The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Orioles’ new analytics-driven regime is already shifting the team’s culture

Outfielder Yusniel Diaz, the centerpiece of the package the Orioles received from the Dodgers in last summer’s Manny Machado trade, bunts during spring training. (Butch Dill/USA Today)

SARASOTA, Fla. — When right-hander Yefry Ramirez climbed the mound and delivered the first pitch of the Baltimore Orioles’ Grapefruit League season at 1:09 p.m. Saturday, under scattered clouds and in 82-degree heat at Ed Smith Stadium, few in attendance would have noticed anything fundamentally different about the 2019 Orioles. A few new faces in the lineup. A new coaching staff. A No. 20 patch on their uniform sleeves in honor of late Hall of Famer Frank Robinson.

But below the surface, it was as if the Orioles had undergone a skeleton transplant since September. The entire infrastructure of the franchise has been transformed since the team last walked off a field, some five months ago at the end of a miserable, franchise-worst 47-115 season that cost general manager Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter their jobs.

In the franchise’s bigger picture, nothing that happened on the field Saturday, as the Orioles hosted the Minnesota Twins, meant nearly as much as the quiet, out-of-public-view work being done on their back fields earlier in the day, when pitchers threw bullpen sessions off mounds outfitted with $10,000 Edgertronic high-speed cameras, which provide high-def, ultra-slo-mo images of pitchers’ deliveries.

“There’s no debate anymore as to what works,” veteran pitcher Alex Cobb said of the Orioles’ philosophical shift toward a high-tech, data-driven approach. “And there’s no going back.”

Before Nov. 16, the date Baltimore hired Mike Elias as its general manager, any objective ranking of major league organizations from most to least reliant on analytics — the data-focused approach to roster building and strategy — would have had the Orioles at or near the bottom. Their entire analytics department, such as it was, consisted of one software developer.

One of the first moves made by Elias — a 36-year-old alum of Thomas Jefferson High in Alexandria, Va., and Yale University who had spent the previous seven years in the Houston Astros’ front office — was to poach Sig Mejdal, a former NASA and Lockheed Martin engineer who had built the Astros’ analytics department into the most aggressive and successful in the Major League Baseball, away from Houston.

Elias said the Orioles hope to finalize more analytics hires this month and still others later this year. But filling out a department is not as easy as it sounds; the competition for talent is not limited to the other 29 teams in baseball but includes the many other (better-paying) industries also looking for data analysts.

“You have to find someone who’s not only good,” Elias said, “but someone who’s passionate about baseball and who understands the pay scale might be a little different than it would be working for Google.”

Even as they implement their data-driven approach in small doses, Elias and new manager Brandon Hyde — previously the Chicago Cubs’ bench coach under Manager Joe Maddon — have found the Orioles’ players to be willing recipients. Some players had seen what analytics did for successful franchises such as the Astros, Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs and New York Yankees. Others may have figured a team coming off 115 losses has nothing to lose.

“There’s no argument anymore,” left fielder/first baseman Trey Mancini said. “If you’re still saying, ‘I don’t buy into that,’ or, ‘It’s not useful,’ then you’re just lying to yourself. People may have a hard time coming around on that, but that’s just the facts. I can’t wait, honestly, to see all that. It’s going to make us all better players.”

Players “don’t like being outgunned,” Elias said. “The whole sport is doing this. It’s not really an option right now [to ignore it].”

When Cobb joined the Orioles last season on a four-year, $57 million deal after six seasons with the analytics-heavy Tampa Bay Rays, he said he couldn’t believe how little the Orioles organization, under the Duquette-Showalter regime, seemed to believe in data.

“I’m not throwing the old regime under the bus,” said Cobb, 31. “It just wasn’t what they did. It’s tough because they were very good at the last generation of baseball. They were very good at what they knew. But there’s just this whole new world of info out there, and you can’t compare the two. They’re apples and oranges. When I tell people we were far behind, it sounds like a huge negative on the old regime. That’s not what it is. It’s just that we’re up to date now with where the rest of the league is.”

The blank slate for the 2019 Orioles extends to the clubhouse culture. All the biggest personalities who shaped the 2018 Orioles’ public face are gone: slugging infielder Manny Machado and closer Zack Britton (in trades last July), veteran outfielder Adam Jones (allowed to depart as a free agent at the end of the season) and Showalter, the cerebral, fastidious manager who helped lead the team to playoff appearances in 2012, 2014 and 2016.

“I just want guys to really be comfortable, and I want guys to not try to impress,” said Hyde, 45. “Just play aggressively. I’ve talked to all these guys individually about playing their game and not worrying about making a mistake. If we run into outs, run into mistakes — we can coach you from there. But if I have to push you through games — that’s not what I want to happen. I want guys to feel free and play, and we’ll coach from there.”

For the Orioles, there is every likelihood that 2019 will be another painful season at Camden Yards. In full rebuild mode, the team signed only one free agent to a major league contract — a one-year, $800,000 deal with pitcher Nate Karns, who hasn’t pitched professionally since 2017 because of injuries. But the Orioles will be measuring progress in other ways: the development of young players such as outfielder Yusniel Diaz, the centerpiece of the package the Orioles received from the Dodgers in last summer’s Machado trade; the growth of their burgeoning presence in Latin America; and, especially, the full flowering of their analytics department.

“What’s going on is a lot of behind-the-scenes work,” Cobb said. “They’re still getting things in place. They’re making hires. They’re getting the equipment they need. They’re establishing a database. They realize there’s no expectation for this year. There’s nothing that has to be done on the field other than compete.”

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