ABERDEEN — Right around the time recently-hired Baltimore Orioles general manager Mike Elias embarked on his remarkable climb through the front offices of a pair of Major League Baseball organizations, Tom Eller began turning baseball analytics into victories as the new head coach at Harford Community College.
Over the next dozen years, Elias made his way from the St. Louis to Houston, where he used data to help deliver the Astros their first-ever world championship. Meanwhile, Eller brought sustained success to the Fighting Owls, guiding the team to over 400 wins, five Region XX Championships and a trip to the NJCAA World Series. He also earned Maryland JUCO Coach of the Year four times.
Both men will be part of the same organization when the Orioles open spring training next month in Saraosta, Fla. Roughly two months after Baltimore pegged Elias to head its baseball operations, Eller has been hired as the hitting coach for the Aberdeen IronBirds, the Orioles’ short-season affiliate located just a few miles from Harford C.C.
Eller made the announcement Monday via Twitter and confirmed the details of the hire Tuesday during a phone interview.
With a heavy ❤️ I have stepped down from my position at Harford to start an exciting journey with the Orioles as a Minor League Hitting Coach. I want 2 thank all the players who chose Harford. It’s an amazing place and is in good hands with @Coach_Rheinlen @robkoski2 @J_houser23 pic.twitter.com/lJXc3MG0dv— T (@CoachTomEller) January 29, 2019
“It’s a blessing to be able to be close to home and be a part of a major league organization,” Eller said. “I think it’s awesome to be local and be part of the hometown team. I grew up idolizing Cal Ripken and Mickey Tettleon and Eddie Murray and all those guys. To be able to a part of the same organization is awesome.”
Eller, a member of Rising Sun’s 1A State Championship team in 2000, played two seasons at Cecil College under head coach Charlie O’Brien before concluding his career at Delaware’s Wilmington College. Upon graduation in 2004, O’Brien offered his former player a spot on his coaching staff, where Eller remained for a short period. Three years later, he took over the rival Fighting Owls.
Once in control of his own program, Eller, who resides in Elkton, installed a strategy based on sabermetrics to quickly find success on the baseball diamond. Over the past four years, an unorthodox approach to the plate has landed Harford among the nation’s leaders in walks, stolen bases and home runs on a yearly basis.
In 2018, Harford led all junior colleges in walks (422) and stolen bases (234) and ranked third in home runs (112), a stat line that likely caught the eye of Orioles’ newly-hired assistant GM Sig Mejdal, a former NASA engineer and Astros statistician, who followed Elias to Baltimore.
“Honestly, I was probably one of the first college coaches to start shifting [to analytics]. I started shifting back in 2007-08. A lot of people kind of didn’t get it. Basically, what we were doing was taking [advantage of] the percentages that was helping us to win games. We completely changed our offensive approach to everything,” Eller explained. “For the last four years, we’ve led the nation in walks, but it’s kind of the opposite of what everyone thinks it is. Just because we walk a lot doesn’t mean we take a lot of pitches. I want my guys to hit one of the first three pitches they see because most of the time, they’re going to see a first-pitch fastball or strikes early in the at-bat. Then, we start getting pitched to differently, teams start us off with breaking balls that they don’t throw for a strike, that our guys don’t chase. That’s how you walk 10 times in a game.
“I think quality at-bats are looked at the wrong way,” he added. “Too many people are worried about seeing eight pitches to be successful when really, you should be thinking about the first three. If you want to hit .214, [extending at-bats] is the way to hit .214.”
When camp breaks in March, Eller expects to remain in Sarasota for extended spring training, eventually returning home in mid-June for the start of the IronBirds’ campaign. Once in Aberdeen, he will be tasked with using his approach to help craft the youngest players in the Orioles organization.
“I think they just really want someone that thinks differently than everyone else, that has an open mind, that is sabermetric based, which is a lot of what we do. I think it was a bonus when they realized what we do, how we do it and how much turnover we have [at the JUCO level],” said Eller, who takes over for former hitting coach and Orioles outfielder Tim Raines Jr. “I told them that I got really good at teaching it because we have so many people that are here for a year and then they’re off to a four-year school the next year. I have to basically crash course, teach them the best way possible. Again, we’ve gotten better and better every year teaching guys how to become good hitters and great players.”
Eller’s invitation to join the Orioles comes to no surprise to O’Brien, who recognized the attributes for success in his former player when he first joined the Seahawks after graduating from Rising Sun.
“Just his work ethic, his baseball mind is perfect for the Orioles, for the minor league job with the IronBirds. He’s going to do well. Everything that Tommy attempts, he goes at 100 percent,” O’Brien said. “The learning curve is going to be very short for him because he’s going to figure it out real quick, he’s going to get it done and be successful. I don’t think he’s going to have any issue moving up the ladder once he gets to pro ball. You look at the hitters and what they’ve done at Harford over the last few years, he’s had a lot of success.
“I’m proud of him and excited he came through this program,” O’Brien continued. “He’s a good ol’ country boy making good for himself, but he did it because of the work ethic that was instilled in him, desire and his passion for baseball. He’s going to be successful because of those three things.”
The Orioles hired Eller following a pair of phone interviews and an in-person conversation at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. In Baltimore, Eller met with both Ellias and Mejdal as they continue to fill vacancies in the organization ahead of spring training.
“I knew about Sig and Mike Elias, so I immediately went out and read ‘Astroball,’ [a Sports Illustrated feature detailing Houston’s use of analytics and roster building to construct a world champion team]. I wanted to find out about them,” Eller said. “ I told them that I’m betting on myself being here, I’m betting on myself being the best that I can be and help the organization. It’s going to be up to me to do the best.”
Follow Jordan Schatz on Twitter: @Jordan_Whig