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Dodgers' Andrew Friedman doesn't go just by the numbers

Dodgers' Andrew Friedman doesn't go just by the numbers
Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers newly appointed President of Baseball Operations, looks on while standing in Dodger Stadium before a news conference in October. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers' new president of baseball operations, is often described as a former investment banker who applied the analytic principles he learned on Wall Street to transform the small-market Tampa Bay Rays into a contender.

That's all accurate. But also misleading.

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"I'm not just a numbers guy," Friedman said.

Long before he worked on Wall Street, Friedman was an undersized college center fielder in a dirt-stained uniform who counted the hard-nosed Lenny Dykstra among the players he most admired. And before that, as a boy, he spent hours collecting autographs in the hotels occupied by teams visiting his hometown Houston Astros.

That enthusiasm for the game hasn't waned, and it has gone a long way toward earning Friedman credibility among the sport's traditionalists, which, in turn, has helped him avoid the kinds of front-office conflicts that brought the downfalls of other data-driven executives.

As he watched some of the Dodgers' top prospects perform during a recent Arizona Fall League game, Friedman acknowledged he faces increased expectations with his new, deep-pocketed team. He will be paid $35 million over five years, according to one report, and he was already talking about delivering World Series championships — plural.

But if there is pressure, it clearly has not dampened his zeal.

"It still doesn't feel like a job to me," he said.

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Friedman, 37, doesn't know exactly when he was introduced to baseball, but he is fairly certain the introduction was made by his father, a Houston lawyer who counted the Astros among his clients.

Kenny Friedman is the decade-long chairman of the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority, which is responsible for securing funding for the area's major sporting venues. Three years ago, he assembled a group of investors that looked into purchasing the Astros.

Reached by phone last week, Kenny Friedman laughed as he recalled his son's days as a youth player.

When Andrew was 7, he started his season playing in a division for 7- and 8-year-olds but was "significantly better than everyone else," according to his father. So Andrew was promoted to a division for older kids.

"In his first game, he started on the bench," Kenny said. "Halfway through, he went in at second base. The other team had a rally and Andrew began moving players around on defense. The other players were like, 'Who are you?' "

Kenny chuckled and added, "It was evident back then."

The Friedmans were Astros season-ticket holders, which allowed Andrew to spend countless nights at games.

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"Other kids went to summer camp," Friedman said. "I went to the Astrodome."

While still in elementary school, Friedman developed a routine. His mother would drop him off at the visiting team's hotel, where he spent the early afternoons asking players for autographs. Tim Raines, his favorite, once signed 90 cards for him.

His mother would then pick him up and drive him to the Astrodome in time for batting practice.

"My dream was to be one of them," Friedman said. "So I loved watching everything they did — how they prepared, what they did during batting practice, what they did between innings."

By the time Friedman was joined by his father shortly before the start of a game, he often was loaded down with autographed bats and balls.

"He spent so much time there, they thought he was a player's kid," Kenny said.

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As a player, Friedman competed with all the energy he could muster. Chris Russ, his coach at Episcopal High in suburban Houston remembers him as "Pete Rose-type player."

"His senior year, he started in center field," Russ said. "He was a leadoff hitter. He was aggressive, tenacious. He could get things going for you."

That was the reputation Friedman took to Tulane University.

"He was very aggressive, very popular with his teammates because of the kind of person he was and how hard he worked," said Rick Jones, who was then Tulane's coach.

Jack Cressend, a teammate who later pitched in the major leagues, recalled Friedman as a "gritty, gamer-type player."

But in the fall of his freshman year, Friedman suffered a broken left hand when he was hit by a pitch. He came back from that but then suffered a separated left shoulder while sliding into third base.

The shoulder never recovered. Friedman thought he would have to undergo surgery to continue playing, and he didn't think it was worth it.

"When I got to college, I quickly realized that everyone else on the field was a lot better than I was. … If I wanted to stay involved in the game, it would have to be off the field," he said.

Between his junior and senior years at Tulane, Friedman landed an internship at Bear Stearns and performed well enough that the Wall Street firm offered him a job when he graduated.

It was a potentially lucrative opportunity, but Friedman wanted to work in baseball. Through his father's connections, he was able to speak to Tal Smith, who was then president of the Astros.

Friedman recalled Smith telling him, "The business of baseball is changing. My strong recommendation to you is to take that job on Wall Street to differentiate yourself and continue to network while you do that."

So Friedman went to New York as an entry-level analyst for Bear Stearns, working in a department that advised private equity firms.

"I was at the lowest possible level and just churning out data-entry stuff and doing market research," he said. "It very much felt like a job."

While there, Friedman worked alongside a high school classmate of an investment banker named Matt Silverman.

Matt and I met casually," Freidman said. "He was passionate about baseball, as was I."

The acquaintance changed Friedman's life. Silverman worked at Goldman Sachs with investor Stuart Sternberg, who later became owner of the Rays. When Sternberg started investigating his purchase, he asked Silverman to help him with the process. Silverman advised Sternberg to meet with Friedman.

Sternberg entrusted Silverman to oversee the team's finances, and he asked Friedman to become familiar with the baseball operations department.

Friedman is married and the father of two boys, but at the time he was single and working for a private equity firm. He "left a lot of money on the table" to go to the Rays, his father said.

"It was something I was really passionate about," Friedman said. "I was dating my now-wife, but I wasn't married, I didn't have kids. It's easier to make selfish decisions."

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Friedman initially served as the Rays director of baseball development.

"I loved it," he said. "I loved waking up every day."

He overcame his status as an outsider by completely immersing himself in the game. Bart Braun, a veteran scout who now works for the Philadelphia Phillies, said Friedman sometimes accompanied him on assignments.

"He had a grasp of things right away," Braun said. "You'd think he'd been around a long time."

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After the 2005 season, Friedman was promoted to general manager.

For help, he turned to Gerry Hunsicker, whom he hired as a senior vice president. A self-described old-school baseball man, Hunsicker was the general manager of the Astros when they reached the World Series in 2005 and has been a senior adviser with the Dodgers for the last two seasons.

Hunsicker knew of Friedman's plans to bolster the Rays analytics department.

"I would be the first one to admit I came into it with some degree of skepticism," Hunsicker said. "I did not grow up in that environment. When I was in Houston, we didn't have anybody that worked in this area."

That skepticism vanished almost immediately.

"He's not one of these guys that had no baseball background as a player or otherwise and came into the game and thought they were going to reinvent the game, show everybody else how smart they were," Hunsicker said. "It was clear from the beginning of our relationship that he has as much respect for me that I had for him. He wanted to take the best nuggets from the traditional aspects of baseball and incorporate it with other ways to skin the cat."

In some baseball front offices, there is a division between the analytics and scouting departments. Not with the Rays, in part because Friedman was open to incorporating ideas that came from the likes of Hunsicker and Braun.

"That's what Andrew's all about, getting the best information that he can from any source that's available, making the best decision he can," Hunsicker said.

Friedman not only listened, he listened at any hour.

"You might be in the Dominican winter league, and it might be three or four in the morning, and you might want to run something by him and you know you can," Braun said. "I know he's not sleeping. Normally, you would wait until the next day to check in. Not with him. You have to wake up early to outwork him."

Friedman also made it a point to talk to coaches and players.

"Communication was so good," former Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "The thing is, he's not afraid to have that difficult conversation. He and I went through that a lot, but at end of day if we decided it was the right thing to do, we'd be unified in our approach."

Friedman's outgoing personality helped. He scored points by playing flag football and basketball with the scouts and front-office staffers in spring training.

"Great people skills," Maddon said. "You can go drinking with him. He loves sushi, likes to go out, have fun, let his hair down."

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Friedman may be more than a numbers man, but his greatest strength is analyzing data. And the first hire of his regime with the Dodgers is another analytics whiz, Farhan Zaidi, who will be the club's general manager.

Zaidi, 37, has a bachelor's degree in economics from MIT and a doctorate in the same subject from UC Berkeley. In his previous job with the Oakland Athletics, he provided statistical analysis for evaluating players on the free-agent and trade markets, assisted in arbitration cases and worked with the coaching staff analyzing scouting reports.

"I think my experience in investment banking and private equity helped me a lot coming into the game," said Friedman, who was interviewed for this article before Zaidi was hired. "It helped me appreciate that information is king and there's no such thing as having too much information.

Maddon said Friedman's analysis translated into more than acquiring undervalued players at bargain prices. In-game strategy was affected as well.

"Part of the Rays' success is we came around at the right time where MLB was putting the kibosh on steroid use and amphetamine use," Maddon said. "After that, we were ahead of everybody else with the metrics and defensive shifts and data."

The Rays reached the postseason four times in Friedman's nine seasons as general manager, winning two division titles and reaching the World Series in 2008. Along the way, he was approached by other teams, including the Angels and Astros.

Friedman declined to talk in detail about the Rays analytics program and spoke about the state of sabermetrics in baseball only in general terms.

"I think some of the teams that are using it more play it down as if they're not using it much at all, and some of the teams that aren't using it much at all are playing it up like they're using it more than they are," he said.

As for how he will improve the Dodgers analytics department, he was vague about that, too. What he is certain about is that he intends to surround himself with passionate people.

"I think that this job is incredibly difficult if you're passionate about constantly improving and putting yourself in position to make more right decisions than wrong and not have it be happenstance," he said. "I think it takes a requisite level of passion to band together as a group to constantly challenge each other."

Times staff writer Mike DiGiovanna contributed to this report.

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