The Man Behind The Curtain

The Baltimore Orioles ballpark, Camden Yards; CC by license 2.0

Most of us are conversant in the final gist of The Wizard of Oz. Little is thought in regards to the “wizard”, however he’s stated to have mystical powers that may grant any want. Dorothy and the crew go all the best way up the yellow brick highway to fulfill stated wizard, they usually arrive to witness scenes of smoke, fireplace, and floating heads which created a spectacle that was by no means earlier than seen. Nevertheless, the gang comes to appreciate that these harrowing sights have been made doable not by magic, however by one man behind a curtain pulling some levers and urgent some buttons. Since 2012, Mike Elias has been the person backstage for 2 of probably the most miraculous main league franchise turnarounds in current reminiscence. The present GM for the Orioles has his staff in good form at simply over the quarter mark of the season, replicating a variety of the success he had beforehand with the Houston Astros. After pitching for and graduating from Yale, he can be a scout for the Cardinals till 2012 when he took his experience to Houston as their scouting director, and Elias has carried out his baseball wizardry since.

Most of Mike Elias’ success with the Astros is overshadowed by the notorious 2017 World Sequence dishonest scandal. After serving 7 years in Houston, Elias was fired after the 2018 season. The firings of the then-manager AJ Hinch and GM Jeff Luhnow got here after the next season. It is very important observe that whereas unprecedented suspensions have been positioned on Hinch and Luhnow, Elias was deemed harmless within the scandal. The Baltimore Orioles jumped on the alternative to convey Elias into their constructing, changing their old-school GM Dan Duquette with the new-school analytical pondering of Elias earlier than heading into the 2019 season. He had the identical process in entrance of him that he had 7 years earlier in Houston: take the staff with the worst file in baseball the yr earlier than and switch them right into a perennial contender. Mike Elias has pulled all the best levers and pressed all the best buttons backstage to make it occur… twice.

Sure, each the Astros in 2011 and the Orioles in 2018 had the worst data in baseball to complete their respective seasons. The Astros closed out the 2011 season at 56-106, which was seven extra losses than the following closest staff they usually have been the one staff that yr to build up 100 losses. Compared to the remainder of the league, they ranked twenty fifth in WRC+ and wOBA. They suffered equally on the pitching facet, rating twenty eighth in each FIP and WHIP. Elias had important floor to cowl after that 2011 season in Houston, however the identical may very well be stated for the scenario in Baltimore when he arrived after the 2018 season. The Orioles completed 2018 with a 47-115 file, which was 9 extra losses than the following closest staff they usually have been the one staff to not surpass 50 wins. Sound considerably acquainted? The O’s struggled with the bats which put them at twenty sixth in WRC+ and wOBA for the season, and the pitching was downright terrible after ending final in WHIP and FIP. Sound much more acquainted? Mike Elias stepped into virtually the identical scenario each in 2012 and in 2018 with nowhere to go however up.

For these of you who’re conversant in a staff rebuild course of, usually, the primary place to begin is the farm system. Groups within the rebuilding stage will bolster their system with prospects within the MLB draft. Prospects step by step make their method by way of the minor leagues till they’re both referred to as as much as the main league squad or traded for solidified main league expertise. Struggling groups, just like the Orioles and Astros, had prime draft selections for a number of years whereas Elias was on the helm. Subsequently, each have been capable of generate elite farm techniques over time. However Elias approaches the draft in another way than most executives. Outlined within the e book Future Worth, Elias makes use of what has been deemed the “portfolio method”. Michael McDermott explains:

The method is to attempt to save as a lot as doable with their prime choice with out an excessive amount of of a drop-off in expertise then use the financial savings to make an over-slot choose with a highschool expertise that’s fallen effectively beneath his authentic anticipated vary. By taking that method, the hope is to have the ability to leverage a giant signing pool into a formidable draft haul of expertise” (McDermott, 2022).

Heading into the MLB draft each staff has a set amount of cash they’ll hand out for the primary 10 rounds. Each choose ‘slot’ has an assigned worth that must be spent for the participant picked at that spot. Elias goals to go ‘under-slot’ for early picks, in different phrases drafting gamers sooner than projected in hopes of signing them for lower than the assigned slot worth. Then he can take the financial savings from the under-slot choose(s) and use it to build up extra expertise all through the draft by going over-slot on later picks. This technique expands or diversifies the prospect ‘portfolio’, therefore the portfolio method.

Elias has used this technique in Houston and Baltimore with usually nice success. For the aim of this text, I’m going to be breaking down and evaluating years 1 by way of 5 of Elias in each Houston and Baltimore. This yr’s 2023 season is Elias’ fifth yr in Baltimore, and I assumed it will be becoming to check annually in Baltimore to the primary 5 he spent in Houston to check progress. To start out, let’s check out the draft historical past for Mike Elias:

The visible above clearly reveals using the portfolio method through the years. Out of the 8 first alternatives, 6 of them have been signed under-slot. A number of all-stars together with Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, and Kyle Tucker all signed underneath their assigned slot worth when drafted. It’s fairly effectively documented that the MLB draft is a crapshoot. So Elias requested himself, why overspend on the early first-round picks when participant worth is unfold all throughout the draft? Why spend the capital on an early choose when most of them don’t pan out? This isn’t to say Elias was a draft wiz proper out of the gates. After having an incredible first draft going under-slot on Correa to go over-slot on Lance McCullers, Elias had a streak of drafting pitchers with the primary choose in 2013 and 2014 (Appel & Aiken). Respectively, each pitchers have been prime prospects within the draft, and it was not stunning to see them go #1. And each didn’t pan out within the majors due to completely different causes, however you see the advance from there and the teachings he took with him to Baltimore. Regardless of having 2 of the highest 5 picks in 2015, Elias went under-slot on two positional gamers, Alex Bregman and Kyle Tucker. Each Bregman and Tucker have gone on to have nice careers in Houston. The pattern of drafting positional gamers under-slot continued in Baltimore with the stunning choose of Heston Kjerstad at #2 in 2020, adopted by the 2021 draft. Colton Cowser and Connor Norby have been each school bats drafted under-slot, and like Bregman and Tucker, each are prime 100 prospects in baseball in keeping with Elias has hit his stride on early draft picks which interprets to elite farm system expertise.

Once you do a deep dive into farm system rankings for the Elias Astros in comparison with the Elias Orioles, the timelines are eerily related. After the 2014 draft (the third yr of Elias’ tenure in Houston), the Astros’ system was touted because the second-best in baseball by Bleacher Report. Their prime 100 prospects have been Correa (#8), Appel (#17), McCullers (#52), and George Springer (#21), who was drafted the yr earlier than Elias arrived. Now right here is the place the parallels are available. After the 2021 draft (the third yr of Elias’ tenure in Baltimore), the Orioles’ system ranked as one of the best in baseball in keeping with MLB Pipeline. The O’s, like Houston in 2014, had not 4 however 5 prime 100 prospects on Rutschmann (#2), Kjerstad (#69), Henderson (#80), Cowser (#83), and Grayson Rodriguez (#27), who was drafted the yr earlier than Elias arrived. In Elias’ third yr in each Houston and Baltimore, he managed to build up a few of the finest farm techniques in baseball. Nevertheless, placing collectively some good prospect lists is just one a part of the rebuilding equation.

An equally vital a part of a rebuild is the administration of prospects. There’s a lot discuss now about service time manipulation, and within the fashionable historical past of this sport, there was no scarcity of prospect busts. However why do some pan out and a few don’t? Lots of it boils all the way down to selecting the correct time to name a prospect as much as the main leagues. Name a participant up too early or too late and the staff might danger flailing on a high-value prospect. Each Carlos Correa in Houston and Gunnar Henderson in Baltimore have been high-value prospects whereas they made their method by way of their respective techniques. And to label them solely as high-value prospects is an understatement, as the 2 equally have been drafted as highschool shortstops who would finally turn into prime 3 prospects in baseball. Given the similarities between the gamers and their rapid on-field success once they bought the decision, I assumed it will be attention-grabbing to look at the numbers they put up within the minors. Did one thing within the analytics inform Elias that these guys have been prepared for the massive leagues?

Above is a desk with a few of the numbers put up by Correa and Henderson while within the final two ranges of the minors (AA and AAA). Total, the numbers look completely different, particularly by stage. Correa put up noticeably higher stats in AA whereas Henderson had him beat in AAA. Nothing within the desk signifies something you can level to and say, ‘That’s the logic that led to them being referred to as up once they have been’. However what if we dive slightly deeper?

As indicated by the brand new desk above, the averages between AA and AAA inform a distinct story. The variations on the particular person ranges are obvious nonetheless, however the averages are separated by mere decimal factors. Now from this knowledge, we are able to put collectively extra of the exact batting profile Elias appears to be like for in his high-value prospects earlier than they make it to the present. If we have been to make an assumption off of this knowledge alone, we are able to assume that Elias appears to be like for his place participant prospects to have (between AA and AAA):

  • An OPS nearing 1.000

  • A wOBA within the mid-to-low .400s

  • A WRC+ within the mid-to-high 100s

  • A BABIP above roughly .350

It goes with out saying that this isn’t an actual science. A big variety of variables go into whether or not or not a prospect will get referred to as as much as the majors. Nevertheless, with Elias being on the forefront of analytics, these numbers doubtless had a big position within the call-ups of Carlos Correa and Gunnar Henderson.

What Mike Elias has managed to do with the Astros and now the Orioles is actually outstanding. As of this writing, the O’s at present have the second-best file in baseball with excessive hopes for a playoff run in simply the fifth yr of Elias’ time as normal supervisor. His fifth yr in Houston didn’t see the identical success after narrowly lacking the playoffs in 2016, however everyone knows what occurred in 2017. Regardless of the dishonest scandal within the World Sequence, the Astros nonetheless managed to place collectively an unbelievable 101-61 common season and have been one in all if not the favorites to win the World Sequence going into the playoffs. May this be a sign of what’s to come back in Elias’ sixth yr on the helm in Baltimore? Let’s evaluate the year-by-year analytics to see if the Orioles are on tempo:

The visualization above reveals the typical FIP and common WHIP rankings for every of the primary 5 years of Elias in Houston and Baltimore. A disclaimer that must be acknowledged right here is that Elias’ 2nd yr in Baltimore was the 2020 shortened season, so there’s a smaller pattern dimension and numbers from that season are usually inconsistent. Apart from that, the ‘Elias Impact’ can’t be understated. Total Baltimore ranked decrease in FIP and WHIP than Houston did of their first 5 with Elias. Nevertheless, the gradual stand up the ranks is clear for either side. Each franchises struggled to crack the highest 20 within the two classes for the primary 3 years however managed to complete inside the highest 20 for every class in years 4 and 5. The hitting analytics inform a lot of the identical story:

The development from yr 3 on is staggering in each visualizations. Simply because it was with pitching the Astros had extra of a straight line to the highest, however given the shortened season in yr 2 for Baltimore, it’s clear each groups made regular enhancements of their common wOBA and WRC+ annually. Whereas Elias may not be within the dugout giving hitting or pitching suggestions, setting up a roster based on analytics led to the rankings we see within the visuals.

Are the numbers pointing to an O’s World Sequence bid in 2024? It’s actually doable, however there’s some floor to cowl earlier than that involves fruition. Lots of the criticism placed on Mike Elias in Baltimore has been his unwillingness to make ‘the massive transfer’. For probably the most half, trades have been restricted to prospect hauls for solidified main leaguers, and Elias has but handy out a single multi-year contract to a free agent throughout his time as GM. And Orioles followers might need to take a seat tight yet another yr for a splash. If you happen to return in time and go to the 2016 Astros (fifth yr of Elias in Houston), you will note they have been 55-49 on the commerce deadline. The Orioles are at present 28-16 at simply over the quarter mark of the season. Whereas they could be on tempo to be in a significantly better place at this yr’s deadline than Houston in ’16, I anticipate the dearth of beginning pitching to catch as much as Baltimore earlier than the deadline which might put them in an analogous scenario to Houston 7 years in the past. The Astros missed the playoffs due partly to a aggressive AL West (Mariners, Rangers), which may very well be a lot of the identical purpose the Orioles might miss the playoffs this season, in a traditionally aggressive AL East.

Following Elias’ blueprint from Houston, yr 6 is the yr to purchase in. On the commerce deadline in 2017, the Astros led the American League at 85-53. This put them in prime place to commerce for all-time nice Justin Verlander. They traded three of the highest twelve prospects of their system for the long run hall-of-famer, becoming a member of All-Stars Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers in a lethal rotation that bought them to the World Sequence. When Verlander came to visit, Keuchel was the chief of the workers, and former prime pitching prospect McCullers made his first All-Star staff at 23. May we see a Verlander-esque scenario on the horizon for Mike Elias and Baltimore? If Elias rolls along with his 6-year blueprint, the Orioles commerce for a top-of-the-rotation arm at subsequent yr’s deadline with loads of prospect depth to make the transfer. Theoretically, the acquisition would be a part of a rotation with former All-Star and chief of the workers John Means and former prime pitching prospect Grayson Rodriguez, who might very effectively make his first All-Star staff at 24, simply as a 23-year-old McCullers did in ’17. Whereas Means will probably be coming into his age 30 season, versus Keuchel (27 in ’17), he will probably be coming off Tommy John surgical procedure which might rejuvenate his profession. Fairly related conditions for a giant commerce piece to be going into. A commerce to convey elite beginning pitching to the Orioles rotation is imminent. It’s been a protracted drought for thrilling strikes in Baltimore, however because the 2017 Astros proved, good issues come to those that wait.

Quickly after Dorothy’s canine Toto unveils Ouncesbackstage, he takes off in a scorching air balloon by no means to be seen once more, abandoning loads of unfulfilled hopes and desires. After 2018, the recent air balloon that took Elias out of Houston occurred to be fabricated from dugout trash cans and Jose Altuve’s buzzers. As a Baltimore native and life-long fan, I really feel comfy talking for all of Birdland after I say I hope the balloon stays grounded and Elias retains working his magic backstage for a few years to come back as he reaps the advantages of yet one more profitable rebuild.