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Mike Elias: The Man Behind The Curtain

The Baltimore Orioles ballpark, Camden Yards; CC by license 2.0

Most of us are familiar with the general gist of The Wizard of Oz. Little is known about the “wizard”, but he is said to have mystical powers that can grant any wish. Dorothy and the crew go all the way up the yellow brick road to meet said wizard, and they arrive to witness scenes of smoke, fire, and floating heads which created a spectacle that was never before seen. However, the gang comes to realize that these harrowing sights were made possible not by magic, but by one man behind a curtain pulling some levers and pressing some buttons. Since 2012, Mike Elias has been the man behind the curtain for two of the most miraculous major league franchise turnarounds in recent memory. The current GM for the Orioles has his team in perfect shape at just over the quarter mark of the season, replicating a lot of the success he had previously with the Houston Astros. After pitching for and graduating from Yale, he would be a scout for the Cardinals until 2012 when he took his expertise to Houston as their scouting director, and Elias has carried out his baseball wizardry since.

Most of Mike Elias’ success with the Astros is overshadowed by the infamous 2017 World Series cheating scandal. After serving 7 years in Houston, Elias was fired after the 2018 season. The firings of the then-manager AJ Hinch and GM Jeff Luhnow came after the following season. It is important to note that while unprecedented suspensions were placed on Hinch and Luhnow, Elias was deemed innocent in the scandal. The Baltimore Orioles jumped at the opportunity to bring Elias into their building, replacing their old-school GM Dan Duquette with the new-school analytical thinking of Elias before heading into the 2019 season. He had the same task in front of him that he had 7 years earlier in Houston: take the team with the worst record in baseball the year before and turn them into a perennial contender. Mike Elias has pulled all the right levers and pressed all the right buttons behind the curtain to make it happen… twice.

Yes, both the Astros in 2011 and the Orioles in 2018 had the worst records in baseball to finish their respective seasons. The Astros closed out the 2011 season at 56-106, which was seven more losses than the next closest team and they were the only team that year to accumulate 100 losses. In comparison to the rest of the league, they ranked 25th in WRC+ and wOBA. They suffered similarly on the pitching side, ranking 28th in both FIP and WHIP. Elias had significant ground to cover after that 2011 season in Houston, but the same could be said for the situation in Baltimore when he arrived after the 2018 season. The Orioles finished 2018 with a 47-115 record, which was nine more losses than the next closest team and they were the only team to not surpass 50 wins. Sound somewhat familiar? The O’s struggled with the bats which put them at 26th in WRC+ and wOBA for the season, and the pitching was downright awful after finishing last in WHIP and FIP. Sound even more familiar? Mike Elias stepped into practically the same situation both in 2012 and in 2018 with nowhere to go but up.

For those of you who are familiar with a team rebuild process, generally, the first place to start is the farm system. Teams in the rebuilding stage will bolster their system with prospects in the MLB draft. Prospects gradually make their way through the minor leagues until they’re either called up to the major league squad or traded for solidified major league talent. Struggling teams, like the Orioles and Astros, had top draft choices for multiple years while Elias was at the helm. Therefore, both were able to generate elite farm systems over time. But Elias approaches the draft differently than most executives. Defined in the book Future Value, Elias uses what has been deemed the “portfolio approach”. Michael McDermott explains:

The approach is to try to save as much as possible with their top selection without too much of a drop-off in talent then use the savings to make an over-slot pick with a high school talent that’s fallen well below his original expected range. By taking that approach, the hope is to be able to leverage a big signing pool into an impressive draft haul of talent” (McDermott, 2022).

Heading into the MLB draft every team has a fixed amount of money they can hand out for the first 10 rounds. Every pick ‘slot’ has an assigned value that should be spent for the player picked at that spot. Elias aims to go ‘under-slot’ for early picks, in other words drafting players earlier than projected in hopes of signing them for less than the assigned slot value. Then he can take the savings from the under-slot pick(s) and use it to accumulate more talent throughout the draft by going over-slot on later picks. This strategy expands or diversifies the prospect ‘portfolio’, hence the portfolio approach.

Elias has used this strategy in Houston and Baltimore with generally great success. For the purpose of this article, I am going to be breaking down and comparing years 1 through 5 of Elias in both Houston and Baltimore. This year’s 2023 season is Elias’ 5th year in Baltimore, and I thought it would be fitting to compare each year in Baltimore to the first 5 he spent in Houston to compare progress. To start, let’s take a look at the draft history for Mike Elias:

The visual above clearly shows the use of the portfolio approach over the years. Out of the 8 first selections, 6 of them were signed under-slot. Multiple all-stars including Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, and Kyle Tucker all signed under their assigned slot value when drafted. It is pretty well documented that the MLB draft is a crapshoot. So Elias asked himself, why overspend on the early first-round picks when player value is spread all across the draft? Why spend the capital on an early pick when most of them don’t pan out? This is not to say Elias was a draft wiz right out of the gates. After having a great first draft going under-slot on Correa to go over-slot on Lance McCullers, Elias had a streak of drafting pitchers with the number one pick in 2013 and 2014 (Appel & Aiken). Respectively, both pitchers were top prospects in the draft, and it was not surprising to see them go #1. And both did not pan out in the majors because of different reasons, but you see the improvement from there and the lessons he took with him to Baltimore. Despite having 2 of the top 5 picks in 2015, Elias went under-slot on two positional players, Alex Bregman and Kyle Tucker. Both Bregman and Tucker have gone on to have great careers in Houston. The trend of drafting positional players under-slot continued in Baltimore with the surprising pick of Heston Kjerstad at #2 in 2020, followed by the 2021 draft. Colton Cowser and Connor Norby were both college bats drafted under-slot, and like Bregman and Tucker, both are top 100 prospects in baseball according to Elias has hit his stride on early draft picks which translates to elite farm system talent.

When you do a deep dive into farm system rankings for the Elias Astros compared to the Elias Orioles, the timelines are eerily similar. After the 2014 draft (the third year of Elias’ tenure in Houston), the Astros’ system was touted as the second-best in baseball by Bleacher Report. Their top 100 prospects were Correa (#8), Appel (#17), McCullers (#52), and George Springer (#21), who was drafted the year before Elias arrived. Now here is where the parallels come in. After the 2021 draft (the third year of Elias’ tenure in Baltimore), the Orioles’ system ranked as the best in baseball according to MLB Pipeline. The O’s, like Houston in 2014, had not four but five top 100 prospects on Rutschmann (#2), Kjerstad (#69), Henderson (#80), Cowser (#83), and Grayson Rodriguez (#27), who was drafted the year before Elias arrived. In Elias’ third year in both Houston and Baltimore, he managed to accumulate some of the best farm systems in baseball. However, putting together some good prospect lists is only one part of the rebuilding equation.

An equally important part of a rebuild is the management of prospects. There is so much talk now about service time manipulation, and in the modern history of this game, there has been no shortage of prospect busts. But why do some pan out and some don’t? A lot of it boils down to picking the right time to call a prospect up to the major leagues. Call a player up too early or too late and the team could risk flailing on a high-value prospect. Both Carlos Correa in Houston and Gunnar Henderson in Baltimore were high-value prospects while they made their way through their respective systems. And to label them solely as high-value prospects is an understatement, as the two similarly were drafted as high school shortstops who would eventually become top 3 prospects in baseball. Given the similarities between the players and their immediate on-field success when they got the call, I thought it would be interesting to examine the numbers they put up in the minors. Did something in the analytics tell Elias that these guys were ready for the big leagues?

Above is a table with some of the numbers put up by Correa and Henderson whilst in the last two levels of the minors (AA and AAA). Overall, the numbers look different, especially by level. Correa put up noticeably better stats in AA while Henderson had him beat in AAA. Nothing in the table indicates anything that you can point to and say, ‘That’s the logic that led to them being called up when they were’. But what if we dive a little deeper?

As indicated by the new table above, the averages between AA and AAA tell a different story. The differences at the individual levels are apparent still, but the averages are separated by mere decimal points. Now from this data, we can put together more of the precise batting profile Elias looks for in his high-value prospects before they make it to the show. If we were to make an assumption off of this data alone, we can assume that Elias looks for his position player prospects to have (between AA and AAA):

  • An OPS nearing 1.000

  • A wOBA in the mid-to-low .400s

  • A WRC+ in the mid-to-high 100s

  • A BABIP above roughly .350

It goes without saying that this is not an exact science. A significant number of variables go into whether or not a prospect gets called up to the majors. However, with Elias being at the forefront of analytics, these numbers likely had a large role in the call-ups of Carlos Correa and Gunnar Henderson.

What Mike Elias has managed to do with the Astros and now the Orioles is truly remarkable. As of this writing, the O’s currently have the second-best record in baseball with high hopes for a playoff run in just the 5th year of Elias’ time as general manager. His 5th year in Houston did not see the same success after narrowly missing the playoffs in 2016, but we all know what happened in 2017. Despite the cheating scandal in the World Series, the Astros still managed to put together an incredible 101-61 regular season and were one of if not the favorites to win the World Series going into the playoffs. Could this be an indication of what’s to come in Elias’ 6th year at the helm in Baltimore? Let’s compare the year-by-year analytics to see if the Orioles are on pace:

The visualization above shows the average FIP and average WHIP rankings for each of the first 5 years of Elias in Houston and Baltimore. A disclaimer that should be stated here is that Elias’ 2nd year in Baltimore was the 2020 shortened season, so there is a smaller sample size and numbers from that season are generally inconsistent. Besides that, the ‘Elias Effect’ cannot be understated. Overall Baltimore ranked lower in FIP and WHIP than Houston did in their first 5 with Elias. However, the gradual rise up the ranks is evident for both sides. Both franchises struggled to crack the top 20 in the two categories for the first 3 years but managed to finish inside the top 20 for each category in years 4 and 5. The hitting analytics tell much of the same story:

The improvement from year 3 on is staggering in both visualizations. Just as it was with pitching the Astros had more of a straight line to the top, but given the shortened season in year 2 for Baltimore, it’s clear both teams made steady improvements in their average wOBA and WRC+ each year. While Elias might not be in the dugout giving hitting or pitching tips, constructing a roster founded on analytics led to the rankings we see in the visuals.

Are the numbers pointing to an O’s World Series bid in 2024? It is certainly possible, but there is some ground to cover before that comes to fruition. A lot of the criticism put on Mike Elias in Baltimore has been his unwillingness to make ‘the big move’. For the most part, trades have been limited to prospect hauls for solidified major leaguers, and Elias has yet to hand out a single multi-year contract to a free agent during his time as GM. And Orioles fans might have to sit tight one more year for a splash. If you go back in time and visit the 2016 Astros (5th year of Elias in Houston), you will see they were 55-49 at the trade deadline. The Orioles are currently 28-16 at just over the quarter mark of the season. While they may be on pace to be in a much better position at this year’s deadline than Houston in ’16, I expect the lack of starting pitching to catch up to Baltimore before the deadline which could put them in a similar situation to Houston 7 years ago. The Astros missed the playoffs due in part to a competitive AL West (Mariners, Rangers), which could be much of the same reason the Orioles could miss the playoffs this season, in a historically competitive AL East.

Following Elias' blueprint from Houston, year 6 is the year to buy in. At the trade deadline in 2017, the Astros led the American League at 85-53. This put them in prime position to trade for all-time great Justin Verlander. They traded three of the top twelve prospects in their system for the future hall-of-famer, joining All-Stars Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers in a deadly rotation that got them to the World Series. When Verlander came over, Keuchel was the leader of the staff, and former top pitching prospect McCullers made his first All-Star team at 23. Could we see a Verlander-esque situation on the horizon for Mike Elias and Baltimore? If Elias rolls with his 6-year blueprint, the Orioles trade for a top-of-the-rotation arm at next year’s deadline with plenty of prospect depth to make the move. Theoretically, the acquisition would join a rotation with former All-Star and leader of the staff John Means and former top pitching prospect Grayson Rodriguez, who could very well make his first All-Star team at 24, just as a 23-year-old McCullers did in ’17. While Means will be entering his age 30 season, as opposed to Keuchel (27 in ’17), he will be coming off Tommy John surgery which could rejuvenate his career. Pretty similar situations for a big trade piece to be going into. A trade to bring elite starting pitching to the Orioles rotation is imminent. It’s been a long drought for exciting moves in Baltimore, but as the 2017 Astros proved, good things come to those who wait.

Soon after Dorothy’s dog Toto unveils Oz behind the curtain, he takes off in a hot air balloon never to be seen again, leaving behind plenty of unfulfilled hopes and dreams. After 2018, the hot air balloon that took Elias out of Houston happened to be made of dugout trash cans and Jose Altuve’s buzzers. As a Baltimore native and life-long fan, I feel comfortable speaking for all of Birdland when I say I hope the balloon stays grounded and Elias keeps working his magic behind the curtain for many years to come as he reaps the benefits of yet another successful rebuild.



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