By Eric Garfield
We’re trying to evaluate and grade Mike Elias and finally have some data to look at a little closer as he’s been in place since November of 2018. We have a draft and a full offseason but we can also look at Elias and Mejdal two immense contributors in the Astros recent and ongoing success, which is hard to keep in context considering the recent scandal where it was proven how much the team cheated.
As O’s fans we don’t care about that as much as we want to know if our rebuild is on track, because there is no disputing that theirs worked.
From my perspective, a big follower of the minors and the action below the big league level I wanted to use Elias and Sig’s previous success as a baseline and see where the O’s stand entering 2020 as an organization in a state of change. To give me a better perspective of the Astros’ rise but much more importantly the collective contributions and roles of Sig and Elias I read Astroball.
Again, every single word of this book is taken in a different context when you consider the cheating and it takes it to a level where completing the book is maybe uncomfortable. Luhnow was on track to be an excellent exec, Hinch and Beltran outstanding managers too. Why they spoiled it and took it too far is for others to judge.
But, the story for us starts with two people that are both brilliant in their own right and so totally different than anyone the Orioles have hired in the past that just having their minds influence the organization is a major victory. Sig is of course a probability and outcome obsessed rocket scientist who left NASA because he lived and loved baseball and Elias is a scout who used to pitch and is Ivy League educated and major league title winning. Lots of pedigree which can seem like it helps in a rebuilding situation but nobody’s resumè is going from 5th to 2nd to 1st in the division and the playoffs so who really are these guys and what have they done, and what are they going to do for the Orioles.
On some of those questions we don’t have to wonder so much because there’s info from the book, their personal history and their recent O’s experience that makes it clear.
Elias seems savvy beyond his years in communication and has proven it in interactions with media and fans. It seems less like he’s hiding top secret info and more like he’s open to listen and perhaps be influenced by others. His pedigree in the bigs is top notch and he doesn’t act aloof or above others. This is in some ways a contrast to previous GMs in Baltimore and also a little different than his mentor Jeff Luhnow. Luhnow is a cheater and went too far but to deny that Elias wasn’t groomed by an outstanding baseball mind is ignoring the obvious. A phrase that stood out to me while reading was Luhnow the teacher having a philosophy that every single decision he made, no matter painful would be based on a probability that it would prove helpful in the long term. Elias has made plenty of tough calls here already, lots of them painful on some level. Chris Davis is on the horizon, among others. It’s this kind of thinking that makes me optimistic about solutions instead of locked on to the problems.
Sig worked at a casino during college and it’s been publicized how he learned about probability and why long term it’s better to hit on a 16 with 7 showing in blackjack as it lessened the overall loss, but the application to the sport and roster building decisions were where he had to develop, quickly and he definitely did. It is possible that he is in the peak phase of his career, where the Orioles will get the benefit of his experience.
He learned to meld his stats with anti-cognitive bias, or what leads us to make poor choices when faced with complicated and difficult decisions. This is not Buck Showalter telling Ryan Mountcastle to walk more and we’ll see him in the bigs because it hasn’t worked like that and that’s not how it’s going to work with this regime in place.
There are reasons and factors for why Mountcastle hasn’t walked and has struck out. Some of them can be addressed and improved upon but can his profile truly be changed or can he still succeed and not walk too often?
Heuristics are what this new pair is up against as an executive team. These are the mental shortcuts that sometimes make us choose the easiest path instead of fully grasping the scope of the problem and properly addressing it. In baseball it’s maybe the idea that a prospect needs to be up by age 23 or after so many minor league innings or will only peak at 26. There are ways to prove these things true and also plenty of exceptions but in the past baseball has to a large degree just gone along with them. Elias and Sig are the most anti-groupthink pair I’ve observed recently and that’s exactly what a team like the Orioles needed.
Elias could have pouted about the fact his shoulder frayed in college, instead he educated himself on Tommy John surgery and made it his senior thesis. He followed to popular pitching guru Tom House, interned and became expert level on optimal pitching mechanics and began to formulate the ideal windup, release and trajectory. Again, a drastic upgrade on the guy just pointing a speed gun at a pitcher.
These are confidence inspiring outside the box thinkers that impress me and have pretty decent resume’s. After decimating a roster and no longer having Manny Machado on a big league roster, I can’t think of any better pair to come in and change organizational philosophy and quickly. For lots of fans focused on the win total at the major league level it has not been quick at all.
That’s something that came to mind when looking at all the scouting, perseverance, budget, man-hours, good fortune and circumstance that went into drafting Carlos Correa at number one overall. Luhnow said that all the work is done, you just have to call his name and that stuck with me. If you draft, sign and trade for more guys that buy in to what you’re trying to do, you can do so more confidently and let them be themselves. Almost like Ozzie Newsome drafting the best guy available yet always ending up with a pretty complete roster.
Also it made me think that there are newer, younger and hungrier scouts and organizational members so singularly focused on maximizing any shred of talent that they acquire that everybody is going to get a chance. The growth mindset is discussed at length in the book too and it made me think back to my GCL in-game chat with pitcher Nick Roth who used that exact term.
He was amazed that Elias knew everything about his arsenal as a Randolph Macon University senior but more impressed with what they told him to maximize even if he wasn’t drafted by the O’s, who let him have his throwing session at Camden Yards. Low round pick, super detailed analysis and opportunity presented. It’s such a great example that Roth has taken off running but think of the future and that happening several hundred times more. He’ll WANT to grow. It also made me think of the GCL pitching coach Adam Bleday. He’s got a chance for a long term career in baseball ahead of him and he’s 26. How can he not have a growth mindset? To conclude, lots of work is being done and has been done. How do we see it or measure it?
Can we look at Mountcastle, a 22 year old with strikeout issues and compare him to a George Springer, also an excellent minor league stat producer who didn’t let the k’s kill him? Yes for these reasons-they both displayed great hitting skills and a ton of strikeouts in the minors. No for these-Springer started in the minors at 22 after college and got 1100 ABs down there before seeing the bigs, Mountcastle didn’t go to college and won a league’s MVP at 22 just a breath from MLB. But the player profile is comparable. And the description of how Springer was helped was that he reached for the guidance this new scouting was giving him. Slowly the k rate shrink a little and he became a star. When looking at Mountcastle’s rates they’ve gone in the wrong direction recently but his advantage over Springer is years. It seems obvious in Elias’ handling of Mountcastle and not rushing him that he’s aware of that difference. Individual player development is a great and clear indicator of scouting ability but it takes years. He’s had one draft, and one rankings cycle raise reflects that it was a good one.
How about trades that initiated a full rebuild? In Houston it started in 2012. Wandy Rodriguez, Carlos Lee and Brett Myers were the vets traded away for Robbie Grossman, Matt Dominguez and some fluff. For the O’s the effort started without Elias in town as a handful of O’s including Manny and Schoop were dealt for prospects from the Dodgers, Brewers, Braves and Yankees. He had no role in the haul the O’s received in the 2018 trades so he can’t be credited or blamed here.
Maybe in terms of time from the lowest point to the top would paint that clear picture. How long did it take us to become good again? Well that’s something that we can’t accurately pinpoint, but a horrible start to that 2018 is somewhere close.
For the Astros, their lowest point was identified and it was when Jonathan Villar slid into a purposefully turned around Brandon Phillips at second base somewhere during an empty 2013 season their third in a row with 100 losses. My mind went to Villar being a young player then and wondered did his whole career happen from then until now…hint, it did. They finished fifth but almost fourth in 2014 however and finished within their first winning month in several seasons, a 15-14 May. By 2017, still years down the road, Astros vets were being quoted at the deadline as being upset due to a lack of action to keep them in a pennant race. It took time but that’s a milestone in itself.
Could a similar record turnaround be close or years off for the Orioles? I have to say it looks like not this year as the system is yet to bear fruit and recent trades have been for space clearing and budget eliminating instead of talent increasing. There is no Altuve or Springer to start off the season. But by the end of 2020 the Orioles will have a pair of years under the expert eyes of Elias and a great deal more talent than when this effort started way back under a previous administration. Otherwise it’s too soon to really truly make a call on progress. Some will look and see that there hasn’t been enough. Others, like me will see the foundation for success being laid and why it can’t be a knee-jerk quick fix type of scenario. I’m willing to give Elias credit and the benefit of experience. Will he draft a high school pitcher after the sting of Brady Aiken or will he realize that his system was already steaming along that one draft pick even at the top won’t hurt them? Will he turn potential disasters like that into Alex Bregman 12 months later? I hope so but I also know that if a rebuild was never initiated that the answer would be no.
The way I will look at ‘timeline’ is based on an Astros transaction that now has a horribly ugly stench but stood for something significant. When they signed Carlos Beltran in 2016 it filled a need at DH, but he was a gap- bridging veteran who communicated with the clubhouse vets and kids and provided that high caliber experience that their roster was without. He solidified things to a degree and they took off. When the O’s sign a vet to not only be good, but to be the older voice who’s still a contributor I’ll make a check mark but that also seems not in the plans 2020. Start off 35-15 and maybe some adjusting will be necessary but I’m glad to have a front office that’s capable and connected to the players.
The organization is led by innovators, not group thinkers and or group thinking that led to mediocrity and worse. That should make you happy as a fan. The book ended with Sig looking back at NASA and how to maximize human performance in specific environments like a space shuttle. His mind went to a dugout and thoughts of the cameras, sensors and biometric measurements to get from the players and their interactions in terms of comfort vs stress, fatigue and overall health.
The future of the Orioles is dependent on so many people, potential contributions and effort. This new pair is so much on the edge of the melding of maximized collective mindset and statistics that even a long term pessimist like myself has bought in. When fans complain that 2019 was the worst season in recent history I can’t help but disagree. I see it as the beginning of something necessary and new and the absence of that would be a continual low point. From 2018 on there has only been one way to go, up. My mindset is that the organization is already very much on track and I’m excited. But grading them short term on the ability to have long term success is not something I can do today.