Sig Mejdal (right), vice president and assistant general manager of analytics for the Baltimore Orioles, speaks with Orioles player Adam Frazier. Photo courtesy of Baltimore Orioles.
Sig Mejdal (right), vice president and assistant general manager of analytics for the Baltimore Orioles, speaks with Orioles player Adam Frazier. Photo courtesy of Baltimore Orioles.

Both baseball fans and laypersons might have noticed a buzz in the air this spring, or caught a glimpse of people wearing orange t-shirts or jerseys bearing the numbers 35 or 31 and the names Rutschman and Mullins across the back.

You may have overheard a conversation at the next table or across the bar with people talking about the Baltimore Orioles’ place in the eastern division standings, or when they’ll be heading to Oriole Park or wherever else they might have plans to watch the next game. Perhaps someone has asked you to join them for a game at the ballpark this season.

Coming on the heels of the Orioles’ first winning season in six years, expectations were high entering the season even though the Orioles play in the toughest division in the major leagues.

It hasn’t felt this way in Baltimore since the Orioles’ last eastern division title in 2014 or as surprising since the team’s last big turnaround season of 2012.

The Orioles are in the fifth season of a five-year plan that began with the restructuring of the team’s front office prior to the 2019 season and the hiring of the trio of general manager Mike Elias, field manager Brandon Hyde, and vice president and assistant general manager of analytics Sig Mejdal. Elias and Mejdal were both part of the Houston Astros organization that won a World Series championship in 2017.

The nucleus of a successful squad that saw the Astros win five west division titles in six seasons was developed within the franchise’s own player development system using a formula of analytics-based studies and evaluation.

Mejdal (pronounced maɪdəl / MY-dəl) is among the unsung heroes and brains of the operation crunching numbers behind the scenes. A former NASA engineer and blackjack dealer, Mejdal has worked with general manager Elias for a total of 17 years including previous stints with the Astros and St. Louis Cardinals, acquiring three World Series rings along the way (two with the Cardinals in 2006 and 2011). During his seven seasons in St. Louis and under his direction, the Cardinals drafted more players that would reach the major leagues than any other big-league team. As “Director of Decision Sciences” for the Houston Astros from 2012-2017 he created a system of choosing players based on physical tests and prior performance.

When he was brought on board here in Baltimore, Elias referred to his hiring as a milestone in the team’s history: “Sig Mejdal is one of the most experienced and accomplished analysts working in baseball today,” said Elias in the Orioles’ news release. “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.”

Prior to the hiring of the analytics-driven former Astros trio, the Orioles hit rock bottom posting an abysmal 47-115 record, the worst season in the franchise’s 64-year history to date; tied for the fourth most defeats in modern major league history dating back to 1901.

Over the next four seasons, the Orioles compiled records of: 54-108 in 2019, 25-35 in the pandemic abbreviated season of 2020, 52-110 in 2021 and 83-79 in 2022.

While it may have been a tiresome and frustrating period for Orioles fans to endure, the team and its fans are now seeing the master plan come to fruition. Things began to turn around for the team shortly after the major league debut of wunderkind first-round draft pick and top-rated minor league prospect catcher Adley Rutchsman on May 21, 2022.
The 2022 Orioles 31-game improvement from the previous season was the greatest in modern major league baseball history.

Since the halfway mark of the 2022 season (after 81 games on July 5, 2022) the Orioles have the fifth best record in all major league baseball at 73-50 (.609) trailing only the Los Angeles Dodgers, Atlanta Braves, Houston Astros, and Tampa Bay Rays over the same period.

For the first time in team history the Orioles are currently ranked with the number one farm system in Baseball America’s organizational talent rankings.

A cast of home-grown emerging star players has the Orioles currently residing in second place two-and-half games behind Tampa Bay in what will undoubtedly prove to be a hotly contested race in the AL East.

Mejdal recently sat with Baltimore Fishbowl for a Zoom call conversation to discuss his five years of work with the Orioles organization and the team’s transition into baseball analytics era.

Baltimore Fishbowl: It’s been four years since you joined the Orioles, this is your fifth season, and I remember hearing about a five-year plan when it first started. Is everything going according to plan?

Sig Mejdal: Yeah, it is. The plan was to create processes to make the organization as modern as can be, to position them not only to compete but to be a perennial playoff contender. We can’t do that without creating a pipeline of talent, from the draft to internationally and up through player development. All those processes that lead to those things, really. Most everything about the Orioles has changed, and that’s been the plan. I know we talk about processes and the fans don’t see those changes in the draft process, or the changes with the player development personnel, or their processes. But those things have all changed. Winning so far this season, and having the number one player development system, that’s nice and the fans can see that. We’re happy about that, but what’s nice are the processes to lead to that. That’s changed, and that’s changed permanently, hopefully.

BFB: There’s got to be some joy in that, too, in the process. I would imagine it feels good when it’s happening.

SM: Of course, it does. We have an imbalanced life. It’s baseball from the time we get up to the time we go to sleep. And it’s much more rewarding when you see not only the process change, but you start to see the results.

BFB: Can you describe the working relationship between you and GM Michael Elias?

SM: It’s an excellent relationship. We’ve been working together since 2007. We’ve been through a lot together. I think we both have this unique experience to work with owners, both in St. Louis and then in Houston, who were not just interested in dabbling in analytics to stick your big toe in the water, but instead were very clear that they wanted to take advantage of whatever juice there is to squeeze from this and to take advantage of it immediately before other teams did. That has meant we’ve lived on the bleeding edge for 17 years together. It’s impossible to go on a ride like that with somebody without feeling a bond. And this ride isn’t done yet; hopefully far from it.

BFB: When you talk about the arc of that relationship, were the Orioles late in coming to this game?

SM: Yes.

BFB: It was new territory, something they hadn’t even dabbled in, like you said.

SM: I think it’s well known that at the time we got here, there were more than 400 analysts in baseball and the Orioles had zero. They had a skilled developer, but they had no analysts at the time. This was when other teams in their division had 20 or 30 and they’ve had that for five or 10 years. It’s like a century or two of analytics years that our competition had and for a variety of reasons the Orioles didn’t.

BFB: How large is the analytics department? How many new hires were required to create this?

SM: We’re hiring and we’re creating it and we’re expanding it as quickly as could be, but we’re careful. We’re very choosy with who we bring in and for good reason. So now we have a staff of 14 or 15 or 16. Depends if you count the part-time but very skilled interns we have. So that’s about average, but we’re still growing and we’re growing at a rate which is, in my experience, a reasonable, responsible rate.

BFB: You talked about the interns. I would imagine that you’ve been seeing more applicants in the analytics department, where other years you might have seen people going into marketing or communications or whatever.

SM: Definitely. So, an opening now might get 700, 800 applicants. And with the skill set that so many of them have coming out of universities, with the skill set that we wouldn’t see in the past.

BFB: Now that the Orioles farm system has become ranked number one, how do you keep that up? How do you stay number one?

SM: That’s a good question. I would answer that in the same way that got us here. An incessant questioning of what we’re doing, constantly looking for a better way of doing things for innovations. And then when we have the confidence of how we can improve to take advantage of that wholly and immediately. That’s what’s got us here, and that’s the process that hopefully will keep us at the top or near the top for as long as possible.

BFB: Have there been any pleasant or unpleasant surprises in the way the team has developed these past four years?

SM: Of course. There’s always surprises. We count on surprises while we can’t control them. We do our best to position ourselves to have the best chance for those surprises. As you’ve noticed, more than our share of players has come from waivers. Mateo, Urías, Pérez, Baker, Voth, I’m probably missing a couple. Tyler Wells from Rule 5. And they’ve done so well. That’s a tribute to our pro scouting group and to our analysts who both like the chances of them being a pleasant surprise — and they are all pleasant surprises. Our player development coaches under Matt Blood have been amazing. The progress they’ve made has been incredible, and the development taking place because of that and player development is exciting. You may know one of our Major League hitting coaches [Ryan Fuller], 30-something months before he was a Major League hitting coach he was a high school teacher in Connecticut. I wouldn’t have thought there was that potential to realize so quickly, but there is and there has been. Those are all big wonderfully pleasant surprises.

BFB: It’s a young man’s game on a lot of levels. I think the people who are in the think tanks now are younger than baseball executives have traditionally been in the past.

SM: They may happen to be younger, but it’s not the youth which is so attractive. It’s instead the new ideas and taking more evidence-based best practices from other fields or from the research and applying it to this industry.

BFB: What are some of the organization’s most pressing needs or concerns?

SM: I think while the days of the Orioles avoiding so many of the best practices in baseball are gone, the rest of the baseball world are not dummies. It’s a zero-sum game and we’re all fighting for those wins. We’re happy with the changes so far, but it never ends. The other teams are looking for the same things we are, the same inefficiencies I speak of, and finding those before they do and taking advantage of them is always our most pressing need.

BFB: Specifically, where the team’s strengths and weaknesses lie, is there something you think that needs to be addressed to get to pennant contention past the All-Star break?

SM: Yeah, Charlie, I don’t think it’s as sexy as that. I think it’s: we need to create runs. We need to hold our opponents to runs. And however we could do that, we’re attracted to that. So are all the other teams, and we want to do it to such a degree that we’re in the playoffs. That’s sort of the oversimplified marching orders.

BFB: The fans are obviously enjoying this early success, but is there anything that you think fans could be looking forward to as the season evolves?

SM: I think we’re always going to be an organization that relies more on younger, homegrown talent than the typical team and that’s exciting. We have some very good players up here. We’ve got some very good players coming and that’s well known, but their stories and their personalities and their journeys are probably less well known. And when one becomes aware of their journeys, it’s hard not to fall in love with them. I know our content team puts together quite a bit on our YouTube channel and even now more on MASN. We’re looking forward to these young players coming up here, realizing their dreams and producing for the Orioles, and I hope our fans are too.

BFB: With injuries, you sometimes must move guys up and that also creates opportunity. I was reading some stuff recently about Urías’s replacement, who’s tearing it up right now. I would think he’s somebody that we could start thinking about.

SM: Yes, and behind him, there’s others that are maybe in the hope right now. But certainly quite a few of them, hopefully, will turn into reality that we’ll see up here in Camden Yards.

BFB: Do you personally spend time going to games at Bowie?

SM: Not as much as I wish I could make time for, but I usually visit every affiliate a time or two during the season.

BFB: I bring Bowie to mind because the double A level seems to be more of the pipeline to the big leagues, and its proximity to Baltimore as well is convenient. Thinking about the game at the minor league level which involves a lot of instruction begs the question of how analytics and instruction are tied to each other?

SM: I think of analytics as synonymous with just using evidence. You can use analytics to make better decisions. That’s synonymous with using evidence to make better decisions. It doesn’t seem so incendiary. That seems like a good way to go. With coaches, for instance, they’re making decisions on what the player should work on and how they should teach that. And tech and analytics, of course, can reveal what the player is doing well, what he’s doing poorly, what he’s struggling with, what even we’re able to fix. That can educate the coach on what to work on. Then, of course, there’s a lot of research evidence on how to develop expertise, and developing baseball skills is really an acquisition of visual motor skills. The world knows a lot about how visual motor skills are developed and our coaches are aware of those best practices. Along with practice design and strength and conditioning and we have coaches taking advantage of all the information. The data that comes from Tech for sure, but also the knowledge out there from the research world all to make our players better.

BFB: This year is a new type of season for baseball, including the rule changes that everyone is getting adjusted to. This year’s team seems to be very well-suited to some of those changes. You knew this was coming. So how are you using analytics to move the team in this new direction?

SM: Analytics or evidence has been used to different degrees for infield positioning for quite a while. Now with the rule that there must be two players on each side of second base, that is just another constraint. It goes into the model, it changes things, but it’s still no different. There may not be as dramatic shifting going on, but still the positioning we want to do is evidence-based. You were asking about the rule changes in general, so there’s the infield positioning, the stolen base, the bases being bigger, making the distance from second being shorter, along with the limited pickoff throws. It sort of changes the calculus in not only the frequency at which pitchers pick off, but the lead and the risk the players, the base stealers lead into. Like you said, that was no mystery that it was coming and our analytics team, our coaches and our players were well-prepared for that.

BFB: When you think about the process and the past four years as this was evolving, it seemed like the team was being almost built in that direction before the changes even arrived.

SM: We had our share of base stealers and so these rules were especially welcoming to us. Not only would they make the game more interesting, but they would also give us a bit of an advantage over the other clubs.

BFB: How do finances and payroll figure into this equation? How do you use your resources to go after what you need to get?

SM: I’d be lying if I said they don’t play a part, but our job is to improve, find inefficiencies, take these findings to the logical conclusion. Whether you’re the New York Yankees or the smallest market team, that’s your goal too. Some teams having more resources undoubtedly makes it more challenging, but it also makes it more rewarding if you’re able to beat them.

BFB: Finally, I was at last night’s game [May 10]. It’s a thrilling game. I really enjoyed it. I loved seeing the Orioles take two out of three from Tampa Bay, who burst out of the gate. But one thing that I was disappointed in: I thought more people should have been there. Are there any ways that analytical studies can be applied to what fans want to see or the fan experience? It might not even be something that’s happening on the field. I don’t know how you supercharge that.

SM: I think analytics can be applied to anything. And while this isn’t my area of expertise, we have ticketing analytics people that are looking into that. Questions related to maximizing the fan experience or increasing attendance can certainly be guided by looking at the evidence. One thing, working on the baseball operation side, that I am completely certain increases attendance is providing the fans with a young, exciting, energetic, fun-to-watch, competitive team. And that’s out there right now at Camden Yards. We both saw it last night.

BFB: I would imagine as the season progresses, attendance is going to increase too. Once school is out of session, families can stay out a little later.

SM: I hope so too. It’s impossible not to see the energy, sense the energy around town and the excitement with this team.

Editor’s note: The introduction to this interview has been corrected to reflect that Brandon Hyde was not with the Houston Astros with Mike Elias and Sig Mejdal.

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