“I felt that to be able to do that job with any sort of effectiveness whatsoever, I had to figure out a way to evaluate some of these players and evaluate these situations [uniquely],” he says. “It was really more out of necessity, because I didn’t have the experience that all these other scouts had.”
DePodesta thus began to look at the game in a manner many of the older scouts had not. He developed an interest in sabermetrics, a method of analyzing players through statistics and objective evidence, rather than the subjective evaluation most scouts were doing at the time. The approach was largely founded by Bill James in the 1970s, though DePodesta admits he had not read a lot of James’ work at the time.
“Paul asked the question, ‘Why—is there a better way to do things?’” explains Josh Byrnes, then a 26-year old Haverford graduate who worked in the Indians organization with DePodesta. “He was always investigating every aspect of the game and the business to see if there was an advantage to be found.”
Byrnes, two years DePodesta’s senior, shared DePodesta’s interest in analytics and so served as a mentor to the Harvard alum, often leaving DePodesta his responsibilities as he moved up the organizational ladder.
“He would give me the instructional guide on how to do the job,” DePodesta says. “Each time he would challenge me to find a way to do it better.”
And like Shapiro, Byrnes was immediately impressed by DePodesta’s ability to do so.
“Paul was fantastic,” Byrnes says. “His passion for the game [and] his intelligence [were immediately clear]. Any project or responsibility we gave him, he generally made it better than it had been before.... From day one he made a really big impact on the Indians.”
In Cleveland, the young duo spent three seasons learning from each other while continuing to develop their fascination with sabermetrics.
“I think it was helpful that both of us were there at the same time,” DePodesta says. “We worked together basically every single day for three years, lived together in Spring Training and those kinds of things. We never stopped talking about the game and trying to educate ourselves on it.”
That education would begin to pay off very quickly for the young executive.
BRING YOUR "A" GAME
In November 1998, DePodesta—who just a month prior had earned a promotion to special assistant to the general manager, John Hart—was called into Hart’s office and told the Oakland A’s had called and asked permission to interview him for their assistant general manager position.
Billy Beane, the A’s GM, was faced with one of the smallest payrolls in baseball and so was always looking to find diamonds in the rough. He believed sabermetrics could help him pinpoint good players who lacked eye-popping raw talent and thus had been overlooked by traditional methods of scouting. Beane’s vision was to bring about an analytics revolution in Oakland, and he viewed DePodesta as the perfect person to help him do so.
The Harvard alum jumped at the opportunity, beating his mentor, Byrnes—who was named the Colorado Rockies’ number two in October 1999—to an assistant GM job by almost a full year.
“I was still just 25 years old; I couldn’t believe I was qualified for that type of position,” DePodesta says. “But Billy was very compelling. I felt like we had a chance to do something a little bit different in Oakland. The Cleveland teams were so successful; they had such a dynamic front office, and I had learned so much that I was anxious to go somewhere and really try it out myself.”