NEWS

Orioles GM Mike Elias felt ‘uniquely qualified’ to resurrect a ‘fragile’ club back to the top of the AL East – Boston Herald



Even as champagne spewed around him and cigar smoke hung in the air, Mike Elias maintained the long view.

The bubbly and stogies marked the grand achievement Elias has supervised over the past five years, the reconstruction of the Orioles from 115-loss embarrassment to 101-win juggernaut.

But he did not see this as the culmination of his quest. “We’re focused on the rest of this month,” he said, with a Mid-Atlantic Sports Network camera capturing his words for posterity. “But I think the rest of this decade is going to be really special, too. I want this to be one of the best baseball towns in the United States.”

That ability to keep his eyes trained on the big picture saw Elias, 40, through some of the darkest seasons in franchise history, with one ESPN writer accusing the club of “noncompetitive behavior” as recently as two years ago.

John and Louis Angelos handed him the keys to the Orioles’ baseball operation in November 2018, trusting that a former Yale pitcher who needed just a decade to go from entry-level scout to a key architect of the world champion Houston Astros would be the man to bring hope back to a moribund baseball city.

Elias felt the Orioles — facing questions about who would step in for ailing owner Peter Angelos and rotting from the inside because of outdated player development, analytics and international scouting practices — were in a “precarious” spot when he took over.

He did not think he was the most qualified person for any general manager job in baseball but felt confident he was the right man for this job.

“I felt drawn to this, like we were uniquely qualified to come in and help this place because of what we did with Houston,” he said, sitting in the Orioles’ dugout less than 24 hours after the division-clinching celebration. “It was a fragile situation in terms of, ‘What’s this franchise going to look like over the next five or 10 years?’ And all of it was dependent on somebody figuring out how to successfully rebuild the baseball product.”

A few feet away, ushers and fans waited to congratulate him on rekindling Orioles Magic. Elias, clad in a blue blazer and answering in thoughtful paragraphs, presented the same unruffled picture he has through most of this drastic reconstruction project.

“I have a really strong belief in Mike and [assistant general manager] Sig [Mejdal], not just their individual choices on players but their process,” said Keith Law, a former front office executive with the Toronto Blue Jays who writes about prospects and team building for The Athletic. “I knew they would consistently make good decisions. Not every good decision works out, but good process tends to lead to good outcomes.”

Patience is one word you could use to describe Elias’ special power, but that’s not exactly it. Rather, he maintains an uncommon commitment to the practices devised by his brain trust, even when short-term results suggest they’re daft.

When he worked as scouting director for the Astros, he told the author Ben Reiter: “The thing that can be a competitive advantage for us is having the discipline and conviction in our information to stick with it even when it feels really wrong.”

Imperviousness to short-term noise remains fundamental to the Orioles’ process.

“That’s an excellent representation,” said Mejdal, the former NASA rocket scientist who worked closely with Elias in St. Louis and Houston and was his first hire in Baltimore. “We’re looking at data, which is just measurements of real life, to find something that smart, hardworking baseball persons might have overlooked, might not have appreciated completely. Then, the challenge is to take advantage of that information. That is the discipline we’re doing our best to exercise here in Baltimore.”

To understand what Elias built here, you have to go back to St. Louis and Houston, the baseball towns where an executive named Jeff Luhnow recognized he was far more than just another scout.

Elias had always displayed a broad curiosity. When he was still a lefty hurler at Yale, he took time away from school to intern with Tom House, the renowned pitching instructor who used regression analysis to study throwing mechanics.

“He made an impression on me immediately,” recalled Mejdal, himself an unconventional choice to advise a scouting department. “It was soon after ‘Moneyball,’ a time when the scouting world was grappling with how to put to use this new information. We were grappling with that in the early years in St. Louis, and it was clear that he was a scout who had the mind for this, that his ideas and his thoughts were as mature as you could get.”

The Astros fired Luhnow in the wake of the sign-stealing scandal that made them pariahs to many baseball fans. Before that, however, he showed Elias and Mejdal what it meant to rebuild a baseball club from scratch, to embrace terrible losing in service of bold ideas that might pay off down the line.

Luhnow, whom Elias described as an “all-encompassing” influence on his thinking and management style, thought Elias and Mejdal had the best ideas — that was his guiding principle, always — so he made them his first hires when he left St. Louis to take over baseball operations in Houston.

The Astros developed an evaluation algorithm that incorporated not just on-base percentage and strikeout rates, but also biomechanical tracking data, medical history and personality traits. Beyond using Mejdal’s math to rate draft prospects and trade targets, they relied on it to shape game strategy and nudge players toward more effective habits. Elias thrived in this data-driven culture.

The Astros averaged 108 losses over three seasons. Like the Orioles in 2019 and 2021, they were lambasted for not even trying to compete.

“It was just so severe, the losing that we went through and some of the dramas we went through,” Elias said. “This [rebuild in Baltimore] was almost easier having had that under my belt. It made me very confident to stick with what we were doing.”

Four years after the Astros lost 111 games, they won the World Series, thanks in part to the players Elias scouted and the mathematical models Mejdal dreamed up.

It was exactly the style of rebirth the Orioles required after the Dan Duquette-Buck Showalter era ended with that 115-loss disaster in 2018. John and Louis Angelos bet that Elias had the smarts and perseverance to do it again.

Elias said he had not contemplated what he might do if handed control of another club until after the Astros won the World Series in 2017. He remembered an evening in 2018 when he sat with Luhnow in the general manager’s booth in Houston and his boss asked whether he might be interested in running the Orioles. The question wasn’t based on specific intelligence, more a general hunch that Baltimore was approaching start-over time.

When Elias interviewed for the job, he came away convinced that John Angelos would give him autonomy to reshape the baseball operation from the ground up. “John was really consistent about that,” he said. “You never really know until you get in there; there’s always some risk. But I could pretty much tell that he meant it.”

Mejdal, who realized he was more exhilarated by building a winner than by maintaining one, had left the Astros without knowing where he’d work next. He wondered whether another front office would ever embrace his input to the degree Luhnow had. He did not count on Elias becoming a general manager at that moment, but when it happened, he was sure he wanted to team up with his friend. He trusted no one to do a better job sifting through the mountain of information required to redesign a club.

“I think we’ve shared a unique experience in baseball,” Mejdal said. “I wasn’t going to have to baby-step him on the importance of change, trying to sell him on it. We experienced it together for many years.”

Elias agreed.

“I don’t know how to sit down and build a [mathematical] model, but I know how to understand it, to poke holes in it, to use it in reality as an executive,” he said. “Our skills complement one another really well.”

Elias knew the history of his new employer — the famous “Oriole Way,” under which a teenager playing minor league ball in Bluefield, West Virginia, would learn the same methods he’d use for Earl Weaver up in Baltimore.

He set out to create an Oriole Way 2.0, overhauling his staff with coaches and scouts who not just understood baseball but grasped his big-picture vision. If Baltimore represented the cutting edge of baseball in the 1960s and 1970s, why couldn’t it happen again?

In that spirit, he added Chris Holt, another former Astros colleague, to coordinate pitching instruction throughout the farm system. He chose Brandon Hyde as his manager in part because Hyde had worked in player development before he became the Chicago Cubs’ bench coach.

Hyde, in turn, related easily to Elias’ breadth of experience. “He’s done a little bit of everything from a front office standpoint,” Hyde said. “From international to player development to starting as an area scout — he’s got a really good feel.”

They agreed that the talent pipeline and the major league operation needed to work hand in glove. Many new faces would be required.

“I was pretty aggressive about making changes so there was a fresh group of people and a fresh culture here because it just wasn’t up to standards,” Elias said. “I learned that from the Houston rebuild, that there’s an energy to bringing in brand new people for a project, especially a really large one.”

Elias’ success in Houston bought him credibility with the players who would be asked to execute these changes.

“He had done it before — multiple 100-loss seasons, and they turned it around,” said outfielder Austin Hays, one of a handful of Orioles who remain from the pre-Elias days. “And then, you saw how well he had done in the draft.”

With his first Orioles draft pick in 2019, Elias added an on-field centerpiece in catcher Adley Rutschman, who quickly lived up to his billing as a power-hitting, walk-drawing, pitcher-whispering star. If that was an obvious choice with the No. 1 overall pick, the Orioles’ next selection — a 6-foot-3, 220-pound high school shortstop named Gunnar Henderson — was perhaps more emblematic of what they hoped to achieve. With eye-popping athletic tools and the ability to thrive at an up-the-middle defensive position, Henderson needed only a little refinement as a hitter — help Elias’ staff was confident it could provide — to become one of the sport’s top prospects. At age 22, he recently was named this year’s Most Valuable Oriole.

Since then, the Orioles have hit on draft choice after choice, with their farm system, led by 2022 No. 1 overall pick Jackson Holliday, considered the most talent-rich in the sport even after Rutschman and Henderson graduated. Their bolstered investment in international scouting — power-hitting catcher Samuel Basallo is climbing the prospect rankings after he signed a then-club-record $1.3 million bonus out of the Dominican Republic in 2021 — is just now paying off.

“The thing I hear most from other teams is they’re impressed by the way so many players have gotten better in the Orioles system,” Law said.

For all the promise brewing on the farm, Elias knew from his experience in Houston that he would take public rebukes as the Orioles lost relentlessly. The negativity crescendoed when they lost 19 games in a row in August 2021. ESPN’s Buster Olney, who had covered the club for The Sun in the 1990s, pointed to the Orioles as an example of unapologetic, harmful tanking.

Elias comes by his even temper — “He’s never too up or too down,” Hyde said — honestly. His father was a U.S. Secret Service agent and his mother is still a court reporter in Northern Virginia, jobs that require a cool head in tense moments. But he was irritated by this line of criticism.

“I do get miffed by the tanking stuff,” he said. “Both times I’ve heard this, in Houston and Baltimore, we were brought in after things were really, really bad. We got to work at making them better as quickly as possible, and both times, we did it in a surprisingly short amount of time. If you’re telling me the alternative to that, where it takes seven or eight years and you’re lost in the woods, I don’t understand why that is somehow preferable. I think if you’re a Baltimore fan or you work here or you play here, you’re damn glad we did this the right way so that it would be over as quickly as possible and the next chapter would be as bright as possible.”

Two years later, the results speak for themselves.

The machine Elias and Mejdal helped build in Houston is still humming; the Astros made the World Series again in 2019 and 2021 and won it last year.

In a recent congratulatory message to his former lieutenants, Luhnow predicted the same for the Orioles, writing, “You built it the right way and it will last!”

Elias and Mejdal have delighted in learning how much this resurrection means to a fan base with a deep, often pained, attachment to the Orioles.

“If I just had this job, and the general manager and the owner ignored all our work, it would still probably be a fun job,” Mejdal said. “But that we put it to use and that we’re having success and that it leads to the enjoyment of the good people of Baltimore is a dream.”

And not just a dream for one night or one October.

“Somebody’s got to be thinking about the long term,” Elias said. “If you’re a Baltimore fan, you’ve been through some suffering. For me, it makes the moment all the more enjoyable that we haven’t mortgaged anything. We expect our competitive window to stay wide-open.”

ALDS, Game 1

Rangers at Orioles

Saturday, 1:03 p.m.

TV: FS1

Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM

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