When John Means found out the plan, he couldn’t stop laughing. Jordan Lyles had wracked his brain for about a week, heard input from the analytics team, and he finally had an idea.
To decide the Orioles’ fantasy football draft order, bullpen catcher Joel Polanco would stand in for batting practice at Camden Yards and hit balls inscribed with the name of each competing team. How far he hit those balls would determine the draft order, with the distance giving the accompanying team the power to choose its draft slot. The farther the ball, the more desirable the pick.
“He was putting on a show, honestly,” Means said of Polanco. “I did not expect him to do as well as he did, so kudos to him.”
Baltimore’s draft order took shape on the field before Wednesday night’s game against the Chicago White Sox, as the bullpen catcher took swings decked out in full uniform, complete with a shin guard and eye black.
After the session, manager of pitching strategy Ryan Klimek took the range finder from home plate to measure the distance of each hit. Left-hander Keegan Akin’s team won by two feet, beating a fantasy team full of trainers with a distance of 130 yards. He plans to pick first overall — but which NFL player he takes with that choice will remain a secret.
The Orioles will play a 12-team, full point-per-reception format on Sleeper, a fantasy site. There are bonuses available for 200-yard rushers or 400-yard passers each week. Even more, there are bragging rights to be had and an opportunity to stay in close contact with teammates and coaches over the offseason.
“I don’t know a baseball clubhouse without fantasy football,” Lyles said. “It’s gone back that long. A lot of guys look forward to it. It’s a great way to kind of break up the second half of the season, to have different conversations and dialogue. Just another breath of fresh air, get out of that usual routine and normal schedule of six months.”
Most teams in the league include multiple players. Means, out for the season with Tommy John surgery, teamed with first baseman Ryan Mountcastle. Left-hander Nick Vespi joined forces with the bullpen catchers, Polanco and Ben Carhart. Outfielder Ryan McKenna picked up Sam Berk, a baseball operations fellow. Starting pitchers Kyle Bradish and Spenser Watkins are together, a pair of Arizona natives who “will be able to share Sundays together watching the game,” Bradish said, cheering on the Cardinals.
And Lyles, whose ball dribbled off Polanco’s bat and barely left the infield?
“I’m a very strong fantasy football competitor,” Lyles said. “I don’t need help. I don’t need any outside voices.”
As players and coaches stood around the batting cage at home plate Wednesday afternoon, there were groans whenever Polanco rolled over on a ball and shouts when he connected well. After the round finished, the players spread out in the outfield to determine the distances.
The drive into the deepest part of left-center field gave Akin’s squad the first choice, but manager Brandon Hyde’s team wound up last. Still, despite taking an undesirable spot — which, in a 12-team draft, tends to be around Nos. 6 and 8 — Hyde got to see yet another example of Baltimore’s budding clubhouse energy.
There are T-shirts, on-field celebrations and now a championship belt for the player of the game.
“I love all that kind of stuff,” Hyde said. “Anything you can do right now to keep it loose, keep it light, celebrate wins, congratulate each other, I’m all for it.”
Last year, when the Orioles determined their fantasy draft order, they resorted to picking names out of a hat. They stepped up this year, as they have in so many facets, entering Wednesday just 2 1/2 games back of the final American League wild-card spot. Lyles said he considered a golf chipping contest, but they didn’t regret deciding on Polanco taking batting practice.
And as the season comes to a close, having a new talking point in the clubhouse is welcome.
“It’s the perfect storm,” Vespi said. “You have competition, and you can chat with the boys.”