Q&A: Sig Mejdal, Astros Director of Decision Sciences

Sig Mejdal is part of the brave new world of Houston Astros baseball. That world — at least as it pertains to the decision-making process — revolves around statistical analysis. Along with general manager Jeff Luhnow, Mejdal helps lead what has become one of most progressive front offices in baseball.

Formerly with the St. Louis Cardinals — along with Luhnow — Mejdal has a pair of engineering degrees — as well as advanced degrees in operations research and cognitive psychology/human factors. He talked about the Astros saber-savvy approach this month during the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.

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David Laurila: Your title is “director of decision sciences.” That’s unique within baseball.

Sig Mejdal: Yes, that’s one way of putting it. I believe one writer called it pretentious. To be fair, it is an unusual title, and it’s a first in the industry. Still, given exactly what we do, I think it is an appropriate title. “Decision sciences” involves identifying the attributes that lead to an understanding of the expectancies and variabilities relevant to a particular decision. In short, maximizing your output in an uncertain world. That’s our job: Creating decision aids based on the analysis in order to assist our decision makers.

DL: What has Jeff Luhnow brought to the Astros?

SM: In my opinion, it is not only Jeff, but the owner, Jim Crane, and the President, George Postolos, who have created a special culture here. It is a culture of innovation – where there is an incessant desire to explore, to improve and to do the best that we can. The desire to make use of all the data – regardless of where it comes from – in the most appropriate way is a part of the front office every day. And certainly, the experience that we had – both the successes and the lessons learned from the failures – with the Cardinals is valuable to make sure we hit the ground running in Houston.

More than anything, Jeff is a modern manager. He is a leader but he also inspires and enables those throughout the organization to do the best they possibly can. As if working in baseball wasn’t fun enough, working for Jeff in baseball makes it even more inspiring.

DL: The Cardinals haven’t had a reputation as being analytically progressive. The Astros currently do, with two of the same people in key positions.

SM: The reputation or press that we get is not something that I have much control over or spend too much time following. I do however remember there were a few articles while we were in St. Louis regarding the background or the skills that Jeff, myself and a few other hires brought into the front office, so I don’t think the reputation was completely absent. But I think you are right in that the hire of Jeff and then the ensuing hires has received a lot more attention than in St. Louis. My guess is that is because there is a dramatic change in not only the personnel, but also the processes taking place in the Astros’ front office. In St. Louis, it was certainly more gradual.

DL: Why have the Cardinals been so successful and what does that mean for the Astros?

SM: I think that in the probabilistic industry we work in, you have to be careful to avoid confusing good results with good decisions. Undoubtedly, the Cardinals have had very good success during Jeff’s time there, but what is more important is the processes that were created. All we can really control is the process and the decision making that comes from that. While, of course, we care tremendously about the results and the World Series – that is why we are in this industry – our attention and energies are focused on the process. There are no guarantees in baseball, but we feel that if we have good processes, as time goes on, we will have good results. Everyone in this organization – from the owner on down – is doing their best to make the Astros successful and positioned to continue that success as quickly as possible. With that goal in mind, our processes are what receives our energies.

DL: Building depth appears to be a goal, given the deals that have been made.

SM: As I mentioned before, we are doing our best to make the Astros winners – and keep them winning – as quickly as possible. Our goal is wins and those wins come from runs. Whether those runs come from a star, a superstar or a player just above replacement-level, each one counts the same.

Many of the transactions that were completed over this last year were for younger — and often a couple younger — players. Our sights are on major league value and every one of the deals was done with the hopes of maximizing our major league runs. Some of those players had more upside than others, of course, but the bottom line remains in the language of major league runs.

DL: What role does probability play in baseball?

SM: Probability plays a giant role in this industry. As I touched upon before, the variability that is inherent with, for example, predicting how an 18-year-old is going to do half a dozen years in the future, is significant. In short, this uncertainty makes it more difficult to sense the signal from the noise. That is OK . All the organizations are in the same boat, and it is our hope that we are able to create the processes that will lead to more appropriate decisions that will ultimately increase our chances of obtaining more major league value.

DL: What is the relationship between your department and amateur scouting?

SM: I work with three other very skilled analysts and we support the entire organization. The draft, of course, is very critical to the team’s success, so significant resources are dedicated to that. We work very closely with the scouting director and the scouts. Rarely does a day go by that I am not talking to or emailing a scout.

Jeff had created a great culture in St. Louis between the scouts and the analysts and that continues here in Houston. We are literally on the same team with the same goals so the stronger the relationship is, the better the communication is. The more we push each other, the better off the Astros will be. There is much to learn from the scouts. I think any analyst would be foolish not to maximize his time with them.

DL: Presumably, the Astros front office follows what is happening in the baseball research community?

SM: That is a big yes. We know that we don’t have a monopoly on baseball knowledge and we would be foolish to not follow what the great baseball minds outside  baseball are coming up with. I am on FanGraphs every day, and I bet so are most others in the front office. Remember that two of our key front office hires came from this world – Kevin Goldstein and Mike Fast – so you know very well that we are paying attention.




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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-March 2011 and is a regular contributor to several publications. His first book, Interviews from Red Sox Nation, was published by Maple Street Press in 2006. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA


19 Responses to “Q&A: Sig Mejdal, Astros Director of Decision Sciences”

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  1. Kris Gardham says:

    “I think that in the probabilistic industry we work in, you have to be careful to avoid confusing good results with good decisions.”

    Gold, absolute gold. Sig could’ve simply followed that quote with “Mic Drop! Sig out,” and this still would’ve been my favourite interview of the new year.

    +10 Vote -1 Vote +1

  2. Big Dog says:

    Mr. Mejdal reveals that baseball is probabilistic and the Astros are investing in young (but uncertain) talent in (just) less than 7,000 words.

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  3. Anon says:

    In addition to Sig’s remarks about the reputation of the Cardinals, LaRussa playing a role in the organization likely colored the view of some in the online analytics community.

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  4. Juan Grande says:

    He makes some sound comments about not getting lost in the process, which is something that seems to happen quite a bit among the chattering classes.

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  5. Crapshoot says:

    Director of Decision Sciences is a silly title no matter how accurate of a description it may be.

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    • Antonio bananas says:

      I had a class called decision sciences. It’s shorter than “using probabilities, calculus, and statistics to guide your decision making”

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    • Aaron says:

      Its all about getting through the filters in today’s job market.

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  6. Casey Whitman says:

    Shocked there wasn’t a single mention of Fantasyland on here.

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  7. CircleChange11 says:

    DL: Why have the Cardinals been so successful and what does that mean for the Astros?

    He did a pretty good job of not answering this question, and filling time with generalities about process.

    ———————————–

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    • Aaron says:

      All these books and analytics and multiple degrees and interviews–and I still learned more from Syd Thrift.

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  8. Erix says:

    I’ve had a soft spot for Sig ever since I read the (amazing) book, Fantasyland.

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  9. Alex says:

    “The reputation or press that we get is not something that I have much control over [because Jeff and I are unstoppable forces with no control over our frequent attempts to talk about the process and spread unrealistic expectations in television, radio, books, and web media formats]!”

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  10. chuckb says:

    Fantastic interview. Hiring Luhnow was a tremendous coup for the Astros.

    The stuff about “process over product” is applicable to every aspect of life. It’s not at all limited to baseball.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      The thing is though, at some point process needs to end up with good product, otherwise it may not be a good process.

      The part I don;t like is that anyone can state that their process was good and the end result was poor because of bad luck, chance, or anything else.

      How one determines if the process is good/bad is key.

      Does any GM think they use “bad process”? Does anyone think they have an inferior process or opinion? What GM (no jokes) can’t plead “good process, bad luck” when things don’t go right?

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  11. Aaron says:

    Thanks again for the interesting interview and interesting series. I was impressed that Mr. Mejdal had an advanced degree in cognitive science. I think there are many applications from that field to baseball (such as why a pitcher changing speeds works is a common example).

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