Remember when the Orioles’ analytics department consisted of, like, three people, surely working in some dusty corner of the warehouse, their data and ideas all but ignored by the club?
It’s a brave new world in Birdland since the Mike Elias regime took charge. Now, Baltimore is Analytics Central, where players are inundated with all the data they could ever want. Just ask 23-year-old prospect Tyler Nevin, who joined the Orioles from the Rockies’ organization last August.
“I would say the Orioles are more on the data swing, for sure,” Nevin said in a Zoom interview this spring. “I like it. Having all that information, it helps me develop a plan. Or if we’re working in the cage and we’ve got different technologies to help us figure out what’s going on, I like that stuff. I’ve found a lot of helpful tools since I’ve come over here that have definitely made me a better player.
“Day one I got here, I had a PowerPoint ready for me showing me, like, ‘Hey, these are the things you do well, these are the things we want you to keep progressing at, this is why we got you and why we liked you in this trade.’ So day one, jumping in, seeing a team that why they really wanted me was a huge encouragement and it got me really excited.”
The O’s acquired Nevin, along with fellow minor leaguers Terrin Vavra and Mishael Deson, in the Mychal Givens trade with the Rockies on Aug. 30. At the time, Nevin was the Rockies’ 14th-ranked prospect by MLB Pipeline, which now ranks him 24th on the Orioles’ list.
Nevin certainly has a fine baseball pedigree. He’s the son of longtime major leaguer Phil Nevin, the No. 1 overall draft pick in 1992 by the Houston Astros. (And Tyler’s younger brother, Kyle, is currently playing at Baylor University.) While the elder Nevin didn’t quite live up to the hype that comes with being the first overall pick, he carved out a nice 12-year career for himself and had four or five big seasons with the bat, including a 41-homer, 126-RBI, All-Star season in 2001.
The younger Nevin, at least as of now, isn’t projected for such prolific power numbers, but he does a have few similarities to his pops. Tyler, too, was a first round pick (albeit a supplemental first-rounder at 38th overall in 2015), and his bat is his calling card. Nevin has shown “strong plate discipline and an ability to make hard contact consistently,” according to MLB Pipeline, and “tracks pitches beautifully and can make quality contact with pitches all over the zone,” per FanGraphs. He carries a career .286 batting average and .362 on-base percentage in the minors. A hitter who can work counts, draw walks, and put together quality at-bats is something that any lineup could use, particularly the often overly aggressive Orioles.
Still, if you’re defensively limited to a corner infield or outfield spot, as Nevin is, then you’d better be able to smack a bunch of home runs, too. And so far, that part of Nevin’s game hasn’t really materialized. In his most recent professional season, he swatted just 13 home runs in 130 games for Double-A Hartford, posting an unremarkable .399 slugging percentage.
In Nevin’s defense, he was young for the level — two years younger than the average Double-A player — and it was a pitcher-friendly league. Still, for a guy listed at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, you’d hope to see a little more ability to muscle the ball out of the yard. “[H]is swing doesn’t get the ball in the air enough, and given his limited defensive options he has to put the ball in the seats more,” wrote The Athletic’s Keith Law.
Nevin was drafted as a third baseman out of Poway High School in California and played that position exclusively in his first professional season, but began splitting time between third and first base in 2017 after injuries dampened his early career. Since then, first base became his primary position as he climbed up the Rockies’ organizational ladder, but he’s been versatile enough to play elsewhere from time to time. In 2019 for the Yard Goats, he made 96 starts at first, 12 at third, eight in right field, and seven in left. As it happens, those are the same four positions his father played in his MLB career (except Phil also spent a little time as a catcher).
Maybe that’s not a coincidence. Tyler has a built-in role model in his father, who has remained in baseball since his playing career ended in 2006, serving as a minor league manager and now the Yankees’ third base coach. “Having him to go to as a dad, but also as a mentor, has been a huge factor in my career,” Nevin said. “I haven’t really come into a situation where I didn’t know what to expect, because I could always go to him and see what this is like, how I should go about myself.”
With the 2020 minor league season canceled, the Orioles didn’t get a chance to see Nevin play in competitive games after acquiring him last August, but they made up for it with plenty of looks this spring. Nevin appeared in 24 of the Orioles’ 28 Grapefruit League games, tied with Ryan McKenna for the most on the club. In 33 at-bats, Nevin collected nine hits; the first eight were singles until his next-to-last game, when he homered against the Braves. The Orioles optioned Nevin to Triple-A Norfolk on March 16, and he’ll be part of the alternate site at Bowie until the minor league season begins May 4.
Expect Nevin to serve as the Tides’ regular first baseman this year, though the O’s could move him around the diamond on occasion, at least based on one of Nevin’s first conversations with Mike Elias last year. “He goes, ‘Hey, did you bring all your gloves?’ I said, ‘Yup.’ He said, ‘OK, you’re going to need them.’
“So we’ll see how it plays out,” Nevin said. “I’m ready for everything. As long as I’m in the lineup, I’m a happy guy.”
This year will be Nevin’s first taste of Triple-A, but had the 2020 minor league season been played, he’d already have his feet wet at that level and possibly would have made his MLB debut by now. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him arrive in the bigs for the Birds sometime this year.
In what role, though? As someone who doesn’t play a skill position and hasn’t shown big-time power, it’s hard to peg Nevin as an everyday player at this point, especially with the Orioles already awash in first base/DH types. The current version of Nevin could still be useful as a bench bat and fill-in starter. But if the Orioles’ analytics-oriented approach can find a way to unlock his full offensive potential, particularly in the slugging department, his ceiling could become considerably higher.