An Orioles analytics department that was previously marginalized at best and neglected at worst will come under new leadership that will vastly change that.
New executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias, who was hired last week from his post as Houston Astros assistant general manager, is bringing along former Astros special assistant Sig Mejdal to build up the Orioles' analytics operation. The Orioles announced Wednesday that Mejdal will be the team’s assistant general manager, analytics, and will report to Elias.
According to a statement from the team, Mejdal will “oversee all aspects of the club’s growing analytics effort while assisting and advising Elias in all manner of baseball operations decisions.”
“Sig Mejdal is one of the most experienced and accomplished analysts working in baseball today,” Elias said in the statement. “To have him join our Orioles organization is a major moment for this franchise, and I look forward to him charting the course for all of our forthcoming efforts in the analytics space.”
Mejdal, 52, joined the St. Louis Cardinals front office in 2005, leaving a job at NASA to join baseball's analytical revolution. And after several years working with Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow in St. Louis, Mejdal joined him in Houston to undertake one of the game's first modern rebuilds.
Initially as the director of decision sciences, Mejdal helped build what's considered one of the league's foremost analytics operations, though he left the Astros organization in early October.
By comparison, the Orioles' analytics operation was on the smaller side in recent years, run by director of analytics and major league contracts Sarah Gelles, who left when her contract expired Oct. 31 to join the Astros as program manager for research and development. The Orioles’ department also lost analyst Kevin Tenenbaum to the Cleveland Indians last December, further weakening the outfit.
In recent years, the most significant impact of the Orioles' analytics department appeared to be on the amateur draft, where the club used data from the TrackMan system — which quantifies dozens of actions on a baseball field — to target the likes of Keegan Akin, Zac Lowther and Blaine Knight in the draft. Akin and Lowther, a pair of deceptive lefties with elite extension in their deliveries, shared the 2018 Jim Palmer Minor League Pitcher of the Year Award, while Knight, the Orioles’ 2018 third-round pick, has elite spin rate on his curveball and slider, and should be a fast mover in the system.
What hurt the Orioles on the analytics side more than staffing was the way the numbers were used to improve the players at the minor league and major league levels. Manager Buck Showalter, who was let go Oct. 3, ran many of his statistical requests through members of the team's advanced scouting and video team that were in the clubhouse daily.
Players had little interaction with the analysts in the front office, which became a problem when then-executive vice president Dan Duquette recommended center fielder Adam Jones adjust his positioning ahead of the 2017 season.
And after Kevin Gausman, Brad Brach and Zach Britton were dealt away in July as part of the Orioles’ teardown, each made public comments about the increased amount of information about themselves and their opponents that their new clubs, the Atlanta Braves and New York Yankees, made available to them. Current players have griped at times that they know there's more information out there than has been presented to them. There's also been some resistance on the minor league side to integrate those methods in instruction and evaluation.
Once the operation in Houston was set up, Mejdal notably tried to bridge what was left of that divide in their organization. He spent the 2017 season as a development coach with Short-A Tri-City, helping integrate analytics into the instruction of Rookie-level players, and expanded that role to that of a roving instructor in the Astros system in 2018.
Bridging that gap was always going to be an important factor in the Orioles' search, and in Mejdal, Elias is bringing someone well-versed in integrating such methods into every aspect of an organization.
During Monday’s introduction of Elias as the new GM, managing partner Louis Angelos and Elias touched on the importance of analytics as the Orioles go through a rebuilding period.
“We had the great benefit of meeting with so many qualified candidates and learning about some of the different operations and ideas. What came through, and as we all have heard so much about, is the move to quantitative analysis in baseball,” Angelos said. “We learned from all the candidates that it was essential that, as we reinvest in our baseball operations, that we work diligently to get our staff up to speed, that we work collaboratively to move in that direction.”
Elias said Monday the Orioles would use analytics going forward to improve “processes and decisions.”
“I think very uniquely this organization has in its history and its DNA having at one time been considered as the smartest, most forward-thinking, most progressive organization in baseball,” he said. “And the fact that has been the case here before that it’s possible for that to be the case here again.
“We are here to restore that reputation. We’re going to work toward that. The plan is simple. We’re going to build an elite talent pipeline. It’s going to extend from the lowest rung of our minor league ladder — the Dominican Summer League — all the way up to Triple-A and our major league roster here in Baltimore. To do that, we’re going to embark on a large, multi-pronged effort across every corner of baseball operations, but particularly touching the areas that include scouting, domestic scouting, international scouting, player development, coaching and an analytics support system to inform and improve our processes and decisions across all of those areas.”
Mejdal is a graduate of the University of California-Davis with two master's degrees from San José State. He worked at Lockheed Martin and later NASA before helping build the Cardinals' analytics department and working with Luhnow on a series of successful drafts beginning in 2005, before following him to the Astros.