SARASOTA, Fla.-Sig Mejdal grew up in San Jose, California as a fan of the early 1980s Oakland A’s. The 52-year-old devotee of “Billy Ball” took the train to games.
A son of Scandinavian immigrants who didn’t know anything about baseball, Mejdal studied sleep research for NASA. He majored in mechanical and aeronautical engineering at the University of California-Davis and has master’s degrees in operations research and cognitive research from San Jose State University.
He joined the Orioles as assistant general manager shortly after Mike Elias, with whom he worked with the St. Louis Cardinals and Houston Astros, was hired in November.
Question-When you were hired, there was so much excitement about it. How does it feel to be a rock star?
Answer-“I don’t feel like a rock star. That surprised me, too. I’m not used to that. The press in Houston, when [general manager Jeff Luhnow] and I came from the Cardinals, was not like this. It was more of a cynical view, ‘Look at what the Astros are doing,’ so this was quite a surprise.”
Q-Your job with the Orioles is much different, much more wide-ranging than it was with Houston. Besides analytics, what are your tasks?
A-“You’re right. It is more wide-ranging and that, in my opinion, is a result that baseball appreciates the usage of analytics, and how much more widespread analytics usage itself is. It’s not siloed in one part of the organization, and you’re creating tools for a decision-maker, and he uses it as he sees fit. It’s really analytically driven, data-driven, evidence-driven, processes that permeate the entire system and have a play in every decision…So it’s not just titled analyst of this part of the [organizational] chart, but the idea of having the evidence-based decision-making be a part of our daily decision-making throughout the organization.”
Q-You’ve made some new hires. Is this like building an expansion team?
A-“It’s no mystery that we were the 30th best team in baseball last year. Our farm system is in the bottom tier of farm systems, so from that standpoint it is. The fact that there were zero analysts, from that standpoint, perhaps it’s a bit like an expansion team but unlike an expansion team, this is the Baltimore Orioles with a tremendous amount of past success and history, so I never feel like this is an expansion team. I feel like this is just a team that, for whatever reasons, hasn’t taken advantage of some of the best processes throughout baseball.”
Q-In your creating a staff, because you inherited nothing, does that give you incredible freedom to create?
A-“It wasn’t nothing. We have one very talented, very skilled developer that remained here, I believe, with the hopes that the next regime was going to put him more to use and inspire him a bit more, so, thankfully, he stayed. But you’re right, it is a bit of a blank slate, and there’s something nice about being able to create it as your experience tells you is the best way, and there’s been a lot of experiences that we’ve learned from since we did this with the Cardinals, and then again with the Astros — and there’s something nice about starting from scratch.”
Q-Much of your information is proprietary, but is there a certain statistic or something that you look at that fans can follow?
A-“That’s a good question. I would describe it as decisions that are being made are not solely from the experts, the scouts, from the advance people, from the GM, but are using all the info available and much of that information that’s available, the general fan just doesn’t have access to that, so some of it is beyond their reach.”
Q-When sabermetrics became available, fans started looking at OPS (on-base plus slugging), OBP (on-base percentage), WHIP (walks plus innings pitched). Is that stuff useful to you?
A-“Not terribly. Once you have a model that tries to make sense of the ‘counting stats,’ WOBA (Weighted On-Base Average), FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching), whatever it is, is really some combination of hits, strikeouts, walks, etc. so it’s a different person’s attempt at really putting correct value or weight on these components. We have our own, and it’s not too different. From an offensive standpoint, OPS is wonderful. It correlates very well to the actual run value associated with the single, double, triple. Batting average—no baseball fan thinks a home run is as valuable as a single, but the batting average does. No fan thinks that a walk is of no value, but the batting average does, but we know the weaknesses in these metrics, and OPS is one, for instance, that makes up for it. On the pitching side, we have FIP or XFIP (Expected Fielding Independent Pitching) is very useful to get beyond the luck or the things that a pitcher can’t control. I think a sophisticated fan or many of the sophisticated fans know that.”
Q-Because so many stats are now available, and your information isn’t, is that part of its appeal to many?
A-“I don’t know. You’d have to ask the fans that. It took me by surprise the reception that I had here, and I’m not sure the specifics of their excitement. I think there was a sense, and rightfully so, that they were getting persons from a modern front office that had a great record in the talent pipeline and given where the team is, that talent pipeline is going to need to produce for this team to be successful in the long run.”
Q-Last season, the Astros acquired Ryan Pressly, a right-handed pitcher, and once he joined your team, his stats showed huge improvement. Are you and Mike Elias convinced that there are players capable of dramatic upswings already here with the help of your information?
A-“Absolutely. Every pitcher, to some degree, could be helped with the analytical information. I feel confident about that.”
Q-So far, have you found players to be receptive to your information?
A-“That’s another area that I am pleasantly surprised by. I look back and the times in St. Louis and the times in Houston, it was so much different as far as the acceptance and interest in this, but it’s a good reminder to me that it’s a different time in baseball. This stuff is not so strange and not such a threat, but the players and coaches and perhaps the fans, too, realize this is something that can help them, and if you’re going to compete in the American League East, it’s something that’s mandatory in order to have success in a division like we’re in.”
Q-How did you get into baseball from being a scientist?
A-“I’ve always been fascinated with baseball statistics and the research since I was a kid, but never had the imagination to think that a team would care or hire me until 2003 when ‘Moneyball’ came out, and so I engulfed that book and naively thought I just need to let the teams know I’m available and willing to relocate, and I would have a job by the end of the week. In hindsight, that was very naïve, and I didn’t have a job by the end of the week, but I kept trying and after a year-and-a-half, it lined up with the St. Louis Cardinals. In retrospect, I don’t know why I didn’t have the imagination to think that teams would care to hire someone with my background, but I simply didn’t until Michael Lewis’ book.”
Q-The people you’re hiring now, are they young Sigs?
A-“Hopefully, they’re young Sigs, but they’re more capable in some of the areas that I was weak at. They come from technical fields. It’s either computer science, statistics…many will have advanced master’s degrees in analytics, but also a baseball passion because these are the most in demand skills on this plant. There’s other industries that, frankly, will pay more than baseball, so we look for someone who’s internally motivated and inspired to work in baseball along with having those technical skills, but also people skills. You may be an analyst, but you’re also in change management. You’re asking experienced people to rethink and to change, and if you’re going to see success with that, you’re going to have to do it in a sensitive, socially mature way.”
Q-When you put ads online, how many applicants did you get? Did you hire any from those ads?
A-“That’s where we get our applicants. There’ll be some persons that we knew from before. We encourage them to apply, and the normal filtering processes will take place whether we know that person or not. We got the better part of 1,000 resumes, maybe it was 700 or something. We’ve hired four people, two developers and two analysts, as a result of that.”
Q-Are you going to do what you did with the Astros, go to the minor leagues, embed yourself with a team, and put on a uniform?
A-“I certainly will be visiting the minor leagues and immersing myself as much as I can, but I think the days of me putting on a uniform are gone. I don’t know if it’s appropriate for an assistant GM to be in uniform with the team, but I certainly will be spending a lot of my time with the coaches and the players.”