Running Dodgers by the Numbers
Paul DePodesta didn’t become general manager of the Dodgers to leave well enough alone. He didn’t rapidly ascend the turgid major league baseball hierarchy against heavy odds to sit back and enjoy the view of Chavez Ravine, spectacular though it may be.
The team he inherited 14 months ago won a division championship, but that did nothing to stem the subsequent avalanche of comings and goings, resulting in a trimmed payroll, retooled lineup and marginally improved pitching staff. Perhaps even more than second-year owner Frank McCourt, the foul-pole-thin DePodesta, 32, has become the face of the new Dodgers, a leaner, some would say meaner, organization.
Better? Time will tell.
The changes triggered criticism from longtime Dodger followers dismayed by their scope and swiftness. DePodesta was skewered on radio talk shows, in online chat rooms and letters to the editor.
His credibility was attacked inside the baseball establishment as well, by a prominent agent whose client was spurned by the Dodgers, and by a New York Yankee executive who said after a blockbuster three-team trade fell through in December that his team would “think long and hard” before dealing with the Dodgers again.
Yet the reclusive general manager given to wearing jeans and sandals around the office remains unruffled, tapping into his laptop, BlackBerry by his side, boldly transforming the Dodger roster and front office, bound for triumph or a train wreck.
In his mind, something in between would be worse. He vacillates between caring deeply about public opinion and shunning it altogether, but above all he wants to bid farewell to the Dodgers who raise hopes then fall short, as they have every year since their last World Series title in 1988.
“I love the passion fans have for this team,” he said. “I welcome that above apathy. I don’t mind creating high expectations about ourselves. I want everyone to feel that way. I want everybody to feel this should be a perennial contender.”
His goal is to establish continuity while maintaining flexibility by stocking the farm system with talent and avoiding doling out an abundance of long-term contracts. Only seven players on the current 25-man roster were Dodgers before DePodesta came on board, and only seven players have contracts beyond this season.
“We went through a phase of significant upheaval in our roster and that’s going to happen any time you have a change of management,” he said. “The idea was to reach stability. Believe me, I’m the last one who wants to go through this every year.”
The criticism stings, he admits. Ignoring public opinion, regardless of how strongly he believes in his decisions, is impossible.
“This job can be debilitating,” he said. “The one thing that’s probably difficult for a lot fans to understand is: I can’t be a fan of this team. I can’t afford to be. It’s not a hobby, it is my livelihood. My family depends on this team, and I depend on this team and the success of this team.
“So if anybody thinks I don’t take this as personally as they do, they are definitely mistaken.”
Some misgivings about him are rooted in stereotypes. His slight build makes it obvious he didn’t take the traditional path to the front office. There were no bus rides through minor league towns, and he never suited up in a big league clubhouse.
He arrived by way of Cambridge, Mass., earning an economics degree from Harvard after suitable grooming at a Virginia boarding school. Yet sports consumed him. He was a reserve receiver on the Harvard football team, and rather than put his degree to work on Wall Street or take a job in his father’s thriving telecommunications firm, he became an intern for a Canadian Football League team.
The next rung on the ladder was a low-level front-office position with the Cleveland Indians. Three years later he moved to the perpetually overachieving Oakland Athletics and became the star pupil of General Manager Billy Beane, whose innovative thinking and charismatic wheeling and dealing were the focus of the best-selling book “Moneyball.”
Along the way DePodesta learned to question traditional methods, to be suspicious of the tried and true.
Few industries are as bound by convention as baseball. DePodesta sat in meetings with the Indians dismayed at how personnel decisions were determined by subjective data, by how scouts and executives “felt” about a player.
An outsider drawn by a childhood love of the game, he sought to find a better way to build a ballclub. His conclusion: Interpreting baseball’s plethora of statistics in new ways is a more effective means of predicting performance than the scouting reports, subjective evaluations and gut instinct used since Alexander Cartwright first stepped off 90 feet between bases in 1845.
“Being innovative doesn’t mean searching to upgrade inefficient systems,” DePodesta said. “It means searching for entirely new ways of doing things.”
It is an approach that has made him a highly sought speaker at brokerage firms and a darling of the stat nerds who believe the Holy Grail of team building is paved with arcane formulas bearing acronyms such as AVM and PECOTA.
“My job is evaluated very differently than the investment world,” he said. “In the investment world it’s about yields: What did you get for your dollar? In the baseball world, that’s important, but what’s most important is your absolute return: How many games did you win?”
He believes that many traditional baseball statistics such as batting average, fielding percentage and earned-run average are misleading. A batter’s on-base percentage is of primary importance, he says, because “outs are the time clock of a baseball game.” Every batter who reaches base not only has a chance to score a run but also extends the game.
“If pitchers make a mistake one of every 10 pitches, the opposing team will make more mistakes in a game where they need 140 pitches to record 27 outs rather than 110 pitches,” he said.
He boils the numbers down to a bottom line that measures the number of runs a player is likely to produce with his bat and prevent with his glove. Then, of course, DePodesta must pick up the phone and try to acquire the players he believes have value, either through trades, the free-agent market or the amateur draft.
One year in, reviews are mixed. The Dodgers won the National League West title, but much of the team was in place when DePodesta arrived.
He made a rash of seemingly minor trades before the season began that turned out to be shrewd. He picked up starting outfielders Milton Bradley and Jayson Werth, utility player Jason Grabowski and versatile infielder Antonio Perez in separate deals without giving up established major leaguers.
However, the wisdom of a major deal the day of the midsummer trading deadline is still debated. The Dodgers sent popular catcher Paul Lo Duca and promising relief pitcher Guillermo Mota to the Florida Marlins for starting pitcher Brad Penny, first baseman Hee-Seop Choi and a minor leaguer.
Penny injured a nerve in his right biceps during his second Dodger start, pitched only 11 2/3 innings and is progressing slowly this spring. Choi batted a paltry .161 and watched the stretch run from the bench, yet this year is being counted upon to produce as an everyday player.
DePodesta salvaged the deal by grabbing center fielder Steve Finley from the Arizona Diamondbacks on that same July day. Finley provided the most memorable highlight of the season, hitting a grand slam to give the Dodgers the victory that clinched the division title.
However, DePodesta made no attempt to re-sign Finley, who agreed to a two-year deal with the Angels. Tommy Tanzer, Finley’s agent, slammed the Dodgers for not contacting his client, saying DePodesta operated “like a rookie” and that Angel General Manager Bill Stoneman, by contrast, was “an experienced professional.”
Undeterred, DePodesta got busy. He brought in four high-profile free agents -- veteran infielders Jeff Kent and Jose Valentin, talented but injury-prone outfielder J.D. Drew and starting pitcher Derek Lowe -- and re-signed pitchers Odalis Perez and Wilson Alvarez.
He also avoided potentially contentious arbitration hearings with All-Star closer Eric Gagne and Gold Glove shortstop Cesar Izturis by signing them to multiyear deals.
But in addition to ignoring Finley, DePodesta made no attempt to re-sign slick-fielding second baseman Alex Cora or popular pitcher Jose Lima, who shut out the St. Louis Cardinals in October to give the Dodgers their first postseason victory since 1988.
In the minds of many fans, though, his unpardonable sin was failing to re-sign slugging third baseman and longtime Dodger Adrian Beltre, who had become a free agent. Beltre signed a five-year, $64-million contract with Seattle Mariners; the Dodgers had offered six years and $60 million.
The consensus around baseball is that the Harvard guy was taught a lesson in off-season maneuvering by a University of the Pacific product, savvy super agent Scott Boras, who negotiated lucrative deals for a list of clients that included Beltre, Drew and Lowe.
DePodesta failed to return urgent phone calls from Boras on the day Beltre signed with the Mariners, and it remains unclear whether he believed Boras was bluffing or didn’t want Beltre.
“We put out an offer to Adrian before the deal heated up,” DePodesta said. “We didn’t know what the Mariner offer was. Unfortunately, we don’t operate with perfect information.”
Beltre expressed frustration the day after he signed, saying, “I never thought about leaving the Dodgers. They said to my face they would try to do what it took to keep me in L.A. Maybe if they would have handled it different I would have taken less money to stay.”
With Beltre gone, the Dodgers needed another bat and signed Drew to a five-year, $55-million deal that includes an unusual clause allowing Drew to walk away after two years. Lowe was the last proven pitcher on the free-agent market to sign. The Dodgers, desperate to fill out their starting rotation, gave him $36 million over four years. Both contracts were viewed within the industry as excessive.
Although McCourt said the payroll would be about the same as last season’s $93-million figure, it has shrunk to about $87 million taking into account the approximately $8 million the Dodgers figure to be reimbursed on injured pitcher Darren Dreifort’s contract through an insurance claim. The figure also includes $10 million the Dodgers paid the Arizona Diamondbacks to take outfielder Shawn Green in a trade.
Although the pitching staff is deep, the lineup has several question marks. This season could be reminiscent to longtime Dodger fans of the 1960s, when the team was built around pitching and struggled to scratch out runs.
“Ballplayers are human beings, and trying to predict their future performance in very stressful situations and trying to predict injury and things like that is an inexact science,” DePodesta said. “We try to make sound decisions so we are right more than we are wrong, but we never are going to be right all the time.”
He said he still had “dry powder” in the payroll to bolster the lineup through trade. Given his track record, he isn’t expected to sit by idly should the team struggle. Already this spring, he traded for catcher Jason Phillips because David Ross, the catcher the Dodgers were counting on, was not producing.
“Knowing Paul, he’ll continue to improve the team throughout the year,” said Toronto Blue Jay General Manager J.P. Ricciardi, another Beane disciple. “In this business it’s not always about what takes place, but how you react to what took place.”
Dodger changes off the field have been less visible but just as plentiful. Senior scouting advisor Don Welke, instrumental in constructing much of the current roster, wasn’t asked back. Neither were several other advisors to Dan Evans, the last general manager under the previous ownership, News Corp.
DePodesta’s brain trust includes one holdover -- assistant general manager Kim Ng -- and two executives with ties to Beane, former major league pitcher Roy Smith and systems specialist Dan Feinstein. Observers within and outside the Dodgers question how much input DePodesta seeks from anyone.
He strung along Manager Jim Tracy and the coaching staff for months before giving them contracts, then expressed surprise that the foot-dragging was widely interpreted as a slap in the face to the men who work with players on a daily basis.
McCourt was said to be peeved about DePodesta’s handling of longtime coach and advisor Joe Amalfitano, who was not contacted about his contract status the entire off-season and eventually took a position with the San Francisco Giants.
Communication difficulties -- internal and external -- have plagued the Dodgers, and McCourt recently hired a leading public relations firm to examine the problem. Two executives, Lon Rosen and Gary Miereanu, were fired last week, but DePodesta remains on solid ground with McCourt.
“I have great confidence in Paul,” McCourt said. “He has a definite plan and it is coming together.
“There are times we could have done a better job of explaining philosophically what the reasons were for moves we made. But we accomplished something that is quite a task -- balancing winning now with winning in the future.”
DePodesta took a positive step toward better communication this spring, meeting with every player behind closed doors along with Tracy to discuss roles and expectations.
His shyness is uncommon in a business rife with bravado. The gregarious one in the DePodesta household is his wife, Karen, an international business consultant and an artist. She was visible around Dodgertown all spring, chatting with office workers and players’ wives while pushing a stroller carrying the couple’s first child, 14-month-old Trevor.
DePodesta was not always so dispassionate. He said a defining moment came, appropriately, on a baseball field when he was pitching in high school. He was a hothead, fuming at umpires and seething at himself for every failure, real and imagined.
Losing his cool had been part of his upbringing. He’d thrown tennis rackets after losing to his mother as an adolescent. He and his father competed fiercely in everything from driveway basketball to board games.
But moments after pitching poorly one day, DePodesta vowed to change. “I realized my emotions were getting the best of me, and I sat on the bench thinking there has to be a better way to channel this energy. From that moment on I have tried to balance emotion with reason.”
And so the pendulum swung. At Harvard he became smitten with Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism and reason-based decision-making theories. He interned with conservative author Jim Pinkerton, who cautioned him against accepting traditional beliefs that have outlasted their utility.
“Without the passion, reason doesn’t get you anywhere,” DePodesta said. “But raw emotion sends you down the wrong path.”
DePodesta’s staunchest defender is Beane. They chat on the phone nearly every day, bouncing ideas off each other almost as if they still worked for the same team. All that keeps their relationship from being a conflict of interest is that the Dodgers are in the National League, the Athletics in the American League.
“It may not become apparent to you off the bat, but given time, Paul can give you five reasons why he did what he did for now and the future,” Beane said. “Knowing how Paul works, it’s only going to get better over the next few years.”
How long DePodesta plans to stay with the Dodgers is an intriguing question. He is in the second year of a five-year contract, an extraordinarily long commitment to a general manager with no previous experience.
He clearly is trying to build a team that can sustain success. He has avoided trading top prospects and added young players at every opportunity.
Yet because the job is all-consuming and uncommonly stressful, he believes that eventually he will be watching from the stands. His other interests include politics and screenwriting. He and Karen want more children. Baseball might be something he outgrows.
“There is a natural high that comes from the seminal moments during the course of a season, and I’ve never found anything that can substitute for that,” he said. “A big win, or a big dramatic moment, that’s hard to find in most walks of life.
“But this job will beat you down and beat you down in a hurry. At some point, I’m going to want something else.”
First, he wants what every Dodger follower wants: A World Series championship. The teams he has worked for made the playoffs in eight of nine seasons, including the last five in a row, but none won it all.
“Winning is the only reason I do this,” he said. “That’s why we are all here. We all want championship rings.
“Our expectations are such that we are not going to let anything get in the way of winning now. But we also know we want to build this organization back into what it once was, where it is just a perennial powerhouse.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Five key moves made by Paul DePodesta
Adrian Beltre -- Didn’t re-sign the third baseman, who had 48 home runs and 121 runs batted in last season.
Shawn Green -- Traded the outfielder/first baseman to Arizona for four minor leaguers, including catcher Dioner Navarro.
Jeff Kent -- Signed All-Star second baseman to a two-year, $17-million contract.
Derek Lowe -- Signed free-agent pitcher to a four-year, $36-million contract.
J.D. Drew -- Signed free-agent outfielder to a five-year, $55-million contract.
Source: Times staff
Los Angeles Times
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