Sig Mejdal had no idea that he’d eventually be working in the Orioles front office when deciding to let his contract with the Astros run out in order to pursue other opportunities. It wasn’t part of some grand scheme to get inside the B&O Warehouse. He can be described as a visionary of sorts, but not in this way.
A perfect storm carried Mejdal to Baltimore. The organization surrendering to a full teardown and rebuild. The hiring of former Astros assistant Mike Elias as executive vice president and general manager. A full commitment to utilizing analytics rather than having a paper-thin department with information dispersed that often was ignored or chastised.
Mejdal brought a stellar reputation with him, along with one of the more interesting backgrounds of anyone in the sport. He worked for NASA as a biomathematician in the Fatigue Countermeasures Group, studying the sleep patterns of astronauts on the International Space Station. He received his bachelor’s degrees in mechanical engineering and aeronautical engineering from the University of California, Davis, and master’s degrees in operations research and cognitive psychology from San Jose State University.
Baseball’s tug and a fascination with numbers led Mejdal to the Cardinals organization, where he spent seven years - starting out as a quantitative analyst in 2005 and finishing up as director of amateur draft analysis. He worked as their senior quantitative analyst in 2008.
Mejdal joined the Astros in 2012 and organized the team’s analytics department from its inception. His fingerprints are all over the 2017 championship.
The local media will learn more about Mejdal at the upcoming Winter Meetings in Las Vegas. An opportunity for face-to-face interaction. In the meantime, we spoke over the phone for about 15 minutes yesterday and delved a little deeper into his arrival and plans for the franchise.
I’m also 0-for-2 in attempts to lure a timeline out of the newest executives, but you can’t blame a guy for trying.
Here’s a sampling:
Can you take me through the process of how you ended up in Baltimore? I read where you allowed your contract with the Astros to run out so you could seek other opportunities. Did you anticipate this opportunity and set yourself up for the move?
“I’ve always had a good relationship with Jeff (Luhnow). He hasn’t just been my boss, but he’s been like my best friend for 14 years. So I asked him if I could explore other opportunities, because I think I miss the, I’m not going to say ‘the rebuild,’ I think the early stages of change more so than the steady state. And he was completely understanding and completely supportive. I didn’t know where my landing spot was going to be. I knew there were a few teams looking for general managers. My guess is that there was going to be a possibility there, but I didn’t know.”
Once Elias got the job, had you already talked to him about reuniting in Baltimore?
“We had talked in general about different opportunities, but there was nothing set in stone that wherever he went, I would go for sure. All things being equal, there would be a good chance of that because this is an incumbent GM who has a tremendous amount of experience in the areas that the Orioles could use, and he has a complete trust in me and vice-versa. So I knew it would be attractive, but there was no guarantee or complete agreement.
How would you describe what you’re here to do?
“I think a large chunk of my skills are experience in creating a state-of-the-art talent pipeline. No team, even the big boys, can consistently succeed without a very strong pipeline.”
What has been your view, as an outsider, of how the Orioles used analytics in the past?
“The interesting thing in this industry is the teams don’t share their analytical state, so I didn’t know. I would see some third-party descriptions of the Orioles’ analytics, but I didn’t know for sure. So they didn’t have the reputation of being on the forefront of the analytics movement.”
As you look at the department, would you say that there are multiple hires pending to increase the staff?
“Yeah. Our goal is to create a state-of-the-art analytics department, and they’ve lost ... a couple good analysts have left the Orioles recently. But thankfully, we have a very skilled developer, and that’s the backbone of any analytics department, and so we’re going to build on that and we’re going to build aggressively.”
How do you work analytics into this rebuild? How do they fit?
“I think a baseball front office could be described as a collection of, it’s decision after decision, and in those decisions you want to use all the information available and you want to combine that information as well as you can. And analytics assists in that.”
How long does it take to get the staff where you want it and how long does it take for you to see the results on the field?
“I know better than to promise any sort of results. What we can promise is that we’re going to aggressively improve the processes and take what we learned both in St. Louis and Houston and apply it here.”
Does this work with any personnel that they have on the roster, or do you have to find the right people to match what you want to do?
“I think at the end of the day we’re looking for wins, and that comes from runs. And there are some exciting pieces in this organization that are going to contribute to both of those.”
This isn’t just about the offensive side, right? This method also will be used to upgrade the defense.
“Right. I guess when I said ‘create runs,’ I mean create and save runs.”
How does someone with your background end up in baseball?
“I’ve been fascinated with baseball before I had any of the background that you probably read about. Ever since I was a kid, I was fascinated with baseball and the numbers and the research that was going on. And as I got older that interest just never went away. I never imagined a person like myself working in baseball until 2003 and the book “Moneyball” came out. And so it was then that I tried to get into baseball, and I naively thought I would have a job by the end of the week. But it was about a year and a half of much effort, and it was then that it lined up in St. Louis. And with an owner who was fixing something that few people thought was broke. At a time when they were winning 100 games a year, he brought in Jeff Luhnow and then Jeff brought in me.”
What else were you doing over the past few years that put you in uniform in the minors?
“I was in uniform the summer before last, the entire season with our Tri-City team in the New York-Penn League, and then this past year, I was visiting all of our minor league affiliates and I would be in uniform then also. It was for a few things. A significant part of it is we ask a lot of our coaches and we provide them with a lot of data and technology, and the more that we could learn about how they’re using it, what they need, how we can make it easier and better, there’s no better way than seeing that than actually going there and witnessing it in person. And you can imagine that we’re the front office. We’re not coaches and so we’re ignorant, to some degree, on the constraints that exist in the minor leagues. And again, there’s no better way of enlightening yourself on their life and the constraints they deal with than to actually be there. And in my case, I was the lucky one to be there for the entire season.”
Could you see yourself doing that again in this organization, or is that to be determined?
“That’s to be determined. It was a tremendous learning experience for me personally, but also as a representative of the front office, those findings, we’re planning on taking advantage of in Baltimore, too.”
Why do you feel like Elias is the right man to head the baseball operations department?
“I feel like he’s the right guy for this task because he is uniquely qualified as one who directed not only the scouting but player development twice in two organizations. As we implemented new processes and the difficulties that always come with change, nobody has more experience with that - other than Jeff Luhnow, perhaps - than Mike Elias.”
For this to work, everybody has to be on the same page. From ownership to Elias and on down to manager and everyone in the minor league system.
“Yes, and I think that’s something we did so well in Houston.”