THE STATS WONK WHO RUNS A PRO SPORTS TEAM
(Business 2.0) – When Paul DePodesta watches his Los Angeles Dodgers play baseball, it's through a lens that has nothing to do with cutting down the glare of the Southern California sun. He sees numbers and calculations everywhere on the field, and it's that distinct vision that last February made him, at the tender age of 31, the general manager of one of baseball's most storied franchises.
Unlike many front-office vets, DePodesta never played in the big leagues. But he loves the sport and happens to be fluent in statistical analysis. "My dad taught me a board game called Big League Manager when I was 7," DePodesta says. "From then on I started thinking about baseball more and more in percentage terms."
How does a mathlete find his way into one of professional sports' most prestigious posts? Odd as it sounds, he stuck with his strengths. In 1996, after leaving Harvard with an economics degree, DePodesta landed an internship with the Cleveland Indians. He instantly stood out: Here was a geek who had analyzed the numbers from every baseball team in the 20th century—and had concluded that a player's value was tied to the arcane stat of on-base percentage (how often someone reaches base safely). He also found that players with high OBPs, rather than marquee numbers like home runs or runs batted in, often could be picked up on the cheap.
The Indians embraced some of DePodesta's theories and pushed him to scour his spreadsheets for more. He rose quickly. "They challenged me to do things differently," DePodesta says. "That's become the foundation for my career."
His iconoclastic views drew attention around the league, and he was hired away by the Oakland As in 1998. He says it wasn't just for his number crunching. He'd learned that everything about the business of baseball—from the age at which schoolboys get contracts to the reliability of a scout's gut calls—should be questioned. "Analysis in any business can change," he says. "Don't be wed to conventional thought. Always think critically."
As an assistant GM in Oakland, DePodesta was instrumental in consistently building low-cost, championship-caliber teams. He found prospects by mining the Internet for stats of obscure college players. But landing the Tinsel Town dream job (reportedly a five-year deal worth $800,000 annually) required one more insight: Hear out your elders, of which there are many with the Dodgers. "Those who've achieved before you? Soak up as much of their knowledge as possible," he says.
Being young, unconventional, and in charge of his own team hasn't been easy. Sportswriters have dubbed him General Manager.com and savaged him for his trades. But the Dodgers made the playoffs this year for the first time since 1996. However they fare in the postseason, DePodesta won't pause to gloat—or to doubt. "I'm going to stick to my guns," he says. "That's to never be satisfied with the status quo." — ANDREW TILIN