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It’s Geek to Him

Times Staff Writer

The daughter already had skipped west, seduced by dreams of Hollywood. Now the son approached the father, thanking him for that Harvard education but explaining that he would pursue a career in professional sports.

He resisted the lure of proper jobs for the Ivy League graduate, the ones with six-figure salaries -- investment banker, management consultant and the like.

John DePodesta -- a Harvard grad himself, lawyer, and co-founder of an international telecommunications company -- listened as his son Paul declared he would work for no salary, throwing T-shirts into the stands as an intern for a Canadian Football League team.

“I told him to go for it,” John DePodesta said. “Having spent much of my life dealing with lawyers, investment bankers and consultants, and hearing how frustrated they were in midcareer by not following their passions, I could not foreclose an opportunity for my son to pursue that.”

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The ride to the top has been swift, and sweet. Nine years after his graduation, and five years after joining the Oakland Athletics as deputy to General Manager Billy Beane, Paul DePodesta now runs his own team. He’s 31, the new general manager of the Dodgers, with a roster that includes 11 players older than he is.

The Dodgers haven’t won a playoff game since 1988 and haven’t appeared in one since 1996. The A’s have qualified for the playoffs in each of the last four years, having won more regular-season games in that span than any other team except the Seattle Mariners.

“Of all the players I’ve had here -- and I’ve had some great ones -- losing Paul is tougher than losing all of them,” Beane said.

The A’s lost Jason Giambi, the American League’s most valuable player in 2000, to free agency. They lost Miguel Tejada, the AL MVP in 2002, to free agency.

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“They’re great players,” Beane said. “But having a guy like Paul around me allows us to find the next guy -- the next Giambi, the next Tejada.”

The unlikely run of success in Oakland -- losing great players to wealthier bidders, then replenishing the roster with cheap labor and beating teams at half the cost -- inspired last year’s best-selling book “Moneyball,” about the quest of Beane and DePodesta to reinvent management theory in a sport that reveres tradition. Author Michael Lewis, overwhelmed with speaking requests, asked the agency that represents him to direct some of those requests to DePodesta.

And so DePodesta appears on the celebrity-studded roster of the Greater Talent Network in New York, which bills itself as “the definitive source for the most sought-after and trusted storytellers in the world.” He declined to reveal his appearance fee, although the agency website says “fees for keynote speeches begin around $5,000.”

On the agency’s alphabetical roster, DePodesta appears just ahead of Jamie-Lynn DiScala of “The Sopranos.” Fame has eluded his sister, Jennifer, but he said she shot some commercials, made some cameo appearances and dabbled in modeling before moving from Los Angeles to London. She now lives in Italy, working in her own art studio.

“Everybody thinks I’ve got the dream job,” DePodesta said, “but she has the dream life.”

*

In the middle of spring training, DePodesta could not resist picking up the phone and needling Beane. DePodesta had noticed a newspaper article categorizing Beane, a former major league outfielder and first-round draft pick, as a “geek.”

“Now it’s out of control,” DePodesta told Beane. “Now it’s fair game to call anybody a geek.”

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In this context, the word “geek” is code for a new generation of baseball executive, one who probably never played the game for a living and in any case trusts in computers as a valuable tool in player evaluation and roster composition. DePodesta, who says his most memorable athletic moment, as a Harvard wide receiver, was throwing a block so his quarterback could run for a first down, is a poster boy for geek, at least in the eyes of baseball lifers.

As “Moneyball” generated interest beyond the diamond, the investment bank Credit Suisse First Boston called, inviting DePodesta to speak about decision making before an audience of bankers and business leaders.

His presentation, delivered last September and subsequently circulated beyond the investment community, stirred debate among fans and anxiety among scouts, evoking admiration among some major league executives and outrage in others.

In the address, DePodesta outlined his journey from intern with the Cleveland Indians to trusted lieutenant to Beane. At the start, he wrote, his mind was not prejudiced by conventional wisdom:

In retrospect, I had a distinct advantage over everybody else in the industry at the time in that I knew absolutely nothing.

As an intern, he did as he was told, but not without asking why the Indians did what they did. He was completely unsatisfied, he wrote, with any answer along the lines of, “We’ve always done it this way.” If baseball were invented today, he wondered, would traditional philosophies be validated as effective or ridiculed?

Why is the workday 9-5? Why do we have the electoral college? In baseball, why do people still believe that trying to bunt and steal bases helps in scoring runs?

DePodesta ran years of data through his computer, trying to discover what statistics and strategies correlated with scoring runs or preventing them.

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Batting average is a relatively useless statistic, he argues, because it does not distinguish a single from an extra-base hit and does not account for a walk. A sacrifice or stolen base might be in order every now and then, he contends, but the odds are better that a team can score without giving up an out by bunting or risking one by running.

He quickly points out that his research was not unique, that a new wave of statistical analysts had reached similar conclusions. So had Beane -- and, without the hype, his predecessor Sandy Alderson. So too had some old-school baseball men, on intuition alone.

Branch Rickey, the Dodgers’ legendary general manager, wrote about the importance of reaching base half a century before the term “on-base percentage” crept into the vernacular. Earl Weaver, the Baltimore Orioles’ Hall of Fame manager, sat back and waited for a three-run homer three decades before anyone had calculated the value of playing for one run against the chance of scoring three.

“Earl Weaver totally got it,” DePodesta said. “He didn’t have the mathematical proof, I don’t think, to back up a lot of what he was saying, but his intuition was phenomenal. Without doing the math, he understood how the game worked.”

The Indians put DePodesta on their payroll and promoted him in the baseball operations department. However, in the midst of five consecutive division championships and 455 consecutive sellouts, they saw no need to entertain radical change, a source of frustration to DePodesta.

“Toward the end, certainly,” said Dan O’Dowd, then the Indians’ assistant general manager and now the Colorado Rockies’ general manager. “We had a great many conversations about that.”

In 1998, the A’s called and DePodesta jumped, joining an organization coming off consecutive last-place finishes and embracing change as an alternative to spending freely or giving up.

“Paul had those same beliefs,” Beane said. “He just didn’t have a forum to use them.”

*

The kid who passed up a career on Wall Street would not be out of place there.

“There are a lot of parallels between being a mutual fund manager and being a general manager,” DePodesta said. “Both in the financial markets and in baseball, we’re dealing with a world where uncertainty reigns. We’re trying to predict the future performance of human beings. It’s a fundamental difficulty for which we both have to account.”

So, in his speech to the Credit Suisse audience, he told a story about one of the first meetings he attended as a Cleveland intern:

I ... listened to one of our staff members say, ‘Jeff Kent has the weakest hack I have ever seen.’ So we traded Jeff Kent and watched him become the most explosive second baseman in the entire game -- and it was with the Giants, not the Indians”

Every team makes personnel mistakes, even the A’s under Beane and DePodesta. As Kent prospered in San Francisco, DePodesta studied the process that led to the Indians’ poor evaluation.

“For me, it was almost an epiphany,” he said, “but it was an epiphany two or three years later.”

He concluded that baseball executives relied far too much on subjective analysis and not nearly enough on performance, all the more critical in an era where teams make million-dollar bets on the success of players, from first-round draft picks to free agents.

Statistics from the minor leagues, colleges and high schools might not always translate into reliable major league projections, but he was alarmed by what he perceived as a tendency to trust a scout’s sense of how a player might develop at the expense of available -- and sometimes contrary -- evidence:

I sat in scout seats behind home plate and listened to scouts rave about the five tools of one of the players -- how he could hit, hit for power, run, throw, field -- and I’m watching him swing and miss at another slider in the dirt for strike three.

In an industry he described as “run by these old-time guys with leathery skin who chew tobacco,” DePodesta considered scouts among the most resistant to change -- and understandably so, because change might put their jobs at risk:

Previously there had been no accountability at all in player evaluation. As you can imagine, the scouting community prized that tradition. How were they to feel free otherwise about giving their opinions and keep getting raises at the end of the year, despite how often they were right or wrong?

... My industry is comprised of human capital -- the players are our assets. So subjectivity plays some role. But the enormity of the subjectivity was staggering. Our scouts even started making up vocabulary like ‘pitchability’ to describe players.... Opinions as conversation starters are fine. Opinions as conclusions are very bad.

In “Moneyball,” Lewis used the words “Paul’s computer” to describe how the A’s sometimes decided which players to scout. After the Toronto Blue Jays hired J.P. Ricciardi, another Beane protege, as their general manager in 2001, Ricciardi hired a full-time statistical analyst and fired half the full-time scouts.

Dodger scouting director Logan White and his staff have won raves for the draft classes of 2002 and 2003, which included such touted prospects as first baseman James Loney and pitcher Greg Miller. DePodesta insists he wants to support the Dodger staff, not dismantle it, despite his skepticism about the value of scouting analysis.

“I don’t think it was ever the scouts’ fault,” he said. “Scouts, by and large, are very industrious, very passionate and very loyal guys. It was the system’s fault. Ultimately, I’m not sure we were asking them to measure the right things.”

Nonetheless, the words of DePodesta and the actions of Ricciardi have struck a nerve in old-school front offices, including the one in Anaheim.

“Our guys can use a computer too, but there’s a lot more to it,” Angel scouting director Eddie Bane said last fall. “There are computer teams out there, trying to take a hit at scouts. Myself and some of the other guys are trying to prove them wrong. It’s really a threat to our industry.”

*

In the glory days of the franchise, Dodger Stadium souvenir stands sold a book called “The Dodger Way to Play Baseball.” The new way might be closer to “Moneyball,” but not such an imitation that the stands ought to stock “Moneyball” with Dodger book covers.

O’Dowd, Colorado’s general manager, cautioned that the stadium, players and organizational culture were unique to each team. DePodesta cannot right the Dodgers, he said, just by coating the Oakland model in Dodger blue.

“I warned him about that,” O’Dowd said. “A lot of things we accomplished in Cleveland, I tried to emulate here. It didn’t work. There’s not one model.... It’s very simplistic to say ‘Moneyball’ in its entirety is applicable in every ballpark.”

Said DePodesta: “I don’t think there’s one solution. What I ultimately want to do is build a solution unique to the Dodgers.”

Under Beane, the A’s shuffle closers almost annually, contending that top-dollar salaries for pitchers who might get three outs two or three times a week are a waste of resources.

“In general, I believe that,” DePodesta said. “I think there may be a half-dozen true closers in the game. There are 20-something guys who regularly pitch the ninth inning when their team has the lead. We have a closer.”

With a player payroll nearly twice that of the A’s, DePodesta said he could afford to retain Cy Young Award winner Eric Gagne, despite a salary of $5 million this year and one that could approach $10 million next year. The other Dodger millionaires ought not to rest easily, given this declaration in the Credit Suisse speech:

Ninety percent of the player population in major league baseball is replaceable by someone who makes less.

That does not mean, DePodesta said, that every veteran besides Gagne and Shawn Green might find himself replaced by a minimum-wage rookie.

“We’ll be able to keep certain guys around,” DePodesta said. “Believe me, if Oakland could have kept Jason Giambi or Miguel Tejada, they would have.”

Still, when he speaks of the additional resources at his disposal in Los Angeles, he doesn’t necessarily mean pumping money into the pockets of free agents.

“You can spend more on player payroll, which is great,” he said. “You can actually spend more off the field too, whether it be on scouts or systems or video or software. I’m actually as excited, if not more excited, about that kind of stuff than I am about having the player payroll.”

The baseball world is split on the wisdom of Beane and his disciples. There is no shortage of believers, including Boston Red Sox owner John Henry and General Manager Theo Epstein, who hired Bill James, a pioneer in the statistical analysis popularly known as “sabermetrics.” If success breeds imitation, is there room left for innovation?

“As the West Coast offense has spread out among the NFL, as all of Bill Walsh’s assistants and all of Mike Holmgren’s assistants have gone on to be head coaches, it’s all the West Coast offense, but it’s all a little different, tailored to the personnel or the coordinators or the resources each team has,” DePodesta said. “That’s what I see happening.”

Yet there is no shortage of skeptics, either. The A’s haven’t won a playoff series under Beane -- or any since 1990, in fact. For all the offensive wizardry, detractors view Oakland’s success as a house of cards, subject to collapse when Beane loses ace pitchers Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito.

“Sabermetrics now is the flavor of the month,” said Bob DuPuy, baseball’s president and chief operating officer. “Everybody’s got their own method for trying to build a winning franchise. That’s what makes it interesting.”

That the A’s lost in the fifth and final game of the division series in each of the last four years seems bad luck more than anything else, a one-game crapshoot in the 167th game of a season. When critics cite those playoff results as proof of a flawed system, DePodesta prays competitors listen, certain his method is the right one.

In “Moneyball,” he says: “I hope they continue to believe that our way doesn’t work. It buys us a few more years.”

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Graduating to the Big Leagues

Young executives climbing the ranks in baseball’s front offices:

PAUL DePODESTA, Dodgers

* Age: 31. * Title: General manager.

* Education: Harvard, graduated cum laude with a degree in economics.

*

DAVID FORST, Oakland Athletics

* Age: 27. * Title: Assistant general manager.

* Education: Harvard, degree in sociology.

*

MICHAEL HILL, Florida Marlins

* Age: 33. * Title: Assistant general manager.

* Education: Harvard, degree in government.

*

MARK SHAPIRO, Cleveland Indians

* Age: 37. * Title: Executive vice president, GM.

* Education: Princeton, degree in history.

*

NEAL HUNTINGTON, Cleveland Indians

* Age: 35. * Title: Assistant general manager.

* Education: Amherst (Mass.), degree in psychology.

*

CHRIS ANTONETTI, Cleveland Indians

* Age: 29. * Title: Assistant general manager.

* Education: Georgetown, degree in business administration; Massachusetts, master’s in sports management.

*

THEO EPSTEIN, Boston Red Sox

* Age: 30. * Title: Senior vice president, GM.

* Education: Yale, degree in American studies; University of San Diego, law degree.

*

JOSH BYRNES, Boston Red Sox

* Age: 32. * Title: Assistant general manager.

* Education: Haverford, degree in English.

*

PETER WOODFORK, Boston Red Sox

* Age: 26. * Title: Director of baseball operations, assistant director of player development.

* Education: Harvard, degree in psychology.


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