Indeed, Oakland and Cleveland were like two different planets in the baseball universe, as the Indians had just made the World Series in 1997 and thus enjoyed a high payroll and nightly sellouts.
“We had plenty of resources coming in [to Cleveland], so when it came time to make decisions on the field, we were talking about whether or not to trade for Randy Johnson or whether or not to sign Robbie Alomar—we were talking about elite players,” DePodesta says.
“On the other hand, when I got to Oakland, the first significant move we made that Billy was very excited about was signing Olmedo Saenz to a minor league contract.... So it was a different end of the spectrum, to say the least.”
The small budget meant that DePodesta’s numbers-based approach would be even more indispensable to the A’s, who had to find good players that other teams were overlooking in order to succeed.
“It forced us to be that much more creative because we had one of the bottom three or four payrolls in the game,” DePodesta says. “We didn’t have a lot of established players, the way the Indians did.”
But DePodesta says that the perceived tension between the newer, stats-based analytic approach he advocated and the more subjective one of the older scouts was not as strong as it was famously depicted in Michael Lewis’ book (and later film) “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.”
“I think it’s been overblown,” DePodesta says. “Often times what’s portrayed in the book or even in the movie may be what the sentiment was externally more so than really what it was internally. Surely there were spirited debates at different times internally, but they were always very respectful, with everybody largely on the same page.”
In fact, unlike his early days in Cleveland, the Harvard graduate felt quite comfortable in in the A’s front office.
“I came up with a lot of my working theories because of an inadequacy of my own, which was a lack of experience,” he says. “I still had that with me even when I was in Oakland, so to the guys that did have a lot of experience, I tried to be very respectful and tried to learn as much from them as I possibly could. Even some of the ’metrics we came up with were things that were born out of conversations we had with longtime scouts. So it really was an organization which I think was bound together much more than has been portrayed.”
Indeed, the veteran scouts were often eager to hear what DePodesta had to say. One of the things the young executive brought to the A’s front office was a new way of analyzing a pitcher’s performance that focused on how often he had finished at-bats within the first three pitches and how often he was both ahead and behind in the count. The new technique quickly helped the A’s develop starters such as the future “Big Three” of All-Stars Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito.
And to help him effectuate such an approach, DePodesta hired Dave Forst ’98—who had also played baseball at Harvard—as an assistant.
“It was a small front office, so it was essentially just me, [Paul], and Billy on the baseball operations side,” Forst says. “It was clear when I got here that Paul was incredibly smart and very forward-thinking in how he saw the game. I learned a ton from him right away.... And from the day I walked in the office, Paul was really good about including me and making sure I was part of everything.”
Thanks to their new method of finding talent, the A’s made the playoffs in 2000 and 2001 despite their miniscule payroll. That drew the interest of Lewis, the New York Magazine author who would write the book that would land DePodesta in the national spotlight and make him the symbol of a movement.
Initially planning to merely write a magazine article, Lewis sat in on the A’s 2002 draft room, when the team had seven picks in the top 40 selections.
“I have to admit, it was probably the most emotionally-charged draft room I had ever been a part of,” DePodesta says. “In many respects Michael might have just gotten very lucky with his timing. But at the end of that first day, I was in the back of the room with Michael getting some food and I said, ‘What’d you think?’ And he just shook his head and said, ‘This is way too rich. This isn’t an article. This is a book.’”