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Rethinking America's Pastime: The Paul DePodesta Story

How a Harvard graduate turned a passion for baseball into a statistical revolution

Courtesy of Jon SooHoo/Los Angeles Dodgers

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

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DEEP-O IMPACT

DEEP-O IMPACT

The Paul DePodesta Story

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.”

That education has led DePodesta to remember Harvard with a great fondness.

I loved it,” he says. “It’s a great place and it was an incredibly rewarding experience for me.... It’s not really until you’re out in the rest of the world that you realize just how special all those people are, how talented and bright they all are, and how lucky you are to be surrounded by people like that on a daily basis, because it’s not like that all the time. In a very general sense, that’s what stuck out for me.”

As he neared graduation, like most of his peers, DePodesta went through the recruiting process, hoping to find a job in baseball, the sport he had been forced to give up three years prior. But at that point, the MLB was on strike, leading DePodesta to turn his focus to the NFL.

He sent his resume to a bunch of teams, but failed to get a positive response. So he decided to take the one job in football he could get—an unpaid internship with the now-defunct Baltimore Stallions of the Canadian Football League.

I viewed it as my equivalent of going backpacking for a summer, or something like that,” DePodesta says. “I sort of assured my parents that shortly thereafter I would get a real job.”

After a few months working for the Stallions, DePodesta made good on that promise, as the “real” job offer finally came.

MEMBER OF THE TRIBE

When the strike ended, DePodesta resumed applying to jobs in baseball. In early 1996, he came across an internship in the player development office of the Cleveland Indians, and he jumped at the chance to break into the industry. But after following his passion to Ohio, DePodesta quickly learned that he would have to work his way up from the very bottom.

“When I started out in Cleveland, I was the minor league van driver in Spring Training,” DePodesta says. “It wasn’t the most glamorous thing in the world. I was literally shuttling players back and forth from the airport [and] taking the Latin players to their English classes.”

But DePodesta’s knowledge of the game quickly began to impress his superiors, such as Mark Shapiro, a Princeton grad who is currently the team’s president.

“It was very clear right from the start that Paul was both extremely intelligent and very passionate about baseball, and had an ability in just a short period of time to make an impact on our organization,” Shapiro says.

Indeed, DePodesta made that impact more quickly than even Shapiro would have expected. Following the ’96 season, though just 24 years old, DePodesta was named Cleveland’s advance scout. At such a young age, he felt unprepared for the job, which involved writing detailed reports on the Indians’ opponents before each of the team’s games.

“Your typical advanced scout at the time was somebody who had literally 30 years experience in Major League Baseball,” DePodesta says. “They’d probably been a player, a coach, a manger, etcetera. So to be honest, I really had absolutely nothing to contribute to the conversation at that point.”

So DePodesta decided to find something to contribute.

He began looking for a unique way of evaluating talent, a manner of studying players that was based on his own particular strengths. For even though DePodesta did not have the baseball experience of his peers, he had always had a brilliant mind, and like in college, he began thinking about ways he could use that to his advantage.

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.”

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.’”

Though DePodesta says he felt uneasy about the writer potentially revealing the A’s unique strategy to the team’s competition, that was what Lewis did. By 2003 the rest of the baseball world had learned about the A’s innovative approach to talent evaluation—and DePodesta’s game-changing method of analysis.

“[Paul] was a major part of what Oakland was doing,” says current Mets GM Sandy Alderson, who served as Beane’s predecessor with the A’s and helped mentor Beane on baseball analytics. “He was part of a group that broadened the scope of sabermetrics and the development of more sophisticated approaches [to talent evaluation].”

One person who took notice of DePodesta’s influence was Los Angeles Dodgers owner Frank McCourt. As Beane’s right-hand man, DePodesta had helped orchestrate A’s squads that made the playoffs again in 2002 and 2003, and McCourt wanted DePodesta to help his team achieve that same type of success.

So the owner decided to offer DePodesta the Dodgers’ general manager job, and DePodesta accepted.

Forst was promoted to fill his role as assistant GM—a position he still holds today—while DePodesta had again beaten his former mentor to the top of the ladder.

I wasn’t surprised,” says Byrnes, who was named GM of the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2005 and now serves in that role for the San Diego Padres. “Paul’s success in Oakland was so dramatic. At that time there were probably fewer small-market teams in the race, much less going to the playoffs. They did it over several years—it was very significant.”

Indeed, after having started out driving vans, Paul DePodesta had at long last made it to the top of the baseball hierarchy.

DODGING BULLETS

DePodesta was introduced as the new general manager of the Dodgers on February 16, 2004. Just 31, he was the third-youngest GM in MLB history at the time of his hiring.

“It was a tremendous opportunity,” DePodesta says. “They’re a storied franchise, one that was on the West Coast, which was great for my family.”

In Los Angeles, DePodesta was immediately at the helm of a team in one of the biggest markets in the league, and compared to his time with the A’s, it felt like he had nearly unlimited resources at his disposal.

I think one of the challenges in Oakland was the constant turnover of players, and that was going to continue indefinitely,” DePodesta says. “To go somewhere you had the chance to build something, and then actually sustain it, was very appealing.”

DePodesta immediately put his newfound resources to good use. Following a 2004 season in which Los Angeles won the National League West—the first time the Dodgers had made the playoffs in eight years—the GM went out and signed J.D. Drew, Jeff Kent, and Derek Lowe to contracts worth a combined 12 years and $112 million. It was a far cry from his days with the A’s, when he had been forced to watch stars like Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon depart for huge contracts with other organizations.

“He did a lot of good there,” Byrnes says. “Improved them in a lot of areas.”

But as DePodesta had learned working under Beane, large contracts do not guarantee success. The Dodgers stumbled to a 71-91 record in 2005, and the L.A. media began to blame the general manager for the team’s failures.

Specifically, there was the Los Angeles Times’ Bill Plaschke and T.J. Simers, who derided DePodesta time and time again in their columns. The pair had been vehemently opposed to DePodesta’s hiring from the start, lambasting him as a “computer nerd,” someone who “relies on equations” and “speaks in megabytes.” Simers added the nickname “Google Boy” in a column entitled “Dodgers Come Up Short on New General Manager.” The pair continued to deride DePodesta over the following year—saying he was someone who could only “study the sport at a keyboard and play it in a basement”—while continuously ripping the “Moneyball” approach itself, claiming that “when with Oakland, [DePodesta] had been the most invisible No. 2 executive in the game.”

“At the time, I didn’t feel he was suited for his job,” Plaschke explains today. “He was very, very shy and wasn’t into being the public speaker that the Dodger GM had to be. He had to be out there—this was a job Branch Rickey once did.... [But] he wasn’t a great communicator.”

To Plaschke, it was thus DePodesta’s personality, not his qualifications, that were the problem.

“Everyone thought I was against him because he was a saber guy, but that wasn’t true—I think numbers are great,” Plaschke explains. “But there’s also a human element involved.... He’s a great number two guy, great guy behind the scenes, but with his role with the Dodgers, he was out front every day. He was clearly not comfortable with that role, and the team sort of took their lead from that, and I think it affected the whole organization.”

Whether or not they were justified, the comments were said to play a role in McCourt’s decision to fire DePodesta on October 29, 2005. The columnists’ crusade to get the GM dismissed had worked, and just like that the Harvard alum’s reign was over after just two seasons at the helm.

In an ironic twist, DePodesta had lost his job in part because he had come to be seen as the geeky caricature that he had so desperately tried to portray in college.

“It was unfortunate,” Forst says. “It seemed really unfair the way he got treated by the media and how his tenure down there ended.”

But DePodesta says he does not resent Plaschke and Simers for their comments.

I think when you get into these jobs, you know that’s the drill,” he explains. “No matter what you do, it’s never going to meet 100 percent approval.... So I never took any of that personally or too seriously; I always just tried to act in the best interests of the organization. It’s pretty easy to sleep at night when you do that.”

Indeed, DePodesta says he doesn’t feel any remorse about his time with the Dodgers.

I learned a lot,” he says. “Are there things I would have done differently today than I did then because of what I know now? Absolutely. But I wouldn’t say I necessarily regretted doing the things I did.... The only thing is I wish we had the opportunity to finish the job there.”

BACK IN BUSINESS

After getting fired, DePodesta was not out of work for long. On June 30, 2006, he was hired as the Special Assistant for Baseball Operations for the San Diego Padres, and he was promoted to Executive Vice President on November 10, 2008. Two years later, DePodesta moved to New York to work for the Mets under Alderson, a Dartmouth College and Harvard Law School graduate.

“Right now, my role is really to oversee player development, amateur scouting, and also our international department,” he says. “But I think more generally the job is really to filter a foundation for the organization, not just from a personnel standpoint, but also from a philosophical standpoint.”

Due to that work, the Mets GM sees his fellow Harvard alum as an essential part of his front office.

“His role goes far beyond statistical analysis and really goes to the heart of our scouting and player development, which he oversees,” Alderson says. “That operation is as much about scouting and leadership as it is about analysis, so he brings a very broad range of talents to the job.”

Now with his fifth team, DePodesta says one of the perks of his career is that the constant travel it entails allow him to keep in touch with many of the Harvard classmates he left behind almost two decades ago. But among people who have not seen him in so long, the popular interest that accompanied “Moneyball” has led many to stereotype DePodesta as the “Google Boy” he is portrayed as, rather than the innovator those who know him best believe he has been.

I think the biggest change [since the book was published] has just been people’s preconception or preconceived notion of who I am and what I’m about as a person,” he says. “Being able to make a first impression on them, that’s largely no longer possible for me, and I think that’s probably been the biggest challenge.”

DePodesta faced a decision on whether he wanted those presumptions to be aggrandized on the big screen when “Moneyball” the movie was released in September. His character was played by Jonah Hill, but the Harvard alum chose to have his likeness not depicted in the movie—leaving Hill to play a Yale graduate named Peter Brand.

Like Plaschke, Hill told The Crimson in September that he saw reticence, rather than intelligence, as the dominant part of his multifaceted character’s personality.

“You would never pick him out in a room of people,” Hill says. “He would just blend in with the wallpaper. I’ve played a lot of larger-than-life characters, and I think to play someone so small emotionally, and so quiet and reserved, was really exciting to me.”

Indeed, the man who had so greatly enjoyed studying others’ personalities in college psychology classes was being subject to the same treatment himself—only this time, the whole country would be the judges. And believing there to be misrepresentations in the script that once again made him appear a nerdy caricature, DePodesta wanted no part of the film.

I knew that with any movie, it’s not a documentary, so it’s not going to be 100 percent truthful,” DePodesta says. “I’m a bit of a stickler when it comes to the truth, and if this was the way for the historic record either that I was going to remembered [or] my work was going to be remembered...I just wasn’t going to be comfortable with it if it wasn’t going to be completely truthful.”

GAMECHANGER

Despite DePodesta’s quiet disposition, there is no doubt his voice has been among the loudest in his field, and his work has had a major influence on his peers.

“He was very much a mentor to me, and I learned a lot from him about the decision-making process and how to think analytically and really just how to conduct yourself in a major league front office,” says Forst, who many now see as Beane’s heir apparent. “I’m grateful for the opportunities he gave me and everything I learned from working underneath him.”

According to Alderson, the analytics DePodesta has been so passionate about throughout his career plays a major role in every baseball front office today.

“The interest in sabermetrics has changed dramatically,” Alderson says. “Sabermetrics now has a tremendous influence on virtually all baseball decisions—not an exclusive influence, but a significant one. Part of that is a result of broader awareness of the relationship between that kind of analysis and performance evaluation; part of it was the exponential growth in the availability of data which drives much of the analysis today and makes it far more sophisticated than 30 years ago.”

“Paul was one of the many bright people who were at the forefront of pushing statistics,” Shapiro adds. “The amount of time and quality of the inputs that go into decision-making have dramatically changed.”

DePodesta, too, has seen a major transformation during his 15-year career in the Big Leagues.

“There’s no doubt that since [Moneyball] came out there’s been a big shift in the industry, and now I think virtually everybody employs somebody, if not a team of people who are devoted to analytics,” he says. “There’s just been an absolute tidal-wave of available information over the course of that time, and I think within the industry it’s become a phenomena, in terms of data becoming more available and therefore more relevant in the decision-making.”

Even Plaschke is starting to come around, realizing he may have been too hard on the former Dodgers GM who now appears to have been ahead of his time as analytics becomes increasingly mainstream.

I didn’t give him much of a chance,” Plaschke says. “Now looking back on it, I think if we had understood his philosophy better, I think we would’ve given him a break on his lack of personal skills...at the time it was all very new.”

Plaschke even thinks DePodesta deserves another shot at a GM job, though he says he’d be better off in a smaller market.

I told him that ‘you’ve got to go back into it in a place where you’re comfortable, because your baseball evaluation skills are sound,’” Plaschke says. “I think he would be great to help lead a small-market team back to respectability, absolutely.”

“He’s one of the smarter guys out there, so if he wants to [be a GM] again, I think he deserves another shot at it,” Forst adds.

But right now, DePodesta is content right where he is.

“As long as I have a lot of autonomy in what I’m doing and feel like I’m making an impact, I’m not too concerned about what the title on my business card says,” he explains.

Indeed, Paul DePodesta is happy to work under the radar. But in many ways, it’s already too late.  For though at Harvard a shoulder injury ended his playing career, one thing that went undamaged was his mind—and using that, DePodesta rose to the forefront of one of baseball’s most storied franchises and helped spark a revolution that changed the game he loves forever.

Staff writer Scott A. Sherman can be reached at ssherman13@college.harvard.edu.

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