This year’s SABR convention featured lots of Orioles content.
The annual SABR convention concluded Sunday after four days of panels and presentations, many of which were related to the Orioles. The Society for American Baseball Research has been at the forefront of all kinds of research over the past half-century. From 1800’s baseball to advanced analytics, they really study every aspect of the sport we love. The annual convention is their biggest event, and this year it was in Baltimore.
I had the pleasure of attending the whole conference, and I figured you would like to hear about the Orioles content of interest. There were plenty of research presentations on other aspects of baseball, but they are not as relevant on Birds Watcher. I will say the non-Orioles highlights were presentations on the Black Sox salaries and the changes in pitch tracking systems, and a panel on Curt Flood‘s Supreme Court case.
On Thursday morning, Orioles Vice President and Assistant General Manager of Analytics Sig Mejdal gave the opening remarks on the growth of analytics in MLB front offices. He joined SABR when he was 12, so he was clearly happy to be there. In case you don’t know, Mejdal joined the Orioles with GM Mike Elias and has been instrumental in starting the team’s analytics department and getting the rebuild going. He touched on the organization’s progress at the end of his presentation, and most of the audience questions had to do with the Orioles.
Sig was very open and honest, a refreshing change from the evasive business language we are used to hearing from front office executives. He went over each of the daunting challenges he and Elias faced when they got the jobs. In regard to the rebuild’s progress, he said that there is now a full analytics department with “six really skilled interns”. Mejdal called the lack of international pipeline a “30% handicap,” since Latin American players make up around 30% of rosters. He also threw in that the team’s data system is called OMAR: Orioles Management and Resource, named after a notable character from The Wire.
Mejdal was willing to answer more questions after his slotted hour ended, so a few statistical pioneers and a swarm of college kids looking for jobs followed him out the door. This is where his direct honesty was especially appreciated. He was happy to answer all our questions and hung out outside for close to an hour. I was content to miss the Babe Ruth panel.
If you come from a humanities background, I have some bad news for you. I asked Sig if there is a place in front offices for humanities people, and his answer was basically no. That wasn’t surprising, and it is good to know that before writing endless applications. The standards are so high since everyone must know how to code at the bare minimum. Mejdal said that a team would not hire him today, and he was a NASA engineer!
Since the Orioles have had high picks in recent years, I also asked him whether the draft process changes depending on when the team is picking. He said there is no change in approach whatsoever, but of course it is nicer to pick earlier. Speaking from experience with the Astros and Cardinals, “picking 15th you might only get your 10th choice.” Those numbers might seem backward, but I assume he meant among realistic options.
Thursday afternoon was the SABR awards luncheon where they give out their annual honors, and Tim Kurkjian was the main speaker. Tim is famous for being on ESPN broadcasts, but he also covered the Orioles for the Baltimore Sun in the 80’s. Just a few weeks after getting into the Hall of Fame, he had much to talk about. Most of his speech was telling amusing stories about other Hall of Famers, but he also remarked on how much it means to him to be part of the club.
Johnny Bench took him to the porch in Cooperstown looking out over a lake, which he does with every inductee. He told Kurkjian to look at the lake for one minute and not talk and “think about where you are and who helped you along the way.” Needless to say, it was a very moving moment.