Mejdal assisted in any way he could, throwing batting practice or feeding a pitching machine, shagging balls in the outfield, doing the grunt work to allow Manager Morgan Ensberg and his staff more instruction time for a raw 35-man roster.
Ensberg, an All-Star third baseman for the Astros in their run to the 2005 World Series, was grateful for the help. The Astros have development coaches at every level, but Mejdal’s research background set him apart.
“There was one team last year that got to live in the future, and that was the Tri-City ValleyCats,” Ensberg said. “We got to experience what a major league bench is going to be like in a few years. There’s a bunch of information that I couldn’t possibly know.”
To take advantage of it, Ensberg said, he would consult Mejdal at least five times a game, asking what the numbers suggested in a given situation. He would also ask his hitting and pitching coaches for their input, then weigh his options and make a decision.
Players, likewise, sought out Mejdal to dig deeper on their performance.
“They ate this stuff up,” Mejdal said. “There was no surprise or skepticism. It was like: ‘Wow, really? You guys can measure that? I didn’t know that.’ ”
McKee said he benefited from the sophisticated reports on pitch usage and hitters’ tendencies. After a rough pro debut the year before, McKee had a strong season, allowing only 19 hits in 41 innings. He was promoted this season to the Class A Quad Cities River Bandits, like Meyers, who said the Astros’ emphasis on video — especially in spring training, where cameras ring the practice fields — also helps.
“We can pretty much see anything we would want to see throughout the whole day, whatever it is,” Meyers said. “There’s always eyes watching with cameras. There’s always a way to get better.”
The ValleyCats finished 34-39, but that was largely irrelevant to Luhnow’s goals. By learning from Mejdal’s experience in Troy, he hoped to give the Astros a better chance to turn their concepts into reality. Front offices everywhere now teem with well-educated executives who have backgrounds outside baseball. Luhnow, who has an M.B.A. from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern, wondered how the Astros could get more from theirs.
“There is an ivory tower effect, if you will, where great ideas are being thought about and discussed at headquarters, but until you roll them out into the field, you don’t realize all the challenges involved,” he said. “Amazing ideas find all kinds of issues when you try to roll them out with human beings because that’s all we are, a collection of human beings trying to do things to help players perform on the field.”
In past years, Luhnow found, it was easy for executives to visit a minor league affiliate for a week but difficult to form more than a surface-level bond with players and staff members. In Mejdal, whom he had first hired with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2005, he had a trusted confidant with intimate knowledge of the Astros’ culture.