Rethinking America's Pastime: The Paul DePodesta Story
How a Harvard graduate turned a passion for baseball into a statistical revolution
He has been ridiculed by some who see him as a geeky introvert, lauded by others who deem him an ingenious visionary. In less than a year, his interest in baseball statistics led him to become a renowned symbol of an industry-changing revolution in a best-selling book and to be pejoratively nicknamed “Google Boy” in the sports pages of the Los Angeles Times.
Indeed, there are not many Harvard alumni whose work has been as polarizing as Paul DePodesta ’95’s. Now nearly 40 years old and with his fifth major league franchise, it has been a roller coaster of a career for the taciturn yet gifted executive who spent much of his professional life at the forefront of a movement that has now become mainstream.
DePodesta presently serves as Vice President of Player Development and Amateur Scouting for the New York Mets, for whom he does the same thing he has done every day for each of the past 15 years—watch hitters hit, watch pitchers pitch, and then determine their futures in the game he loves.
For despite all the presumptions and preconceptions that have come to define him, and despite all the ebbs and flows that have taken him to jobs spanning the country, nothing has been able to take DePodesta’s passion for baseball away.
THE HARVARD YEARS
DePodesta arrived in Cambridge in the fall of 1990 fresh out of Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia. He had been recruited to Harvard as a baseball player, someone who “played a little shortstop, played a little centerfield, and pitched a little bit...none of them particularly well.”
DePodesta had spent his youth playing a different sport every season, never choosing one year-round. So it was no surprise that after focusing on baseball early in his Harvard career, he developed an itch to return to football, a game he had played since fifth grade.
In 1992, the Cabot House resident thus tried out as a wide receiver and made the squad, and he spent his sophomore year trying to get by with the rigid schedule of a dual-sport athlete.
“It was fun,” DePodesta recalls. “There was actually a group of us at the time who played on both teams.”
But after an injured shoulder suffered at the end of the following spring left him effectively unable to throw, DePodesta soon realized his baseball career was over. He decided to solely focus on football—where he only needed to catch—and played his senior year in 1994 under current Crimson coach Tim Murphy, who had just arrived from the University of Cincinnati.
“Depo was not the most talented kid on the team, but he was a smart, tough, high-character guy,” Murphy recalls.
Often, it was DePodesta’s brain that stood out most quickly to his teammates.
“He was a great guy, very friendly and very helpful in teaching the young guys,” Colby Skelton ’98, a fellow receiver on the squad, wrote in an email. “Not to mention extremely bright.”
DePodesta did his best to ensure people were aware of that intelligence, often wearing a button-down shirt, khaki pants, and glasses (rather than his preferred contact lenses) around campus so people did not view him as “a dumb jock.” In the classroom, he made use of his smarts as an economics concentrator who also took a lot of psychology courses because he was particularly interested learning about the people around him and studying why others made certain decisions.
“On the one hand, I’ve always had some sort of facility with numbers,” he says. “But on the other hand, I was always interested in what some people would refer to as the softer side of it too, and really trying to understand on a real world basis why people do what they do.”