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The Los Angles Dodgers, who are first in baseball this year in games won, were created on a laptop computer by an imaginative intellectual, Paul DePodesta, their new general manager, who then moved his fantasy team into Dodger Stadium and other National League ballparks to win just the way it's been winning.
A cum laude graduate of Harvard, DePodesta, who at 32 is some 20 years younger than the other giants of baseball, knows the Dodgers won't keep winning eight games out of 10 in a strange business where good teams win about six of 10 annually and bad teams about four of 10.
Thus, someday, he will have to take some losses, and maybe, for awhile, even play sub-.500 ball.
Dodger fans can, however, be reasonably sure that DePodesta is on the right track.
The visible indications suggest he was right when, as his computer recommended, he let go of Paul Lo Duca, Adrian Beltre, Shawn Green, Alex Cora, Jose Lima and other 2004 fixtures, breaking up a division champion that he helped to develop in his first Dodger season. And he seems to have been similarly right when the computer urged him to trade for Milton Bradley last year and sign Jeff Kent this year along with a new collection of widely unknown hitters — Jose Valentin, Ricky Ledee, Olmedo Saenz, Jason Phillips, Paul Bako and others. And then there's an overhauled pitching staff that starts with three aces, Odalis Perez, Jeff Weaver and computer-pick Derek Lowe, plus three injured aces, plus a can-you-believe-this bullpen.
Curiously, very few baseball people are talking yet about DePodesta, his smarts, his computer and his results. Some chronic e-mail writers have been silent since opening day, when they overrated and misjudged a couple of Dodger errors that led to a misunderstood defeat. The DePodesta way, which largely excludes scouts and other traditionalists, isn't Baseball's Way — nor are intellectuals popular in baseball. So DePodesta will never be widely loved. You get the idea that many traditionalists, willing him to fail, are planning to make capital of every Dodger loss this season.
As he continues nonetheless with the boldest overhaul in the long history of the club — in either Brooklyn or Los Angeles — two questions are, What's he looking for? And didn't last year's Dodger stars have it?
DePodesta, a graduate of Billy Beane's Oakland baseball school who became Beane's favorite confederate, hasn't yet answered either query publicly, at least on the record, but the answers can be reconstructed from the moves he makes. Briefly, he wants a team with a high on-base percentage and a high slugging average. That is, he values walks and home runs. And after helping Beane develop baseball's new system, which is based on statistical analysis, he values pitchers who don't dish up walks or home runs. Along with others who have exported the Oakland science to Boston and Toronto, he doesn't pay much attention to baseball's traditional benchmarks, such as RBIs for batters and hits against and ERA for pitchers, reasoning that luck rules all that.
The questions about the ex-Dodgers are more difficult. Half of Beltre's charm is his fielding proficiency, and DePodesta rates offense above defense. The Green problem as DePodesta viewed it might have been his first-pitch swinging, his disinterest in bases on balls, and his long streaks between home runs. Cora's fielding excellence fits in better elsewhere. Lima personifies togetherness and other values that aren't highly prized in the Oakland system. Baseball's hard-eyed scientists, by comparison with the sentimental traditionalists, hold that big league hitters respond not to cheer-leading but to the truth that their every at-bat will be recorded forever and that it therefore behooves them to try their utmost every time — just as it behooves pitchers to focus, for the same reason, on every pitch.
The upshot is that DePodesta may be within sight of his first goal — winning six of 10 — which would place his team with baseball's elite. In any case, DePodesta is the Dodger story this year. Considering the vast extent of his shakeup and the way he's remade a division champion as prominent as the Dodgers, his success or failure will be a monumental story.