A Conversation With Orioles General Manager Mike Elias

© Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Elias had a background in scouting and player development when he came to Baltimore in November 2018. The Orioles general manager and executive vice president broke into pro ball as a scout with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2007. Four years later, he was hired by Houston to serve as the club’s director of amateur scouting; in 2016, the Astros promoted the Yale University graduate to assistant GM and put him in charge of player development.

The challenges he inherited in Baltimore were daunting. Elias took over a team that had just lost 115 games — the most in franchise history. The Orioles’ divisional competition is comprised of the powerhouses of the American League East. The rebuild was going to be anything but easy. Moreover, it would take time, much to the chagrin of a dedicated fanbase.

But light is starting to appear at end of the tunnel. Under Elias’ guidance, the Orioles have built one of baseball’s best farm systems, with Adley Rutschman, Grayson Rodriguez, D.L. Hall, Colton Cowser, Gunnar Henderson and Coby Mayo all featured on our forthcoming Top 100. Most notable are Rutschman and Rodriguez, who rank as the game’s top position player prospect and top pitching prospect, respectively.

As part of our Prospects Week interview series, Elias discussed the organization’s approach to scouting and player development.

———

David Laurila: I’ve asked you about the relationship between scouting and player development in previous interviews, and I’ll do so again now. In what ways has that relationship changed?

Mike Elias: “It continues to meld. As the days and years go by — given how sophisticated player development is becoming — how easy it is for an organization to communicate with itself is an underrated factor. I joined professional baseball in 2007, so I was already in the internet age, but if you talk to people who were working in professional baseball in the ‘80s, ‘90s, and early 2000s, a lot of effort was put into staying in touch with your remote employees. They would use voicemail. So a lot of the practices and divisions between scouting and player development come out of an era when it was hard for everyone to stay in touch. That’s no longer the case.

“Our scouting process, particularly in the draft — Brad Ciolek runs it — does a really good job of involving the player development coaches in evaluations of the players prior to the draft. I think that helps give them a sense of ownership of the guy when we do take him. They know what the pros and cons are with the player going in. It’s nice for everyone involved to be incorporated in the front end of the selection process.”

Laurila: With that relationship in mind, how do you approach the risk-reward of drafting a player with the idea that certain adjustments are needed for him to be successful at the highest levels?

Elias: “It’s hard for me to give a sweeping answer to that. Everything is a case-by-case evaluation. Really, the only players that seem flawless, to the degree that even exists as amateurs, they’ll go off the board in the first couple of picks. You’re always dealing with a lot of ‘ifs’ — ‘this kids needs to do this to profile in the majors.’ That’s why we have scouts that can analyze these things professionally, and why we get the coaches involved, and why we try to get to know what makes a player tick. There are no hard-and-fast rules for, ‘This is fixable, that’s not fixable.’ I don’t think there’s any formula for that. It’s dependent on the player himself, who is going to be working with him, and every little nuance of the circumstances.”

Laurila: That said, we have so much data now — and so much tech — that we can more accurately identify changes that might be needed. Before, it was almost educated guesswork.

Elias: “The data and the tech — and this is across the whole league now; everyone is working with this info — have eliminated a lot of really obvious misses that we were subjected to in the scouting world before this stuff was available, and before it was understood. There are some things, particularly in pitching, that were hard to evaluate correctly with the naked eye. Now we have a more precise, measurable way of analyzing pitcher stuff.

“Everyone using it sort of constrains the availability in the market. There is more competition for the stuff that teams have looked for in this technology era, and I think that’s going to cause things to continue to evolve. There are advantages to be had in some other areas, so it’s going to be interesting to see what the next 10 years look like.”

Laurila: Have specific things been historically overvalued, or undervalued, by scouts?

Elias: “No fault of theirs, but we’ve always had radar guns measuring velocity. Every baseball person, every scout, has had the experience of watching a pitcher light up the radar gun, but then not perform as well as his velocity would suggest. A lot of the tech we have now allows us to understand why that sort of thing happens. That would be probably the main thing we’ve got our arms around a lot better.”

Laurila: By and large, pure velocity was overrated…

Elias: “We had a device that measured it, and because it was measurable, you put a lot of weight into it. But it wasn’t capturing the whole picture. Now we are able to measure some of [the other] properties, and that’s allowing us to weight the pure velocity a little bit better in the overall grading of a pitch.”

Laurila: When I interviewed you in February 2017, you said the following about scouting pitchers: “It has definitely evolved, but it is still, and I believe it always will be, most reliant on the opinions of the scouts who have seen the players in person.” Would you answer that question any differently now?

Elias: “As everyone has their arms around these measurable traits coming out of TrackMan and Rapsodo, there are now advantages to be had in who your evaluators are, what they’re seeing, and how they’re weighing the properties that exist outside of those devices. So I definitely think there’s a subjective element that is persisting, and that will win out, because everyone has such a clear idea of what these guys’ stuff looks like right now. The teams that can prognosticate whose stuff is going to improve, or hold up, are going to have an advantage. That’s very much in the subjective realm.”

Laurila: To what extent do scouting and draft philosophies exist within baseball?

Elias: “That’s kind of a fun part of the draft. Even in today’s age, where there is so much hard information available, you still have people in draft rooms making decisions. There are still individual scouts that are putting reports in that drive teams’ models. It’s fun for us to observe the philosophies of other teams — or what we perceive to be the philosophies of other teams — and think about whether somebody is on to something. If you talk to scouts who have jumped around different organizations, they learned something different everywhere they went, and they sense a different M.O. everywhere they go. That’s what makes the draft interesting.”

Laurila: Philosophically, what do the Orioles prioritize?

Elias: “I think we concentrate on perfecting the quality of the information that we put into our draft preparation as best as possible, and then weight that the smartest way we can. That’s really our philosophy. And it’s an ongoing tailoring process all the time. Obviously, those components can change quite a bit.

“Something we do is take a good share of high school players. And I think that we’ve proven an ability to choose our high school players wisely. That comes from scouting and knowing how to evaluate players at that age level. There’s no way around that, because you don’t have the college statistics. Since we’ve been in Baltimore, we’re very excited and proud of a lot of the players we’ve selected out of high school. They still have a ways to go, but that’s no fault of theirs. Going back to my days with the Astros, I feel the same way.”

Laurila: Is part of the appeal of high school players that they’re easier to “mold,” whereas a player with three years of college under his belt is, by comparison, more settled into how he goes about things?

Elias: “There may be some of that, but I just think if you’re not getting into the high school market, you’re going to miss out on some prodigious talents. For somebody to be that good at age 17 or 18, and inspiring a major league team to select you over a closer, more-knowable college player, you’re showing that type of potential at a younger age. I think there are [higher] odds of getting a prodigious talent out of high school, so we’re careful to be heavily involved in the high school market. One of the unique things about baseball is that we take players out of the high school market more than any other American sport. It’s a big important part of where the talent comes from in our game, and we want to be really good at it.”

Laurila: A lot of people viewed Heston Kjerstad as an overdraft when you took him second overall in 2020.

Elias: “It’s really unfortunate, on number of levels, that he hasn’t been able to go out and play. And that’s nobody’s fault. The important thing is that he’s looking great right now. He’s healthy. For him to have endured what he did [myocarditis], miss the time that he did, and keep his attitude and work ethic intact — that speaks to everything we liked about him when we took him. He’s still got a lot of time left to show people why we viewed him as highly as we did. I’m very hopeful that we’ll be proven right.

“In general, it’s our job to evaluate and draft players up and down the 20 rounds of the draft, and you’re very often making decisions that are different than the consensus, or the public rankings. If we weren’t doing that, what are we doing as a scouting department? You always have to be mindful and respectful of the sentiment that’s out there — understand where it’s coming from and how it’s generated — but you’re never going to develop any advantages if you’re not making some proprietary-type decisions. There have been a lot of great picks in the industry over the years that have come out of those types of picks. Obviously, there are also some that haven’t worked out. Teams develop their own evaluations for a reason.”

Laurila: I’ve asked a lot of hitters and pitchers if they consider their craft to be more of an art or more of a science. I’ll ask you that question as it pertains to scouting and/or player development.

Elias: “I would tend to say more art because of the ever evolving nature of both practices. That’s because you’re dealing with human beings. I think any good artist is trying to be as scientific as he possibly can. I think we enjoy what we do in scouting and player development because it is so hard to solve. In baseball… again, you’re dealing with human beings, and we’re never perfect at what we’re doing. That’s what makes it such a challenge in a competition between the 30 teams.”





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

3 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Kevbot034
5 months ago

The Orioles are trending in the right direction, it’s just gonna take forever because FA aren’t going to want to go there. Though I guess they could shock the world and do like Texas and snag a couple notable upgrades at up the middle positions. Who knows?