Baseball Operations" panel, assistant general manager for analytics Sig Mejdal and senior director of international scouting Koby Pérez used Roccio and Craig as solid, tangible examples of a question asked directly by a fan but raised by all invested in the rebuild since it began: When does all the data analytics and player development emphasis produce something successful?
"I think in any modern organization, it permeates the system, from decisions on which 16-year-old Dominican you sign, to an attack plan for the veteran pitcher in tonight's game," Mejdal said. "If a human being is making a decision, analytics can help out."
Over 40 minutes in front of a rapt audience at FanFest, Mejdal and Pérez hit the highlights of progressive methods of player evaluation and development through data, something each learned in his first job with the Cardinals' scouting department (and Mejdal carried to the Houston Astros while Pérez went to the Philadelphia Phillies and Indians).
Their respective decisions to pursue Craig in 2006 with the Cardinals and Roccio in 2017 with the Indians were the fruit of that kind of decision-making — though the Orioles are far from hits like that. Saturday's panel outlined just how far they have to go.
Mejdal said the "top of our list is clearly to create a state-of-the-art analytics department in Baltimore, and the experience that our GM Mike [Elias] has and myself, both in St. Louis and Houston, that's 12 to 15 years with I would say two of the premier organizations as far as innovating in this area."
However, that will require the Orioles to staff the department, and Mejdal noted that he doesn't know what the ideal number of analysts is, "but I'm pretty confident it's not zero."
Once the department is staffed, and Pérez finds the ideal lineup for his charges in Latin America, Mejdal and Pérez outlined several ways technology can lead to better decisions with amateur acquisitions.
Today, analytics are a necessary, day-to-day part of the modern game of baseball, 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.
TrackMan is the ubiquitous radar system in nearly every minor league park that provides information such as spin rate (the rate of spin on a baseball after it is released, measured in revolutions per minute) and mound extension (the point at which a pitcher releases the ball relative to home plate) for pitchers, while Blast Motion is a sensor placed on the knob of a bat that provides information on a player's swing.
"We're trying to gather information and use some of the analytics, along with scouting to try to make the best decisions for our organization," Pérez said.
Said Mejdal: "It's really an exercise in combining all this information and trying to bet on the players that have the best chances of being impact players here.”
That such an explanation on analytics to a group of supporters eager to hear about it came from those two was perhaps fitting.
Mejdal's start in St. Louis came as he helped build a player evaluation model for amateurs to help the Cardinals’ draft preparation, something he and Elias advanced in Houston.
Pérez helped modernize Cleveland's operation, and while the Orioles have used tools like TrackMan to select impressive young pitchers Zac Lowther and Blaine Knight in recent drafts, it's just a small piece of the analytics equation.
Saturday's Orioles FanFest marked the public beginning of a new era of Orioles baseball under new executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias and manager Brandon Hyde. And it just so happens to be driven at this point by the main commodity the event is built on: hope.
But that Mejdal and Pérez were brought out as an example of the new era of Orioles baseball, and in such a detailed way, shows how the benefits of this new regime will be evident quickly. The major league and minor league rosters will be improved by new methods, and some will be overhauled.
Yet selecting players who meet the standards of future success under the Orioles’ new models will hopefully take a lot of chance out of those decisions. And that's where Craig and Roccio come into play.
In 2006, an early draft for Mejdal and company in St. Louis, the club ended up with 12 major leaguers, including an eighth-round pick that Mejdal recalled was described as an "overweight, lethargic infielder with the yips."
"So, this wasn't an attractive pick, but we ended up taking him, and he surprised the world, Allen Craig made it to the majors. In the 2011 World Series, put us ahead in four of the seven games, a game-winning homer in Game 7. It's really a good result as opposed to an extraordinary decision, but it's probably my favorite one."
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"He was a player who didn't stand out too much to many scouts and the analytics kind of put him on our radar, so when we went in there and started watching him, we figured out, 'Wow, this guy is one the best players in the game. You just have to watch him,' " Pérez said. "We ended up signing him for $125,000, and he's moved quickly, and according to Baseball America, they ranked him the No. 1 prospect in the Arizona Rookie League. I think for me, in international, that's been the one that stood out so far."
While lean on specifics during the panel itself, the eras in which each man’s memorable selection was made indicates what might have driven it — and illustrates how far the game has come. In 2006, a player like Craig, who had a good strikeout-to-walk ratio and hit for power in college, would have been attractive, even if the scouting reports weren’t. Over a decade later, even one showcase or workout at a field with data-measuring capabilities could have tipped the Indians off to Roccio, even as a teenager.
There have been more impactful signings on each man's resume, from Matt Carpenter and Lance Lynn in St. Louis, to Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman in Houston and Maikel Franco in Philadelphia. Homegrown star players, more than a front office's best intentions, are what will satisfy Orioles fans.
"The first step is to get us to the rest of the league, and that's going to be a bit of work,” Mejdal said. “You notice that like the Yankees aren't standing still, and as we speak, those 300-something analysts in baseball are working right now.
“We're going to first get up to speed, and we're going to fill our department with the most skilled, innovative analysts, developers we can find, and we're going to create a culture where a big chunk of their time is directed at just your question — what is the next big thing? Is it going to be computer vision? Some artificial intelligence? Something less sexy than that? And we're going to do our best to position ourselves to be better than any other club out there."