FREDERICK — After completing his media obligations at Sunday’s Birdland Caravan happy hour in Frederick, Grayson Rodriguez introduced himself to the next man up: Hall of Famer Eddie Murray. As a steady face of the Orioles’ past met an electric arm of its future, it also marked another way the hitters are following pitchers in the organization.
A year after Rodriguez and other Orioles pitching prospects thrived under the analytics tutelage of Chris Holt — now the club’s director of pitching — Baltimore is turning its attention to the advancement of its hitters. Although the club doesn’t yet have someone providing oversight of the system’s hitting processes, a la Holt, on the pitching side, each of the Orioles’ stateside minor league affiliates has a different hitting coach than it had in 2019, and it’s a group assistant general manager for analytics Sig Mejdal is pleased with.
“These are experienced, internally motivated persons all in search of getting better and questioning whatever convention’s out there and trying to responsibly look at what could enable them to be better coaches and our players to be better hitters,” Mejdal said Sunday. “At the same time, a lot of technology is sort of becoming ready for primetime.”
Last year, pitchers arrived to spring training with TrackMan systems and edgertronic high-speed cameras ready to track their grips and pitch movements throughout bullpen sessions, part of efforts by Holt, formerly with the Houston Astros, to improve pitchers throughout the organization.
“Getting Chris Holt here last year was giant,” Mejdal said. “The experience he had with the Astros and the technology there, he was able to hit the ground running. All of the hurdles and dead ends that we experienced there, he was able to sidestep, and so our pitchers immediately got an experience that I think was state of the art, and I think our hitters are going to experience that, too.”
The Orioles used bat sensors last year, tracking swing paths and other bat movements, and will add body sensors this year. Mejdal said there was a “backlog” on force plates, which track batters’ weight distribution throughout their swing and are commonly used by golfers. The increased prevalence of technology should help Orioles coaches better understand and thus improve their players.
“All of the [hitting] coaches either already have a background in it or we’ve done as much as we can to sort of share what the golf world has learned and the best practices in the baseball world, so they’re going to be cocked and ready to take advantage of that,” Mejdal said. “And when the force plates arrive, they’ll be eager, like it’s Christmas morning, to put those to use.”
Rodriguez, the Orioles’ 2018 first-round pick and their top pitching prospect, led the charge. In his age-19 season, the right-hander pitched 94 innings for the Shorebirds with a 2.68 ERA, striking out 129 batters while allowing fewer than one base runner per frame.
The campaign earned him the Orioles’ Jim Palmer Minor League Pitcher of the Year award, an honor he shared with Michael Baumann. This offseason, Baseball America ranked him as the No. 35 prospect in baseball, part of an improving system under the second-year front office led by executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias and Mejdal.
“Being with the old regime for half a season when I was drafted, we didn’t really use technology or anything,” Rodriguez said. “Coming into spring training, we had hour, two-hour long classroom sessions about what this stuff meant. First couple bullpens we had, we started seeing these cameras all around, edgertronic cameras, TrackMan machines. We had all kinds of analytical stuff, and being able to use that has really helped me.
“I started throwing a changeup this past year, and I didn’t know how you throw a changeup. I never threw one, and being able to look at a camera, see it on a computer, whether it be all kinds of different charts, it’s a game-changer to be able to use stuff like that.”
Rodriguez credited much of his success and that of his Delmarva teammates to pitching coach Justin Ramsey, who was honored with Baltimore’s Cal Ripken Sr. Player Development Award and has since moved up to Double-A Bowie. Mejdal, who assisted director of player development Matt Blood in the hiring processes of the Orioles’ new minor league coaches, said buy-in not only from players but also from coaches is vital in the effectiveness of his growing analytics department.
The Orioles introduce their first round draft pick pitcher Grayson Rodriguez. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)
“It’s mandatory,” Mejdal said. “Whatever insights you think you find with the analytics group, it’s of no use if the coaches aren’t sharing it. First of all, if the coaches don’t understand it, the coaches don’t believe it, and they’re not inspired to share it with the players, you may as well have not done it to begin with. It’s just simply mandatory. You’re just wasting your time if you don’t have coaches that can put it to use.”
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>> The Orioles feel much more prepared for the amateur draft than they did at this time last year, with Mejdal saying, “Last year, we were rushing and it was a priority to put everything in place, and we weren’t months ahead of the draft. Right now, we are months ahead of the draft, and it’s a nice feeling.”