A little more than three years ago, Sig Mejdal became one of his former Houston Astros colleague Mike Elias’ first hires as the assistant general manager for analytics in a remade Orioles front office.
Of all the areas the Orioles needed to address at the time, that was among the most significant. After department head Sarah Gelles had left that fall to go work in Houston, only developer Di Zou remained. It was an analytics unit of one.
Now, Mejdal says the department is a dozen strong. And with jobs posted for full-time developers and analysts plus interns, that could continue to grow this offseason as the Orioles continue to push forward in an area that had long been neglected.
The growth has been measured on purpose, Mejdal said.
“We’re pretty particular,” he said. “It’s a pretty high bar.”
His description of who meets that bar, outside the technical expertise that he said is not difficult to find, goes a long way to describing how the exploding areas of data and technology fit into the Orioles rebuild — which now must navigate the owners’ lockout of the players after the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement, the sport’s first work stoppage since the 1994-95 strike. One important area, he said, is “pragmatism, and an appreciation of the tradeoffs between complexity and clarity.
“That is more rare, and in my experience, that is so important when your customers — the players, the coaches, the decision-makers — they don’t have the same background as the analysts and developers,” he said. “Sometimes, it’s challenging to put yourself in their shoes, and imagine how they’re understanding what seems completely clear to you.”
As a straightforward example of putting one’s self in the shoes of the user, Mejdal got first-hand experience with how the products that his team creates are used last summer. He spent a month with the major league team, home and away, trying to glean what could be done differently or better to help bring the major league improvement that the Orioles desperately need.
“We have a very modern major league staff, and very skilled advance [scouting] people,” Mejdal said. “We want to enable the analytics to be used everywhere, anywhere. So, the more we can understand the processes and the user needs, the better we could cater the tools. There’s no better way of understanding what the advance team uses and needs, what the players use and need, and what the major league staff uses and needs. There’s no better way than to actually be with them for a month and see on a daily basis, what they see on a daily basis — their processes and how we can help.”
He saw a few areas where those parties could be better served. In some instances, the Orioles were paying for third-party tools that could be replicated in-house, given the talent and manpower the department had created. There was also plenty of insight as to how the tools were used by the players and coaches, something that’s also been welcomed from the minor league level, where a more experimental approach can take place while there’s more focus on development instead of winning.
The other main trait they look for as an analyst dovetails with that collaboration, as Mejdal said the Orioles are seeking a level of “social maturity” that can make an analyst’s work more valuable by how it’s presented.
“If you’re an analyst, to some degree you’re going to find yourself as a contrarian because you’re looking for something convention has missed,” Mejdal said. “We’re not a nonprofit. We’re searching for these inefficiencies in order to take advantage of them, and in order to take advantage of them, you need to convince the decision-maker that this is worthwhile and none of the decision-makers are tenured. So we often — as an analyst — we often find ourselves in the world of change management. In order to realize the potential from the analytics, you need to have a social maturity and a sensitivity in order to convince human beings that this is the way to go.”
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That change has often been tough across the game for the last two decades. The data explosion in the game has given no quarter to the baseball lifers, and in an organization like the Orioles, analytics influences “everything from an international signing to the first draft pick to a free-agent signing to in-game strategy,” Mejdal said.
“Analytics is just measurements of real life,” he said, “so I think we’re all trying to make the best decisions, regardless of the area, and Mike Elias and [director of player development] Matt Blood have done a great job of bringing in coaches and decision-makers who appreciate the value of analytics.”
In that vein, Mejdal noted that such an organizational structure centered around data and forecasts has the opposite effect on people.
“Analytics are so well-spread that often the differentiators are the humans in the loop,” he said. “The importance we put on the coaches, the managers, the scouts is greater now than I’ve ever seen in baseball.”
Since Elias and Mejdal arrived late in 2018, the Orioles have been specific in who was in those roles with that in mind. Three years in, it’s created a kind of harmony that Mejdal finds unique. He was connected this fall with the New York Mets’ general manager job that ultimately went to Billy Eppler, and declined to comment specifically on that.
Still, he noted that what has been created in terms of direction and an acceptance of data and progressive methods with the Orioles is “difficult to quantify” and “definitely anecdotal,” but is incredibly meaningful to what’s happening at Camden Yards.
“It’s as clear as can be that while every organization talks about getting on the same page and we’ll all nod our head that this is what you need to do, actually accomplishing that is incredibly difficult and in my experience, few organizations have really done that,” Mejdal said. “I’m proud to work with Mike Elias and Matt Blood because they have created that in our organization. How can you truly accomplish optimal development if there’s different messages at different levels, if there’s politics and sabotaging? You simply can’t. But to get all of these experts on the same page and what they collectively believe is the right page is very difficult, but is something I think Matt Blood has done extremely well in the years he’s been here. "