Spotlight on scouting director Elias as Draft nears
Former special assistant to Luhnow draws praise from Houston general manager
HOUSTON -- One of the first phone calls Jeff Luhnow made shortly after taking over as the general manager of the Astros in December 2011 was to get permission to interview Mike Elias, who was Luhnow's right-hand man while both were working with the Cardinals.
The young Elias was building an impressive resume and reputation while working as the manager of amateur scouting with the Cardinals, but Luhnow had much bigger plans.
Luhnow was hired by new ownership just as the Astros were prepping to switch to the American League and was charged with overseeing a massive rebuilding project. The Astros were going heavy on analytics and were stressing stockpiling talent in the Minor Leagues through the Draft and trades.
Not long after he was in Houston, Luhnow hired Sig Mejdal from St. Louis as director of decision sciences, putting him in charge of analytics, and Elias soon came aboard as a special assistant. In August 2012, Elias was named scouting director and given the keys to the team's Draft preparation at the age of 29.
"It was a huge opportunity to get that type of position that young, especially with the challenges we were facing with large-scale rebuild like that, a complete organizational restructuring and ownership change, league change and most of all having that No. 1 pick," Elias said. "We knew that we had a lot on our plate, but Jeff's a great leader and I was very comfortable working with him and Sig. They've been the only people I had worked with throughout my career. I felt very comfortable going over there with them and that gave me a lot of confidence about taking on that big of a leap."
Elias, 31, has hardly slowed down since. The Astros have the No. 1 Draft pick for the third consecutive year, and it figures to be crucial for their future. They took Puerto Rican shortstop Carlos Correa with the top pick in 2012 and Stanford pitcher Mark Appel with the top pick last year.
"I knew that I wanted him over here," Luhnow said. "He could help in a variety of ways. At the time, I didn't know if he would end up being a scouting director or farm director or assistant general manager. I knew there would be some role for him. He did such a nice job helping [former scouting director] Bobby [Heck] out in that first Draft.
"His heart is in scouting, and I do think it's important for anybody, even if they have aspirations to be a general manager any day, that they get enough time out in the field in one of the core functions, whether it's player development or scouting."
Elias hailed from Alexandria, Va., before attending Yale, where he played baseball and was an eastern languages and civilizations major.
He admits he wasn't much of a prospect, and a shoulder injury before his sophomore season didn't help things. Elias pitched through the injury that year, but was forced to get shoulder surgery, which postponed his college career.
Because Ivy League rules didn't allow players who had graduated to keep playing, Elias took a year of absence from school while his arm was healing (he later returned to pitch his junior and senior seasons).
"I wanted to use that time to do something productive for my life, my career," he said. "I didn't want to waste a year. I wanted to create what somebody might do who just graduated college and I thought getting an internship would be the way to go. I loved baseball and I wanted to stay around it even if I wasn't going to be able to play for a little while."
The book "Moneyball" had just come out, popularizing the idea that people who didn't have a strong playing background or didn't come up through the coaching ranks could get influential roles. At that point, Elias decided to pursue a front-office career. His college coach got him an internship with the Phillies.
"Basically answered phones and did odd jobs around the stadium for them for about six months, and then in the second six months of that year as my throwing program was ramping up in my rehab, I went out to San Diego and was a free intern for Tom House, helping him in the office and also being his assistant coach on the field," he said.
House is the former Rangers pitching coach who founded National Pitching Academy and has been a champion of innovating pitching techniques. Elias merged rehab his efforts while assisting House.
"Working with him out there was great," Elias said. "I saw a lot of professional pitchers come through, Randy Johnson, Mark Prior. I got exposed to a lot of high-end thinking about the game and met a lot of baseball people."
One of those he met was Dan Kantrovitz, who worked with Luhnow in St. Louis and is currently the Cardinals' scouting director. Elias stayed in touch with Kantrovitz after he graduated from Yale and wound up being hired as an area scout in 2007.
"We were expanding our scouting department in St. Louis and we were looking for people with a unique set of skills," Luhnow said. "We wanted people that had experience playing the game, but also who had an ability to integrate some of the new methods of evaluating players, the new technologies if you will, would be able to understand how we think about pitching mechanics, would have a basic knowledge of or the ability to get up to speed on biomechanics, understand the analytical part, but yet really appreciate the game by either having played or coached. Mike pitched at Yale and then worked for Tom House, so he had checked a bunch of those boxes for us."
He scouted for four years in the Virginia area before moving to Florida when he became Luhnow's assistant, working out of the Cardinals' offices in Jupiter, Fla. Luhnow credited Elias with increasing the department's efficiency while getting some time in the field as a scout. Elias even did some international scouting and got experience as a crosschecker.
"He was really able to touch every element of baseball operations, so when I got the job in Houston, he was the first person I asked for permission to speak to," Luhnow said. "He's young, but he's good. I'd put him up against anybody in the industry at this point."
Even when the Astros were interviewing candidates to hire a new manager in 2013, Elias was a big part of the process. He was on the team's managerial interview committee, a panel that included owner Jim Crane, then-team president George Postolos, Mejdal and special assistants Craig Biggio, Enos Cabell and Dan Radison.
"We had seven finalists and went over the pros and cons and ranked them," Luhnow said. "Everybody did a nice job and contributed in their own way. Mike's stood out because of how comprehensive and insightful his comments were. He took it seriously and he did a really nice job with it."
Elias doesn't have any aspirations to be a GM at this point in his career. He loves scouting too much, even though it means he's on the road about 200 nights a year and doesn't get to spend as much time with his wife, Alexandra, as he would like.
That's what happens when baseball runs through your veins.
"It's a lot of fun, but it's a huge time commitment, a huge physical commitment," he said. "You're tired by the end of the year just from lack of sleep and a lot of travel. But we [scouts] enjoy every second of it. We're very lucky to do what we do."