It has been an interesting time along the respective Beltways for baseball fans this spring and early summer. As the coming of age Nationals tear up the National League East, one of baseball’s biggest surprises, the Baltimore Orioles, are holding their own in second place in the American League East, easily within striking distance of the first place New York Yankees and in contention for a Wild Card spot.
It is a refreshing turnaround for the O’s, who seem to have been out of the baseball limelight for more than half of the existence of their still-beautiful and now 20 year old baseball palace, Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
Lean years and lean budgets saw the Orioles fall from the baseball elite as Cal Ripken Jr.’s time came to an end, and a series of controversial moves by management left fans disappointed as the team struggled to be competitive for the first time in a long time.
But that has all started to change in the last few years under the oft-maligned ownership of Peter Angelos. Buck Showalter has cobbled together a lineup with a mix of home grown and imported players and an exciting, mostly young, pitching staff. New executive vice president and baseball lifer Dan Duquette has come on board to move the team along behind the scenes, and the Orioles, one of the game’s most traditional teams of the past half-century, have really embraced technology as way to better evaluate players and get results—not just on their big league club but throughout their system.
While the old school way of scouting has not gone by the wayside, Duquette, addressing a large group of fans this week prior to the team’s series with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, admitted that the way things were done in the past doesn’t work as well as what can be done today.
He talked about his new baseball operations staff, which includes pedigrees from Harvard and his alma mater, Amherst, as well as other places that baseball lifers would have scoffed at years ago. He touched on the use of technology to augment advance scouting, another heresy in days gone by, when he was helping pilot the front offices of the Milwaukee Brewers, New York Mets and Montreal Expos.
Yet such talk in today’s environment is seen as refreshing and as a result of a new way of thinking, Baltimore, replete with their throwback look and a conservative owner, is again a force in the AL East.
“Over the last couple of years, the Orioles have been transitioning to take the data we have from Bloomberg (Sports) and PitchFX and leverage that in a way the helps us position our players better and make better pitches at the right time and effectively win games,” Duquette added. “I think it’s made a big difference in winning the close games. There are two or three or four plays every game that determine the outcome of every game. And if you can leverage the technology in a partnership with Bloomberg to win the game, it makes it a lot more fun for everybody.”
That leverage is aided by a coaching staff and front office that knows when and where to make subtle changes. The combination of pitching coach Rick Adair at the parent club and director of pitching development Rick Peterson has helped transform the staff and the pitchers in the organization into a force to be reckoned with.
Peterson, who assumed his new role this past offseason, used analytical data during his stint as pitching coach for the “Moneyball” Oakland A’s and brought in American Sports Medicine Institute's biomechanical pitching lab to spring training to analyze every major league pitcher’s delivery. The subtle changes used in delivery have done wonders for the O’s pitching staff, from rising stars like Jake Arrieta and Jason Hammel to the future of the organization on the mound in Dylan Bundy, Zach Britton, Chris Tillman and others.
“It’s all about balancing the human aspects of the game with the data that’s available, and that mix is proven time and time to have success,” Peterson added at the event on Tuesday. “Our pitchers have bought into what Dan and Buck and our staff is preaching, and they see the results. It would be silly to ignore the assets and the opportunities that are presented through technology, and just do things the way they used to be done.”
The “old school” way didn’t fill seats or put W’s in the books for Baltimore, but the recent results and the change in philosophy are reaping benefits both now, with a weekend of sellouts, and into the future by building an organization of young players used to, and not afraid of, using technology to supplement their natural skills.
Where will the Orioles finish this year?
In many ways, the mix is not new to baseball. Theo Epstein used the formula for success in Boston, and has now taken technology to new levels as he revamps the Chicago Cubs using a custom-designed system by Bloomberg Sports.
Bloomberg officials said Tuesday that 25 clubs are using some version of the analytic system they have built, all converting over since the company division was formed just two short years ago. Peterson, now one of Baltimore’s greatest assets, actually worked with Bloomberg last year to help refine the tools for many of the MLB teams, so his familiarity with the process was an added bonus when he came on board for the club over the winter.
In years past, “new thinking” in Baltimore may have meant better cell phone service or a slight change in logo. Now it means a revamped look at technology combined with good old baseball sense, and that mix is leading to a new era for Orioles fans starved for winning—probably much sooner than expected.
Sooner than expected? Isn’t that what today’s technology is all about? Even in storied Camden Yards.