Tuesday, February 17, 2004
Updated: February 25, 12:40 PM ET
Moneyball goes Hollywood
By Rob Neyer
If I worked for the Los Angeles Dodgers, the first thing I would have done Monday is "Google" Paul DePodesta. I don't work for the Dodgers, of course, but I Googled the new general manager anyway.
The first result (as I happily discovered) was my interview with DePodesta from last March.
The second result was (or not, as it turned out) the text of a talk DePodesta gave last year at the Thought Leader Forum. What's that?
|Paul DePodesta learned his craft with the A's as Billy Beane's right-hand man.|
The Thought Leader Forum is a one-of-a-kind gathering that seeks to help senior investors shape and improve their mental models. Forum speakers are generally leading scientists and businesspeople who have little to do with Wall Street's day-to-day routine. Yet their expertise often provides investors with valuable insight or perspective into various aspects of the investment process -- from how to optimally structure an investment organization, to how and why markets are efficient.
Including DePodesta, there were eight "presenters" at the Forum, ranging alphabetically from Alph Bingham to Dan Schrag. Text of all eight talks is available at Credit Suisse First Boston's Web site ... except one. A week ago, all eight were there, but today one is missing. When you hit the link for Paul DePodesta, you get a page containing this cryptic message:
Presentation not available at this time.
Coincidence? Hey, anything is possible. But what I think is that somebody, whether DePodesta or (more likely) somebody who likes DePodesta, suggested that, umm, maybe it wouldn't go over so well if his new employees somehow discovered that he planned to radically change the way the Dodgers do business. (Another possibility: Frank McCourt saw DePodesta's speech on the Web, decided he didn't want his new general manager just giving away trade secrets, and asked DePodesta to have the speech excised.)
Fortunately, DePodesta gave a very similar speech at a Legg Mason Investment Conference last fall, and said many of the same things he said at the Thought Leader Forum. This speech, too, has been scrubbed from the Web, but a couple of Primates saved it (pre-scrubbing) and were kind enough to send me copies (also, excerpts from the Thought Forum talk are posted here). So we can, with a little digging, get a pretty good idea about how DePodesta plans to run his new team.
Honestly, I wish you could read the speeches yourself; they're utterly fascinating. As a poor substitute for the real things, though, here's one particularly illustrative section of the Legg Mason talk:
In my first year [with the Indians], I was charged with charting every pitch of every single one of our major league games ... in order to do this I had to chart pitches from right behind home plate, and I had to sit with all the scouts right in the scout section. I realized very quickly that subjectivity ruled the day in the scouting world ...
I remember them raving about this one particular player, 'He could do it all.' He was going to be the next great Hall of Fame type player. I remember looking up the Triple A statistics in the middle of the year, because this guy hadn't been able to stick in the Major Leagues, and he was hitting .230. And it struck a chord with me, and I started wondering, 'Maybe there isn't a direct correlation between these tools and ultimate success.'
At the end of that first year we had organizational meetings. We'd bring together all of our baseball people, our major league staff, our minor league staff, all of our scouts, and we'd go over every player in the organization.
During the course of the year we had traded for a player named Jeff Kent. I was sitting in this meeting, and one of our major league staff members who shall remain nameless said, and I quote, 'Jeff Kent has the weakest freakin' hack I have ever seen.'
So what did we do as a front office? We went ahead and traded Jeff Kent a couple weeks later. Over the course of the next four years, we got to sit and watch Jeff Kent become the most prolific offensive second baseman in the entire game.
In my mind, I started thinking that maybe this whole subjectivity thing isn't so good. I started realizing that we had a lot of psychological biases when we were making subjective decisions on things. A lot of them.
First and foremost was that we made a lot of emotional decisions. The team was playing well, the team was playing poorly, it didn't matter. Whatever sort of wave of emotion we were riding at that point caused us to make certain decisions that in otherwise rational times we probably wouldn't have made.
I think that does a pretty good job of summarizing DePodesta's general view of how baseball teams conduct their business. Too many opinions, not enough facts.
Especially the scouts.
When J.P. Ricciardi took over as GM in Toronto, the Blue Jays employed roughly 40 full-time scouts. That was two years ago. And today? The Jays employ about 20 full-time scouts ... and only five or six of them were there when Ricciardi arrived.
Well, the Dodgers have something like 60 full-time scouts; it's always been a scout-heavy organization. But aside from Eric Gagne, when's the last time the Dodgers came up with a great player of their own? I'm going from position to position in my mind ... well, it's been a while. It's possible that I'm missing somebody, but it seems to me that for all their vaunted skill in player development, the Dodgers haven't developed a great hitter since Mike Piazza, more than a decade ago.
Does that mean there's not room in DePodesta's organization for a tobacco-chewin' scout born during the Eisenhower administration? Not at all. I spent a few innings last summer with a couple of top Oakland scouts, and one of them fits that description almost exactly. The point is that the scouts who want to remain employed by the Dodgers will have to get with the new program. It won't be enough, any more, to spit into a cup and talk about some kid pitcher having the nice rear, the good face, and "pitchability." Some of them will probably be fired almost immediately, but the rest will be given a chance to ... well, to be de-programmed and then re-programmed. Most won't survive this painful process, but the few hardy survivors will be a boon to the organization.
The scouting department is likely going to suffer the greatest degree of turnover, because those are typically the people most resistant to change. But eventually DePodesta will have to transform the entire organization, just as Billy Beane did in Oakland and Ricciardi did in Toronto. Everybody has to be looking at the same sheet of music, but when you've been in the game for a while you tend to play your own tune no matter what the conductor's telling you. (That said, DePodesta's got more people to worry about and more tradition to consider, plus he's got a lot more money to play around with, so he might wind up giving a free pass, at least temporarily, to some of the marginal contributors.)
I'm sure a lot of people are expecting Paul DePodesta to be little more than a junior version of Beane, but I think that's an awfully simplistic way of looking at them. One of Beane's primary strengths is his personality; he's persistent, he's persuasive, and you can't help but like him. As Ricciardi says in Moneyball, Beane "could talk a dog off a meat wagon." But Beane is not, at heart, an analyst. He's smart enough to understand why on-base percentage (or whatever) is important, but he's not going to come up with the analysis on his own.
Simply put, in the Oakland organization, DePodesta was the brains and Beane was the brawn. Yes, that's awfully simplistic, too. DePodesta has a lot of heart -- remember he weighs about 160 pounds and played college football -- and Beane is certainly one of the smartest men I've ever met. My point is that DePodesta and Beane are not built identically; rather, they complemented each other. Beane will have to replace DePodesta, which will be difficult but not impossible. DePodesta, on the other hand, will have to do things he hasn't done before.
Can he do those things? Gosh, I sure think so. He may not be as personable as Beane (who is?), but he might be slightly smarter and somewhat less likely to make "emotional decisions." I suspect that those things will go a long way toward compensating for any deficiency in charisma (relative to Beane, I mean; DePodesta's no shrinking violet himself), and I suspect that DePodesta will quickly establish himself as one of the top executives in the game.
If you're working for the Dodgers, you can't read DePodesta's speeches because they've disappeared. But that's all right, because you can do better than just read a couple of speeches. You can read three books that might help you keep your job: Michael Lewis' Moneyball (what DePodesta's going to do); Thomas H. Kuhn's The Theory and Structure of Scientific Revolutions (why he's going to do it), and Robert Cialdini's Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (how he's going to try to convince you to help him do it).
The train is leaving the station, folks, and there's not room on board for everybody. But if you're smart enough and strong enough to grab a seat, you're in for a heck of a trip. And you know, there just might be a World Series at the end of the line.
Senior writer Rob Neyer writes three columns per week during baseball's offseason. This spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-authored with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.