Somewhere up on the trophy shelf of spring training clichés, right next to “I’m in the best shape of my life” and “The ball’s coming out of my hand faster than ever,” must be “I worked on some things in the offseason.” The minor adjustment with the hands that turns a slap hitter into Christian Yelich; the devastating new offspeed weapon that nobody can time up. Hope springs eternal, right?
So maybe you, too, have been making like the shrug emoji at reports of a confident David Hess telling reporters he used analytics to tinker with his delivery this winter. Last season, you remember, Hess went an ugly 1-10 with a 7.09 ERA, a miserable 1.550 WHIP, and an insane 3.2 home runs allowed per nine innings. Only sheer desperation could explain why Brandon Hyde kept turning to the righty for 14 starts.
Last week, I wrote about Miguel Castro’s 2019 season, in which his pitch selection changed appreciably, his velocity and spin rate jumped, and pretty much all of his measurables other than home runs quietly improved. Given that Castro was part of one of the worst pitching staffs in MLB history, many reasonably chose to ignore these signs. Still, his improvements stand as proof that the new data-driven regime of GM Mike Elias and blackjack dealer-turned-NASA-engineer-turned-sabermetrics analyst Sig Mejdal is having quiet but important effects beyond what the team win-loss record so far shows.
Other Orioles are already feeling the love. During this year’s Birdland Caravan, Trey Mancini, a holdover from the Dan Duquette-Buck Showalter years, told reporters, “It’s amazing what [Hyde and Elias have] built in a year” in terms of infrastructure, hiring, scouting, and getting “the ball rolling from a technology standpoint.” The team’s No. 2 prospect, the big righty Grayson Rodriguez, says that all the analytics have really “improved [his] tools as a pitcher.” Bowie Baysox lefty Zac Lowther is a total convert, too, claiming that “each and every component of [his] game” has improved in the last year. And of course, there’s last year’s Cinderella story John Means, a walking endorsement for data-driven coaching, even if a lot of the improvements were made outside the team, at a private pitching facility in St. Louis.
Since taking over in winter 2018, Elias and Mejdal have put their money where their mouth is. From one lonely guy with a laptop, the analytics department now features nine to ten full-time analysts and three to four interns. Up and down the organization, new data-minded people have been bought on, including former Astros hurler and current director of pitching Chris Holt; director of pro scouting Mike Snyder; brand-new director of baseball development Eve Rosenbaum; and director of player development Matt Blood, who formerly served as the Texas Rangers’ director of baseball innovation (OK, if I have any problem with this new crew, it’s the titles).
Last spring, when players showed up to Sarasota they noticed the high-speed Edgertronic cameras and Trackman machines installed in the area behind the bullpens—a sign of the times. After a full day of workouts, pitchers were sent to one-to-two-hour classroom sessions. Individual video sessions allowed guys to spot how their pitches move, which ones worked better in certain counts, and to identify potential weaknesses.
This approach was implemented up and down the Orioles farm system. Under Low-A Delmarva pitching coach Justin Ramsey, Grayson Rodriguez started throwing a changeup to go with his fastball, curve and slider. Video helped him learn how to throw the pitch, where to locate it and when the best counts were to use it. This, no doubt, helped Rodriguez on his way to a monster 2019 in which he went 10-4 with a 2.68 ERA and split the team’s Jim Palmer Minor League Pitcher of the Year award.
Two Orioles affiliates, the Low-A Shorebirds and the Double-A Baysox, ended playoff droughts this year, and four Orioles clubs led their leagues in ERA: Bowie, Delmarva, short-season Single-A Aberdeen and the Gulf Coast League Orioles. The Baysox also posted the best WHIP in the Eastern League since 2001 (1.18). Of the added importance of analytics in the minors, Orioles pitching director Chris Holt says, “We’ve been able to develop some guys that perhaps weren’t on the map before. We also were able to get guys who were quality pitchers when we got here to improve what they were doing on the year as well.”
Up at the major-league level, the general badness of the team last year made it harder to spot the changes. Plus, players—especially pitchers—are understandably reluctant to share the secrets of their success. But besides Miguel Castro, there may be a few poster boys for the new regime. Dillon Tate, whose stuff impressed last year even if his record did not, has made a number of big changes since moving to the bullpen, particularly decreasing his reliance on the four-seam fastball in order to improve his punchout rate. In a limited sample, Hunter Harvey, also a switch to the bullpen, seems to be getting advice to let his fastball rip, and appears to be getting more movement on it. Tanner Scott has added a sinker to the mix (it’s still a work in progress), reduced velocity (to improve control), and tinkered quite a bit with his slider. Mychal Givens is mixing in his changeup and his slider more.
As for David Hess, after spending the winter at P3 Premier Pitching and Performance (the way John Means did the offseason before), he’s earned praise from Brandon Hyde on his improved stuff, especially the curveball. I’ll be keeping tabs on Hess and seeing whether any of this makes a difference. For now, I’m glad to see the guy is confident in his new delivery.
Next up for Mejdal & Co: the position players. So far, spring training has seen the use of cameras to work on baserunning. After that, you’ll see more technology around hitting: Sig Mejdal says to look out for things like bat sensors, body sensors, and force plates. When those effects might be felt is yet to be seen. I can say this: if Chris Davis manages to crack the Mendoza Line in 2020, well, at that point you can call me a convert.