SARASOTA, Fla. - It’s part of a long-range plan, but it’s now well underway and already the Orioles see signs of progress. The process of bringing data and analytics to their minor league pitchers has begun. And the pitchers at the Buck O’Neil Baseball Complex at Twin Lakes Park are soaking up the knowledge that they hope leads to them being part of a wave of future Orioles pitchers that will lead this team to October success.
Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias was a key member of a front office in Houston that helped produce a pitching development program that was outstanding. Maybe the best among all major league organizations.
This spring, during classroom sessions in addition to on-field coaching, the Orioles are slowly but surely bringing their prospects up to speed on the farm. They have access to data and analytics there, the same as the pitchers do in the major league clubhouse.
“A lot of knowledge has been shared with us and they are setting the groundwork for years to come. Just to be able to understand the way baseball is going now,” said 22-year-old lefty Zac Lowther, the Orioles’ 2018 co-Minor League Pitcher of the Year.
Added 23-year-old right-hander Michael Baumann: “I’m all ears about it and excited to learn. The more we can learn as an organization, it will benefit us in the long run. The pitchers all seem to love it. We look forward to getting to the field every day to see what they have in store for us. It’s not going to happen overnight and they will not throw everything at us at once. Everyone will go at their own pace and figure it out.”
Houston last year saw its Triple-A Fresno team rank sixth in its league in ERA at 4.27 and first in strikeouts. The Astros’ Double-A Corpus Christi team was first in ERA at 3.44 and in strikeouts. The high Single-A Buies Creek club was first in ERA at 3.07 and in strikeouts. The low Single-A Quad Cities club led its league in ERA at 2.86 and rated first in strikeouts. Houston also had similar success with its short-season clubs.
Now Elias and company, over time, will try to bring that level of pitching development success to the farm for the Orioles.
What is the process of teaching about data and analytics to the minor league pitchers?
“This is a topic that is always a little difficult to go into because I don’t want to divulge the specifics of what we do,” Elias said. “Other clubs are doing their thing and watching. And this is an area I do believe where the Houston Astros, where we are coming from, were significantly ahead of the pack in pitcher development.
“But really the process is that we have proprietary information about what pitches play the best at the major league level against different types of hitters. And very simply, we try to coach the pitchers toward throwing those pitches and throwing them at the right time and improving their pitches with some objective benchmarks of how to make the pitch better.”
Elias said while this process is very much in the early stages on the O’s farm, he’s seen some impressive early results.
“We’ve made a tremendous amount of gains when you consider it’s only been about four months,” Elias said. “We were able to hire Sig Mejdal (assistant general manager, analytics) and Chris Holt (coordinator, minor league pitching). John Wasdin (bullpen coach) and Doug Brocail (pitching coach) have been very helpful on the big league side. We’ve had such good communication up and down the chain.
“But in terms of what this will look like a year or two years from now, it’s in the early stages here. We’re in the infancy phase, but we’re much further along in this phase than anyone would have expected four months in.”
“It’s very similar information that we have available,” said Elias. “It’s the same game. The hitters are a little better at this level. But we have a much more precise idea of what translates at the major league level these days, so the same things that we are harping on to our major league guys, we are sending the same message to our minor league players.”
Some of the minor league pitchers told me that the club has a development plan in place for each pitcher.
“We want to maximize each guy,” Elias added. “This isn’t a cookie-cutter thing. We want to look at the repertoire they have, the velocity they have, the type of body and delivery that they have. What they’ve done in their careers and are they a starter or reliever. Everything. Figure out how they profile best at the major league level and try to get them to that point. Within realistic constraints.
“The thing I’m really excited to do that we haven’t done yet, is pair this up with the draft. So eventually we will be acquiring guys with an idea of what we will then do with them in player development. And once you get that cooperation going, I think that’s when you really get a system humming.”
With Elias and his staff inheriting many of the organization’s pitching coaches from last year, there had to be some coaching of the coaches before they could pass info on to players.
“They were eager to be exposed to it and learn,” Elias said. “We are in a position coming from the Astros where I can point to the success we’ve had and it’s a little easier sell then five years ago when we were sort of experimenting with this stuff. People know about our strikeout success and overall pitcher development success in the minor leagues there and we want to repeat that here.”
Elias is not ready to project or predict that the results that were produced on the farm in Houston will happen here with the Orioles. That’s a pretty high bar.
“I want to see our strikeout numbers go up over time and it’s not just going to be this year,” he said. “Because part of it involves who you are drafting. But that was part of a four-year effort to harmonize our pitcher acquisition and pitcher development. And it’s very difficult to achieve. I don’t know if we can replicate that level of success because of the competitive environment. But we had every single pitching coach on the same page using the same philosophy. The scouting department was doing it and the results were effusive.”
The bottom line is that Elias is confident this will make the farm pitchers more productive and thus the overall farm system better. Lowther can absolutely see that happening.
“Yes. They were brought here to develop players and we have a lot of young guys here that are really eager to get better. They have a strong direction. This will help the Orioles from top to bottom,” he said.