PressBox publisher Stan “The Fan” Charles sat down with Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias to discuss Elias’ path to Baltimore, an all-too-short offseason in his new job and the challenges of building a sustainable winner through scouting and analytics.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and content.
Stan Charles: Did you always want a career in baseball?
Mike Elias: Not really. It developed while I was [at Yale], the desire to work in the game. Number one is I hurt my arm, which basically ruined what were already pretty slim chances to play professionally. And then “Moneyball,” the book, came out in 2003 right about the time I got injured, and it was very eye-opening that somebody like me would have a chance to work for a major league team, which was not a well-known thing at that time.
SC: When did you first become interested in scouting in particular? Was it through reading “Moneyball?”
ME: Well, I thought I would be good at it, just feeling I had a good baseball eye and watching a lot of players over the years as a pitcher and then in the dugout when I wasn’t pitching and watching other games. I always liked watching games and watching players and sizing them up. But also, I realized the changes in the sport that were happening at that time, there would be a big opportunity for somebody like me to go into scouting. There were a lot of people with my profile going into front offices, but there weren’t a lot going into scouting departments at that time, so I figured I would be a little unique in that regard and it would be a very unique experience.
SC: Who were some of the big influences you had in learning the art of scouting?
ME: It’s hard to name them all. The Cardinals, who I started with, had an amazing scouting department and a scouting tradition that went back decades. Dan Kantrovitz, who was the assistant scouting director at the time, hired me. He’s now the assistant general manager with the Oakland A’s. [He] was a huge influence, as was Jeff [Luhnow], who was the scouting director at the time. Many of the Cardinals’ crosscheckers — Roger Smith, Joe Almaraz, Mike Roberts, Joe Rigoli — they taught me everything about how to do the job.
SC: If someone had told your younger self that you’d become a major league general manager at the age of 35, what would you have said back then?
ME: I never thought about it. My goal was to become a scouting director. I did that at a young age and never really set my sights on the general manager’s position. I think that I decided what I wanted to do early, and I did it and I picked a unique path that educated me very well. I’m not totally surprised because that was the case, but I never would’ve envisioned this, nor did I plan toward this.
SC: During your conversations with John and Louis Angelos, what impressed you about them and made this job and this opportunity attractive to you?
ME: They’re both very smart. They expressed the desire to want to take a fresh look at things, recognizing what needed to be done in order to bring the organization back to where we want it to be. I felt I had a very easy back and forth with them, which is important because we’re going to be interfacing a lot between the general manager’s office and the owner’s box.
SC: Did the topic of you having a free hand, relatively speaking, did that come up? Was that important to you to know that when it came to baseball decisions, you had some autonomy, understanding that ownership plays a role in this?
ME: It’s more about the correct role of both parties. I don’t think there’s any general manager that can bankrupt the team if he feels like running out and signing $300 million worth of players. But you also don’t want things foisted on the general manager from the owner’s box. So we had discussions along those lines. It was normal stuff. Obviously, I wouldn’t have taken the leap from where I was to come here if I didn’t feel comfortable with what we discussed.
SC: How different is it being the guy where the buck stops at you?
ME: Well, I’m used to the authority because Jeff gave me a lot of independence in running the scouting departments and the player development departments in Houston. What’s really different in the general manager’s position is there’s just huge demands on your time from every angle. That part of it — and the public facing aspect of it — is so demanding that it provides an extra challenge.
SC: What is your regimen on a given day?
ME: I wish there was a regimen. It feels like we’re changing the tire on a car that’s going 60 miles an hour right now just because there’s so much work around the organization, but we have the normal day-to-day functions of an offseason for a baseball team: dealing with roster management, hiring coaches and staff has become very time consuming this day and age, and then we’re simultaneously building an analytics department and international scouting departments. I really couldn’t imagine having a fuller plate. The day’s very busy. It gets interrupted quite a bit by incoming traffic: calls, texts. People expect you to be open for business, so I just do the best I can managing my time and get up early and stay up late.
SC: The analytics that have entered the game so much, when did you first really get an appreciation for them? Would you refer to yourself as an appreciator of analytics or a deep diver into analytics?
ME: That’s a good question. I feel like I’m an appreciator but one who has a deep conceptual knowledge of analytics to where I know what we need to do without knowing how exactly to do the work involved in that. That’s why we have [assistant general manager Sig Mejdal] here. When I first started in St. Louis, analytics just basically consisted of a player’s performance stats. Now, it is all kinds of stuff derived from cameras and technology and radar devices. It’s exploded because of the advent of technology that’s really happened in the last five years.
SC: Your first interactions with Mejdal, did some of what he does sort of impress you tremendously?
ME: My first interaction with Sig was in St. Louis when I first started. He was there as well. Actually, he’s the one person that I’ve not stopped working with since I started in baseball. This is probably our 12th or 13th season together, about to be the 13th. His approach to the game overall has been amongst the bigger influences I’ve had.
SC: In the book “Astroball,” Jeff Luhnow admits that while he appreciated what Mejdal was doing, he had to be sensitive to the scouts. Do you still have to be as sensitive as he felt he had to be?
ME: Certainly the newness of that information has gone away with scouts today, so there’s a little less massaging that needs to be done on that front. They understand that this is part of things, they understand that it works. Back then, it wasn’t proven yet that using college statistics aggressively would work very well in the draft. But also, you get so much valuable information from your scouts. They do so much hard work, so much travel, so much passion that goes into it for not a ton of money sometimes. You do want to keep them inspired, and there’s so much of an important aspect of the information that [scouts are] providing you that you’d be foolish to ignore it when they’re being very passionate about something. So he struck a very good balance, and we’ve done the same thing.
SC: The Orioles have never dedicated many resources to international scouting. You clearly have a very different view of that. Can you talk a little bit about that and what international scouting director Koby Perez can mean to that effort?
ME: You have to go all in. It’s a market that basically produces one-third of the major league talent now, so to ignore it is not an option. You’re just putting yourself at a huge disadvantage if you do that. It’s a market that has gotten more efficient, safer, less rife with corruption … because [of] a lot of the effort that Major League Baseball has done over the last few years, a lot more involvement from American scouts and a lot more video and drug testing and things like that and better development. It’s a different market than it was 20 years ago. We’re jumping in. It was very important for me to find a proven, respected international scouting director, and I was very lucky that I was able to do so with Koby. He’s done a great job with the Indians and Phillies.
SC: Three, four years from now, what will a Mike Elias international scouting operation look like? Will there be an academy? Will there be enough scouts, and how many will that be?
ME: There will be enough. I don’t know the exact number, and the reason for that is the business is changing a little bit. There’s more showcases. You can bring the kids to your academy a little earlier. We may have a draft by the end of the next CBA. That will affect the size and shape of our staff. The good news for us is because we’re starting almost from scratch, we can build out carefully and in response to the regulatory environment rather than having to readjust something that’s been in place for a long time. But we’ll have a very robust, vibrant international scouting operation and international development program.
SC: What impressed you most about Brandon Hyde to be at the front end of this thing on the field?
ME: I think that he has a perfect resume for being on the front end but also the back end of this thing because he has had a tremendous player development experience — really any job you can name. He has a lot of major league coaching experience, and he’s gone through both of those positions in a rebuilding phase but also when he’s on a championship-caliber team, advising [Chicago Cubs manager] Joe Maddon on day-to-day moves. On top of all of that, I just felt like I clicked with him. That’s very important because it’s a close working relationship and there’s a lot of difficult decisions that we need to be on the same page with.
SC: Having done a rebuild in Houston, would you say the condition of the Oriole franchise is very similar or do you think there’s actually more talent in the system than what Houston had when you guys took over?
ME: It’s a tough thing to answer because in terms of public rankings, our overall farm system rankings right now — like if you look at Baseball America or something — they’re a little bit better than what the Astros were in 2011, 2012, and we have more highly ranked individual prospects, and I feel really good about a lot of our individual prospects. But you look back at the Houston Astros’ system at that time and Dallas Keuchel was hidden in there and Jose Altuve, you weren’t sure what he was at that point in time. And they had just drafted George Springer. We can only hope that we’ve got some hidden gems like that. We won’t know until we find out. There is stuff to work with, for sure.
SC: What part does sustainability play in your message to the Orioles fans here?
ME: Well, that’s the big payoff. We want a golden era of baseball here. It’s no secret that our division is economically challenging, and to scrape together a bunch of money and try to sign a bunch of free agents that’ll work together well for a year — first of all, it doesn’t work most of the time, and second of all, it’s not something that will be worth the payoff and it’ll leave our organization in a worse spot than where we entered it. So this is the approach that we need to take, not just for a term of time, but indefinitely. We want to have a pipeline of talent that feeds the major league roster.
SC: In Houston, the Astros lost more than 100 games the year before you got there and the first two years you were there. Do you think the losing is almost necessary to get good again?
ME: It’s very difficult to go through. I’m hoping that we can avoid it, but our sights will remain on doing the right thing for getting this team to a playoff level, to a championship level of play and developing our internal prospects at the right pace and the right way rather than rushing them. So we’re just going to have to see what happens.
SC: With the level of major league-ready talent in the organization right now — you’re a young club going in — is there a temptation to bring up players perhaps before they’re really ready, and is that dangerous to do to their growth?
ME: I think there can be. We’ve got to be careful because we need to refocus our decisions on making the best developmental decision for each individual player rather than, especially this year and in the near term, worrying about some desperate need at the major league level at the expense of a prospect’s promotion. So we’re going to be more careful about that. If it involves bringing somebody in or a minor league free agent to protect us for a little while until our internal options are ready, we’ll do that in lieu of destroying value with our own prospects.
SC: How soon do you really know if you’ve got somebody who really is going to be a solid, everyday contributor for the long term?
ME: In this day and age, we have so much information on these players when they come up through the minor leagues and we have objective information about them and we know theoretically what a performance at Triple-A from a 23-year-old, how that should translate to the major league level. We have all this information, and it still seems to me in this day and age that you never know until they come to the major league level and get those couple hundred plate appearances or hundred something innings, you just don’t know how things are going to go. Despite all the advances we’ve made in player development, there is something uniquely challenging about major league play. You’ve got to get guys here under the lights and give them some time to sink or swim.
SC: Two of the big prospects a year ago were Chance Sisco and Austin Hays. Does the organization still have faith that these guys may turn into significant assets?
ME: Oh, sure. With Sisco, you look at what he’s done. He moved up the system very young and hit very well and got to the major league level at a very young age. From what I’m told and what I understand and my own history with him prior to coming to Baltimore is the bat was a little more advanced than the glove. So we’re going to be working on his defense. Whether that takes place at the major league level or Triple-A, we’ll see. He’s a young guy with a good stick, especially for a catcher, and we’ve got a new catching instructor on our major league staff who we’re hopeful can help him. With Austin, he’s another guy that moved exceptionally fast. I think he may have been the first position player from his draft class to reach the major league level, and he had an injury-plagued season last year. He had ankle surgery, he’s feeling better. I think that in and of itself will get him back to his 2017 form, we’re hoping, but he’s a big part of our future if we can get him right.
SC: Clearly, this a pretty important year coming up for Chris Davis. The organization has a lot of eggs in that basket. Do you feel that you can help a guy like Chris Davis get back to what he was?
ME: I think we can help any player. It’s going to take us some time to get those type of capabilities built out. It requires some technological investment and some software and some video systems and the right coaches and some education of the coaches. But I think we can help everyone in our organization. The tricky part is other teams are doing this, too, and it’s a bit of an arms race. We’ve got a ways to go here, but we’re going to bring the best ideas and knowledge out, and we’ll get there.
SC: The Orioles have been in several World Series and have won three world championships. Is there value to what this organization once was even though it hasn’t had its glory days in the past 20 years? Does that name and legacy still mean something?
ME: Oh, sure, especially with regard to individual players who were a part of those teams. So many of them are around the organization still, and we can tap into them. There are so many Hall of Famers here. It brings an aura to the organization that newer clubs or less accomplished clubs don’t have, and I also think that Baltimore has proven itself and this ballpark has proven itself to be a market and a venue and a city that’s capable of supporting that type of team. So we know that’s already the case.
Photo Credits: Jim Burger/PressBox
Issue 252: March 2019