Q&A: Paul DePodesta
I first met Paul DePodesta on May 13, 2005 at a Cal Poly-Long Beach State game at Blair Field in Long Beach. Paul, who was in his second year as the General Manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, joined area scout Bobby Darwin in the row directly in front of me. I recognized him, introduced myself, shook his hand, and we chatted about baseball between innings throughout the game while he was scouting college prospects a month before the draft and staying abreast of the Dodgers 7-4 victory over the Braves that evening.
Paul and I have remained friendly over the past four years. The Harvard two-sport athlete and cum laude graduate is as nice as he is competitive and smart. He is also a fellow blogger and perhaps the only senior member of a front office to operate a baseball-related website.
Now an Executive Vice President for the San Diego Padres, DePodesta has spent the past 13 years working with, for, and hiring some of the brightest minds in the game, including, among others, John Hart, Dan O’Dowd, Mark Shapiro, Josh Byrnes, Neal Huntington, Chris Antonetti, and Ben Cherington with the Cleveland Indians (1996-1998), Billy Beane, J.P. Ricciardi, and David Forst with the Oakland A's (1999-2003), Logan White, Kim Ng, and Dan Feinstein with the Dodgers (2004-2005), and Sandy Alderson, Kevin Towers, Grady Fuson, and Bill Gayton with the Padres (2006-2009).
DePodesta and winning are synonymous with one another. The Indians won the American League Central all three years, the A's won the AL West three times and finished second the other two seasons, the Dodgers captured the franchise's first division title since 1995 and first postseason berth since 1996, and the Padres won the NL West and missed tying for the division title and wild card spot by one game the following season. All in all, the clubs DePodesta has worked for have won eight division crowns and accumulated a won-lost record of 1,137-943 for a winning percentage of .547.
At 31, DePodesta was the third-youngest to become a big-league GM when Dodgers owner Frank McCourt made him his first hire on February 16, 2004. (Theo Epstein was 28 when named GM of the Red Sox in 2002 and Randy Smith was 29 when the Padres hired him in 1993. Jon Daniels subsequently became the youngest GM in baseball history when he ascended to the top spot with the Rangers in 2005 at the age of 28 years and 41 days.)
Paul is married and has two sons and a daughter. His wife Karen is a La Jolla High alum. He has enjoyed his tenure with the Padres for professional and personal reasons. Paul has also served as a keynote speaker at business conventions and his work was featured in Michael Lewis' best-selling book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, and recognized by Fortune, which named him one of the Top 10 innovators under the age of 40.
I had the opportunity to chat with Paul shortly after the MLB Draft was completed last week. Pull up a chair and enjoy.
Rich: On your blog, It Might Be Dangerous... You Go First, you have a poll up, asking "How do you feel about the Padres draft?" The majority of the respondents have voted "Happy." How do you feel about it?
Paul: I'd say "ecstatic," but that's probably how most club officials feel right after their draft.
Rich: The Padres had not taken an outfielder with its first pick since 1999, yet drafted center fielders Donavan Tate (Cartersville HS, GA) and Everett Williams (McCallum HS, TX) in the first and second rounds, respectively. Both players are the sons of former NFL players. Did San Diego make a conscious effort to get more athletic in this year's draft?
Paul: It's the first time since I've been here that we drafted anywhere in the top 20, so we had a different type of player available to us this year and we wanted to take advantage of that opportunity. We've taken some other high school outfielders within the top 50 picks in recent drafts (Kyler Burke, Jaff Decker), so it wasn't necessarily a total departure for us. Due to the work of Grady Fuson and Bill Gayton over the last few years, we feel good about our farm system as a whole, so we really focused on the best player available in each round rather than worrying about organizational need.
Rich: Let's talk about Tate for a minute. Which players, past or present, serve as good comps?
Paul: A lot of different names have been thrown around. I know Donavan admires Grady Sizemore, and there are some similarities there. Some others would include a young Andruw Jones, Mike Cameron, or even Adam Jones.
Rich: Tate has signed a letter of intent to play baseball and football at the University of North Carolina. He is also represented by Scott Boras. Do you not feel as if he is going to be a difficult or costly sign?
Paul: Donavan has had a lot of options presented to him recently, including USC and Michigan football, UNC baseball and football, and now the Padres. Our feeling is that despite his impressive talents on the football field, Donavan's first love is baseball.
Rich: I remember Tate in the Aflac Classic last August quite well. He had a couple of memorable at-bats. In the sixth inning, after being behind in the count 0-and-1 and 1-and-2, he worked the count to 3-and-2 before flying out to left on the eighth pitch of his at-bat. Tate had an even better at-bat in the ninth inning when he fell behind 0-and-2 and fouled off five pitches on his way to working the count to 3-and-2, then got on base via an infield single to shortstop. He also scored the East's first run that inning on a wild pitch. I wrote down on my scoresheet, "tall, strong, fast, runs well" but was most impressed with his approach in those two at-bats.
Paul: It's interesting that you mention those ab's, because we heard some rumbings during the spring that Donavan's bat was "raw," and yet we had a representative at nearly all of his games and just didn't see it. I guess it all depends on the perspective: the bat may be "raw" as compared to his other tools or as compared to the top college bats, but as compared with the other high school bats... we felt comfortable with the risk.
Rich: Between Tate and Williams, which one do you see sticking in center field?
Paul: We think they're both good enough to play there. We hope to have that problem someday.
Rich: I saw Williams play in the Area Code Games last summer. After a terrific BP session, he went 0-for-5, striking out three times. It looked to me like he was having trouble handling breaking balls and lefthanders. Has he improved in these areas?
Paul: We see Everett as a pretty polished HS bat. That doesn't mean he won't need to make some adjustments - even the best big leaguers have to - but he has a natural feel for the barrel that is difficult to teach.
Rich: In the third round, you drafted Jerry Sullivan, a 6-4, 200-pound righthander out of Oral Roberts University. What do you see in him?
Paul: Jerry was a top prospect coming out of HS before having Tommy John surgery. Nevertheless, he came back strong from the procedure and had a stellar career at Oral Roberts. In addition to being an excellent athlete in a 6'4", 200 lb body, he has always thrown strikes with a fastball that ranges from 90-94 as well as a tough slider and solid change.
Rich: As you mentioned, Sullivan had Tommy John surgery while in high school. Do you believe that pitchers who have undergone elbow reconstruction surgery in the past pose lower injury risks than those who have not?
Paul: Not neccesarily. In fact, pitchers with prior arm injuries can be at greater risk going forward. However, we've learned by painful first-hand experience that every pitcher comes with significant risk.
Rich: I was surprised that Keyvius Sampson (Forest HS, FL) was still available in the fourth round. A three-sport star in high school, he was 93-94 and struck out the first two batters he faced (both of whom went in the top 35 in the draft) in his only inning of work in the Aflac Classic last year. At 6-foot-1, he is not as tall as some of the prep power pitchers who went in the first round, but it still seems like he was a steal as the 114th overall pick in the draft.
Paul: With the format of the draft this year (only three rounds the first day), we had ample time to digest the first three rounds and prepare for the next set of rounds. Since we were picking 3rd again on Day Two we were pleased to find a number of interesting players remaining on the board, and Keyvius was certainly one of them. As you noted, he’s a terrific athlete, and we like both his arm speed and his feel for the changeup.
Rich: How do you, Kevin Towers (EVP/GM), Grady Fuson (VP, Scouting & Player Development), and Bill Gayton (Director of Scouting) work together when it comes to the draft?
Paul: The four of us in addition to our cross-checkers, Scott Littlefield and Bob Filotei, discuss all of the top picks, and there's generally a consensus. At the end of the day, it's up to Grady and Chief to make the final call.
Rich: How much of your time do you spend on scouting?
Paul: I start entering draft mode around the end of February/beginning of March. Once the ML season begins, though, I spend probably 90% of my time on the draft until we announce that last pick.
Rich: Do you think the standard five tools (hitting for average, power, arm strength, fielding, and speed) are still the most important attributes of a player? Or would you insert plate discipline/pitch recognition skills into the mix?
Paul: Both tools and skills are important, as they often depend on one another in order to play. For instance, the combination of all tools and no skills is usually a promise unfulfilled, and all skills with no tools often results in a short career. We'd all prefer a plethora of both, but in the absence of that it's a constant effort to figure out if the shortcomings in one area will inhibit the positives in the other.
Rich: While I understand "we're not selling jeans here," what roles do height, weight, and body type play in assessing current and projectable talent?
Paul: You may be asking this because our draft class looks as much like a football or basketball team as it does a baseball team. Malcolm Gladwell once wrote that 3.9% of all adult males are 6'2" or taller, and yet 30% of Fortune 500 CEO's are 6'2" or taller. The fact is that people, in general, maintain an inherent physical appearance bias, and in sports we tend to gravitate toward big, strong guys. Therefore, nature pushes us to overvalue size at times, but things like strength, leverage, and angle can make a difference as long as there are underlying skills.
Rich: How do rank attitude, hustle, and leadership when scouting players? And how do you go about valuing those characteristics?
Paul: It can be really difficult for me to warm up to a player who has a low motor, but that's just my personal take and one that I often have to guard against when writing reports. I prefer guys who play with energy and appear to really enjoy being out there. The minor leagues can be a real grind - I can't imagine enduring that playing schedule - so I worry about guys who don't seem to have that passion. That said, that passion isn't always illuminated by a player bouncing around the diamond, which is why I have to be careful.
Rich: Is "feel for the game" something that is at all quantifiable? Is it inherent in most players or can it be taught or gained over time?
Paul: I don't have a good answer for that. Every player is unique, and sometimes we'll find a player who has terrific instincts for one part of the game while really struggling with other aspects of the game. Some of that "feel" though can come from experience.
Rich: How does ability vs. signability come into play when lining up your draft board?
Paul: We try to line up our board without accounting for signability. When it comes time to make a decision, we have to factor in everything we know, but we don't want signability to cloud our evaluations of a player's ability.
Rich: The Padres were just swept by the Angels over the weekend and are now 9-23 on the road this season. Small sample size, tough schedule, or is there something else at work here?
Paul: I wish I knew! You cite two potentially contributing factors, but it’s often tough to nail down a direct causal relationship. The reality is that winning consistently on the road is difficult, and if you can win just 50% of your road games you’ll probably be in contention for a playoff spot.
Rich: The club is now 14 games back of the Dodgers in the NL West. Given its place in the standings, is San Diego likely to be a "seller" prior to the trading deadline next month?
Paul: The ups and downs of this season have been easier to endure to some degree because we have a young club. Many of our players are still experiencing growing pains at the ML level, which is to be expected, and those aren’t guys we’re looking to trade. I believe we only have four free agent eligible players on our team right now.
Rich: When should Padres fans expect the team to be competing for division titles and playoff berths again?
Paul: One of the tough things about having a lot of young players is the unpredictability of it. Very few teams progress in a relatively linear fashion – 65 wins to 72 wins to 78 wins to 84 wins to 90 wins. Rather, it can look more like the “progression” of the Rays – 70 wins, 67 wins, 61 wins, 66 wins, and then 97 wins. Even the Oakland teams went from 67 to 78 to 65 to 74 before running off eight consecutive years of 87 or more wins. The point is that teams tend to change states rather dramatically much like water turning to ice. I will say that though we have patience to get to 32 degrees, we also have the highest of expectations internally.
Rich: I understand that you have a little bit of professional acting experience, having appeared in a few episodes of the TV show “Homicide, Life on the Street” back in the mid-1990s. As such, how do you feel about the casting choice of comedian Demetri Martin to play you in director Steven Soderbergh's adaptation of "Moneyball," which is scheduled for release in 2011?
Paul: He's a lot funnier than I am, but he definitely needs a haircut.
Rich: Good one, Paul. And with that, I'd like to thank you for taking the time to discuss the Padres, both present and future, with me today.
Paul: Happy to do it.