How Mejdal plans to impact Orioles

March 18th, 2019

SARASOTA, Fla. -- After years of lagging in baseball’s increasingly data-driven landscape, the Orioles are diving headfirst into that space behind one of the industry’s leading analytical minds. To hear Sig Mejdal talk about it, the work is just beginning.

Mejdal, the former NASA engineer turned Orioles assistant general manager, recently sat down with for a wide-ranging conversation about his philosophy, the path that led him to Baltimore, what he found when he arrived and what he sees for the franchise going forward. What follows is that transcript, edited and condensed for clarity. Mike Elias has spent a lot of time outlining his vision for the organization, selling it to fans as a process but offering few details in terms of a timetable. How would this first year be deemed a success on your end?

Mejdal: By creating an infrastructure such that our decision makers have all the information available to them, and we create decision aids that then help them combine that information. I see the front office as a series of decisions, and you could try to compete with other organizations using a subset of the information available or you can do your best to take all the information available and combine it in the most appropriate way. And that’s what my experience in baseball has been related to, from St. Louis to Houston. And Mike Elias’, too. So we’re bringing those processes to the Orioles. The Orioles were known as an organization behind in those areas, and one that didn’t necessarily value or use the information they did have in optimal ways. Was there anything that surprised you when you came in, got settled and looked around, regarding what was already here and how much work had to be done?

Mejdal: Not terribly so. We knew their analytics group consisted of one person, so that was a good indicator that this wasn’t a priority for them. But that one person they had is very skilled, so that was a nice surprise. The interest the other front-office members, the coaches, players and fans have had with this, have been additional nice surprises. You mentioned the fans. Your Q&A session was one of the biggest draws at FanFest. Were you expecting that kind of attention?

Mejdal: That was a big surprise. When I was hired in St. Louis, nobody cared. When Jeff [Luhnow] and I went to Houston, the press was not good. It was sort of, in a skeptical way, "Look what the Astros have brought in." I was sort of expecting something along those lines. But this has been a nice surprise. I say it’s nice because it indicates how baseball has changed. They’re not indifferent or skeptical, they’re appreciative of what analytics can bring to this industry. That pushback you faced in St. Louis is pretty famous now, for the way it sparked the analysts vs. scout’s narrative that still exists, in some ways, today. When you started, could you have envisioned a time when an analyst could rise to assistant GM and have as loud a voice in the room as many do now?

Mejdal: I’d say no. Some of it came from the amount of pushback we were receiving on something that, for me, did not seem incendiary whatsoever. So much of my attention and energies were more on the current problems. I don’t remember ever thinking long-term, "What will baseball be like?" I never had the imagination baseball would change so much and so quickly. Sometimes it’s hard to see that coming when you’re making frustratingly slow progress. What do you think the role of the scout is in the modern game?

Mejdal: It’s a significant role. Many of the things a scout provides can never be replaced by any machine. The work they do to find under the radar players, their evaluations of the player’s makeup. The information they get from their contacts, the likelihood of that player improving, growing. It’s true that some of the things we relied on scouts to report on have been complimented with certain technologies, but that’s going on in every industry on this planet. Baseball is not immune to that. But the idea of scouts going away, and that expertise not being needed, is simply false. So the role is still changing?

Mejdal: For sure. It has to be changing. The amount of information available on the players, the technologies, is growing exponentially. It has to change how we evaluate players and it has to change -- to some degree -- the information we look to from our scouts. Let’s pivot to the information, specifically. There is so much public data these days, and obviously every team creates metrics they deem proprietary. You’re privy to both. My question to analysts always is: how different are the metrics you use in-house to the one’s fans can find, say, via Statcast, Fangraphs or other public avenues?

Mejdal: It’s both. It’s similar and it’s different. We may have information in higher resolution … that extra information undoubtedly improves things. But it doesn’t turn what the public deems a poor player into a great player. The differences are more subtle, and in a competitive baseball world, and those subtle differences is what we’re reaching for. God is in the details, then.

Mejdal: There are perhaps 350 analysts in baseball, and they’re not watching the games. They’re looking for insights, and that’s our competition. You won’t realize a game by showing up and doing a regression. That’s been done, most likely, by every other team. How do you meet the challenge of staying innovative in that space?

Mejdal: Our first step is to recreate the best practices we learned from St. Louis and Houston, to get us to where Houston was in 2018. It’s not lost on us that the rest of baseball hasn’t called a timeout and waited for us to get there. We’re going to continue to look to improve. We have to. When you let your contract with the Astros expire at the end of last season, you left not only the best team in baseball, but an environment where your work was heavily valued and had paid off. You helped build a World Series winner and then left for a franchise coming off a 115-loss season. Why leave that situation for one where so much more work needs to be done?

Mejdal: I ask myself that question all the time. In short, I’ve realized I’m more of a start-up person than the steady state. There is an excitement with change and bringing in new processes. The more significant the change, for me anyway, the more excitement there is from it. So while leaving arguably the best team in baseball -- with arguably the best future in baseball -- may seem masochistic, the idea of coming to the Orioles, after hearing the owner’s vision, and the idea that Elias was coming here, seemed, as strange as it sounds, more attractive than remaining with an organization that I love, and who, frankly are such a good team right now.” So it’s a new challenge.

Mejdal: Everyone enjoys being inspired and have their work used, and to be in the middle of change. Almost, by definition, when you bring something to a club that they take advantage of, you become less valuable to that club than to the 29 other clubs who haven’t done that. And as the club gets more and more mature with their processes, the change that you can implement gets smaller and smaller. That’s just a fact of the working world. I think it was all those reasons that made the idea of looking elsewhere and leaving the best team in baseball attractive. What will you think when you face them this year?

Mejdal: It’ll probably be mixed. I’ll be rooting for the individuals on that team but hoping the Orioles win the game. It’ll be a little schizophrenic experience. So many of the players on the team, I followed forever. My job security depended on their success. But I wish the Orioles score more runs. You drafted many of those players. Do you see enough infrastructure being in place to impact this year’s Draft? (The Orioles have the No. 1 pick)

Mejdel: Absolutely. Mike and I have 26 combined years of drafting with analytics sticking its nose in the process. Many of those tools, we’re able to recreate in a short amount of times. You’ve hired two full-time analysts and two full-time developers, and plan to continue swelling the department. What do you look for in a qualified applicant, and is competition greater from within baseball or outside the industry?

Mejdal: The hires we’ve made are from outside. There is no shortage of qualified persons. There is something attractive about that when you’re building your organization from scratch. Technologically, you have to be uber-capable. In addition to that, you need to be passionate and inspired and motivated by baseball. This needs to be your dream job, because the skills needed are some of the most demanded in this world, and other industries will pay more. And you need to have people skills. We’re not doing this work for intellectual curiosity, we’re doing it in order to take advantage of it. That means implementing change. When you have human beings, we’re asking to change or rethink things, and if you’re going to have your analysts or developers interacting with them, they need to be sensitive and, frankly, realize they’re in the field of change management. There are change management skills, and you don’t learn that when you get your analytics degree. Two years ago, you spent a summer as the first base coach/in-dugout analyst for the Astros’ Class A Short-Season affiliate. The experiment was the first of its kind. What did you learn from that experience and did you get what you wanted out of it?

Mejdal: We got what we wanted out of it. It was a thoughtful allocation of the resources in order to learn some valuable information. From that standpoint, it was successful. From a personal standpoint, it was a wonderful experience. I hadn’t put on a uniform since Little League, so it was something I never imagined would be a part of my life again. It was a thrill. It was a privilege. From an Astros standpoint, it was also a valuable experience for the front office as a whole. We learned there are many things you don’t know or can’t know about the constraints of Minor League ball until you’re living it every day. Do you ever want to take another bus ride?

Mejdal: I didn’t mind it. The bus rides were the only downtime you’d have. All your other working hours are baseball. I would watch a movie or I would read. How receptive were the players to your players, and how receptive was the coaching staff, to the information?

Mejdal: I was a bit anxious about how the players would receive me. I imagined some thinking, “What the heck? We can have a real coach, not this analyst guy.” But once again, I was wrong. They welcomed me despite not having a playing background. Like with any coach, if they begin to trust you and see that you can help them, they love you. Our coaches were wonderful, too. That wasn’t a surprise. The type of coach we hired in Houston was a bit different than what other organizations were doing. They thought this was great. Do you foresee doing something similar with the Orioles?

Mejdal: Me specifically, no. My days of wearing a uniform are over. We learned what we needed to. That’s not to say there isn’t a lot to learn by doing it again. We might do something like that again. But it’s not likely going to be me. (Pause) It’s not going to be me.