Fair or not, everything the Orioles are doing under executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias and assistant general manager Sig Mejdal is defined by the use of analytics as a means to bring the team from the lowest rungs of the big leagues to being a championship-caliber club.
They aren’t shy about it, mostly because it’s happening all across baseball. But Mejdal looks with an admiring and supportive eye for teams in other sports doing that, including the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers and Houston Rockets.
“I’m rooting for them, and ‘The Cause’ in general,” Mejdal said.
Across town, the Ravens, under general manager Eric DeCosta, are “absolutely” a part of that, he said.
About four years ago, Elias and Mejdal were with the Houston Astros, and Mejdal had the nascent title of director of decision sciences under general manager Jeff Luhnow. Mejdal said DeCosta, then the Ravens assistant GM under Ozzie Newsome, called “out of the blue” to connect with a front office that Mejdal said, “right or wrong, had a reputation for being advanced technologically and experienced with culture change.”
What resulted was a relationship that now means Baltimore’s top professional sports front offices are connected in as modern a way as possible.
“When our names started getting mentioned as possible GMs coming over, Eric was texting me more than my own family,” Mejdal said. “He was excited that we landed here, and we were excited that we landed here, too, not only for the opportunity, but we have a friend in Eric, and someone to bounce ideas off of and sort of try to make sense of these two sports together.”
Such relationships weren’t necessarily unique for the Astros, who in the Rockets had a team at the forefront of basketball’s data revolution within their city limits. But football has been historically slower to grasp onto such things, at least publicly, and Mejdal said that the Ravens seemed to be in a place where they were trying to modernize without shaking up the process too much.
“I think in a general sense, some of the questions they were dealing with, baseball had dealt with earlier, and we were one of the teams dealing with it in St. Louis and in Houston,” Mejdal said. “What role does analytics have in the draft? How do you combine the expert subjective opinion with the data you have? How do you keep the scouts inspired when you do that, or not uninspire the scouts when you do that?”
That was where the St. Louis Cardinals and later the Astros first started gaining a significant advantage with analytics, and as Mejdal told the Ravens’ staff about their experiences, “It seemed like football was experiencing what baseball was maybe at least a half-decade earlier,” he said.
Such adjustments had already been made in baseball, especially where Elias and Mejdal were concerned with the Astros and Cardinals. It’s unclear how far it has taken hold in football. The Ravens, citing the competitive advantage the team believes its analytics operation gives, declined to participate in this story through a spokesman.
“I can’t speak for the Ravens, but I know in the early days of baseball, you kept it quiet,” Mejdal said. “You weren’t scoring points with fans or reporters or those working for your organization when you spoke about the merits of analytics. That’s in a general sense. … Jeff Luhnow was a bit different. He was not shy to describe the value of analytics. It didn’t make him any friends, but it was actually an honest description of how we were using it, and I don’t know where football is in that.”
At least anecdotally, the Ravens have used analytics to guide on-field decisions for years. Coach John Harbaugh has been vocal on several occasions about the value of data and playing the percentages in explaining the team’s decisions on fourth downs. What’s less clear is how DeCosta has integrated it into the rest of football operations as his responsibilities have grown over the past few years.
Mejdal said he made a few trips to Baltimore to meet with DeCosta and the team’s analysts before he took his Orioles job, but most of their interactions since DeCosta’s elevation and the Orioles’ front office turnover have mostly been social. Mejdal admits to wearing people out with questions when they meet for dinner or drinks, but noted everyone involved has more responsibility than they’ve ever had.
Last fall, DeCosta and his wife, Lacie, were guests of the Astros for Game 4 of the American League Championship Series against the Boston Red Sox. Mejdal marveled at how DeCosta, never known to be subdued while watching the Ravens play, was able to keep his emotions in check so much that he forgot until after the game that DeCosta was a Red Sox fan.
Considering the Astros’ comeback attempt ended on a diving catch in the ninth inning, Mejdal said he was “very thankful that he was able to control himself out of sensitivity, and then after the game, sympathy, for the Astros.” But they took in an Orioles-Red Sox game early in the season under much less tense circumstances, and Mejdal envisions the relationship between the teams will continue as both of the front offices get more settled in their roles.
“There’s no shortage of questions I have when I’m around him and the analysts, and there’s no shortage coming in the other direction, either,” he said.