ORI­OLES

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - BASE­BALL -

hir­ing for­ward-think­ing coaches and shows what’s pos­si­ble on the hit­ting side in a year when mi­nor-league pitch­ing progress has earned most of the at­ten­tion.

“The score­board is an ac­cu­mu­la­tion of runs,” Ori­oles as­sis­tant gen­eral man­ager for an­a­lyt­ics Sig Me­j­dal said. “It doesn’t mat­ter how or from who you got those runs. If it’s from an over­weight short­stop with the yips or a Di­vi­sion III player from a school no­body has heard of, the score­board is ig­no­rant of that.

“It’s our goal to do all we can to max­i­mize runs, and some­times the op­por­tu­ni­ties are in un­usual places.”

That short­stop with the yips was 2011 St. Louis Car­di­nals World Se­ries hero Allen Craig, who Me­j­dal said was his fa­vorite an­a­lyt­ics-driven draftee.

The Di­vi­sion III player is Welk, the Ori­oles’ 21st-round draft pick out of Penn State-Berks, who proved he could hit to the tune of a .483/.555/.938 stats line as a se­nior and has only re­fined it with Eller’s ad­vice. Welk, 22, is bat­ting .344/.397/.500 with four home runs and 12 dou­bles for the IronBirds.

Eller was the head coach at Har­ford Com­mu­nity College and used mod­ern hit­ting philoso­phies to build great of­fenses at the ju­nior college level be­fore the Ori­oles hired him in Jan­uary to be the hit­ting coach at Aberdeen.

To­gether, he and Welk are an ex­am­ple of the Ori­oles’ com­mit­ment to find­ing the right play­ers and de­vel­op­ing them in a way they know will work.

“You can’t go to bat­tle with sci­ence,” Eller said. “It’s all right there.”

Eller was in­ter­view­ing to be the mi­nor­league in­field co­or­di­na­tor with the Los An­ge­les An­gels when a friend called him and told him the Ori­oles were look­ing for a mi­nor-league hit­ting coach. The friend passed Eller’s name along to the Ori­oles.

Eller came down to Bal­ti­more for a lengthy in­ter­view with ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent/GM Mike Elias and Me­j­dal in Jan­uary, and his use of tech­nol­ogy and his hit­ting philoso­phies were of great in­ter­est.

“I was there for four hours and ba­si­cally just told them what I taught and how I taught it and my be­liefs on things,” Eller said.

“They called me on the way home and of­fered me the job. I think that be­cause they were kind of in a pinch, hon­estly, and it was Jan­uary they needed a guy. I just hap­pened to fall on their doorstep.”

Said Me­j­dal: “In many ways, he’s a mod­ern hit­ting coach, that his de­sire for tech­nol­ogy ri­vals that of an an­a­lyst. Yet he has a lot of ex­pe­ri­ence on the field with real play­ers, with real prob­lems.”

Eller be­gan the sea­son at Low-A Del­marva but was hired to coach at Aberdeen, where the first batch of play­ers iden­ti­fied and drafted by Elias and Me­j­dal were in his charge. No one on the open­ing-day ros­ter had Welk’s track record.

“When he got drafted, I talked to Sig about him,” Eller said. “He said, ‘Let me know what you think of him.’ I pic­tured this big, strong, mus­cle-bound [guy], just not re­ally smooth in his swing.

“Then when I got here, I saw him. This kid is ath­letic, he’s lean, he can move well, and it was ac­tu­ally a pleas­ant sur­prise. I’m sur­prised he wasn’t a D-I player, hon­estly. His hand-eye co­or­di­na­tion is in­cred­i­ble and easy to work with.”

Just get­ting drafted and play­ing pro ball was a dream for Welk, who grew up in Downingtow­n, Pa., and did noth­ing but hit in four years at Penn State-Berks. The sta­tis­tics put him on the radar of Ori­oles an­a­lyst Michael Weis, who was build­ing the draft sys­tem this past win­ter.

Welk’s num­bers were backed up by in-per­son re­ports.

“When some­body’s dom­i­nat­ing at D-III, it’s hard to know how real that is,” Elias said.

Welk hit what he called the best home run of his life in front of Ori­oles as­so­ciate scout Gary Sh­esko, who passed his rec­om­men­da­tion on to area scout Nathan Showal­ter — son of former Ori­oles man­ager Buck Showal­ter. Both ended up lik­ing what they saw, and the Ori­oles brought Welk in for a work­out at Cam­den Yards.

“He just kept pass­ing these

Me­j­dal said

For Welk, get­ting drafted also pro­vided a quick re­al­ity check. He re­ported to Aberdeen con­fi­dent it was still the same game, one he’d suc­ceeded at all his life. But the first work­out showed him he was in for a big jump in com­pe­ti­tion.

Early on, his work on the hit­ting ma­chine with mi­nor-league hit­ting co­or­di­na­tor Jeff Manto and his first live at-bats made Welk re­al­ize he was go­ing to have to ad­just to a much higher ve­loc­ity than he’d seen on a reg­u­lar ba­sis.

“That was the big­gest part, I think, but I was al­ways pretty good at hit­ting off-speed, and I can al­ways see spin,” Welk said. “That trans­lated pretty well. I was able to stay back on those pitches, see them pretty early, and I got used to the velo, start­ing early. You’ve re­ally got to stay even more re­laxed.”

All that nat­u­ral abil­ity has only been en­hanced by the Ori­oles’ new tech­nol­ogy, or at least the teach­ing points gleaned from it.

While the boom in data-gen­er­at­ing equip­ment and philoso­phies has been used fil­ters,” on the pitch­ing side for years, teams are only just start­ing to har­ness that on the hit­ting side. Ev­ery swing taken by ev­ery Ori­oles mi­nor-lea­guer, in prac­tice and in games, is taken with a Blast Mo­tion sen­sor on the bat knob that tracks their swing path and mo­tion.

Play­ers wear K-Vests from K-Mo­tion, which fea­ture mo­tion sen­sors that track body move­ment in the pelvis, torso, arm and hand, pro­vid­ing real-time data in the cages.

“It al­lows us to be more ef­fi­cient in prac­tice — it cuts to the chase,” Eller said. “It’s not like, ‘Oh I think I see this, I think I see that, I think you’re do­ing this.’

“We have high-speed video, we have mo­tion-sen­sors, we have 4D mo­tion sen­sors that are on the body. We know what’s go­ing on, and we know what’s ef­fec­tive and what’s not ef­fec­tive. I think it’s just go­ing to al­low the play­ers to de­velop faster, hon­estly. It’s go­ing to be great for the hit­ters.”

It was easy to iden­tify where this would help Welk early, Eller said. Welk, a righthande­d hit­ter, was spin­ning off to­ward the third-base side and get­ting through the zone too quickly. Per­haps it was a way to com­pen­sate for the new ve­loc­ity. Per­haps it went un­pun­ished against the pitch­ing he was fac­ing at Di­vi­sion III.

The K-Vest data showed that in­ef­fi­ciency right away, and “when play­ers can see that, they trust sci­ence,” Eller said.

Welk said the philoso­phies in gen­eral are in line with what he’d been taught his whole life, but Eller goes “way more in-depth, us­ing dif­fer­ent kinds of tech­nol­ogy to tell your se­quences and if you’re us­ing your body cor­rectly, us­ing the cor­rect se­quence with your hips, hands and torso.”

“He’s just got dif­fer­ent kind of [ideas], the whole launch-an­gle move­ment and stuff like that,” Welk said. “It’s sort of along those lines, but it’s more just keep­ing a good bat plane. That’s what he mainly fo­cuses on. A lot of coaches will talk hands to the ball, use your legs cer­tain ways, but no.

“It’s more like us­ing your hips and your hands and keep­ing your shoul­der plane good through the zone and on plane with how the pitcher is throw­ing the ball. That’s re­ally a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive — keep­ing the bat as level as you can.

“Even if you’re ahead, you’ll still catch it. If you’re be­hind, you’ll still catch it. If you’re on time, you mash it.”

More of­ten than not, Welk has mashed with Aberdeen.

He en­tered the All-Star break among the league lead­ers in bat­ting av­er­age, OPS and ex­tra-base hits.

“This is the first leg, and these first sum­mers you don’t want to get too up or too down if some­body’s do­ing great or do­ing poorly,” Elias said. “But for a guy com­ing out of a tiny school like he is and jump­ing right in with these and be­ing one of the best hit­ters in the league, it’s cer­tainly en­cour­ag­ing.”

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