Rejecting the 'best practices' of baseball: Billy Beane, Paul DePodesta tell
'Moneyball' success story
By LOU FANCHER Correspondent Contra Costa Times
WALNUT CREEK -- With the sun of athletic championship teams rising on the Bay Area horizon, the Lesher Center's January NEWSMAKER Series Lecture Featuring Oakland A's General Manager Billy Beane and New York Mets VP of Player Development and Scouting Paul DePodesta drew a packed house.
Host Steve Lesher played moderator for a Q-and-A covering everything from large themes to some pretty "inside baseball" baseball topics.
"We all say that Brad Pitt will someday play us in the movies," Lesher said, introducing Beane, "but he's the only one who's done it."
Referring to the film adaptation of Michael Lewis's best-selling book "Moneyball," which chronicled a four-year period from 1999 to 2003, Beane joked, "All the parts you liked were true."
The film, of course, portrayed the way Beane and DePodesta used data and dogged determination to throw a curve in the A's downward trajectory, despite posting one of the lowest payrolls in baseball.
"Brad was actually supposed to play me," DePodesta joked.
They said the movie captured the spirit of the team, but got a few details wrong. "He didn't buy me from the Indians," DePodesta protested.
"Yeah, they gave him to me," Beane quipped.
In a preshow interview, DePodesta said he asked to have his name removed from "Moneyball" because he couldn't "get comfortable with 99 percent of viewers thinking that character was me."
Beane had no such, qualms, even when it came to his eating habits.
"The stains on Brad's shirt; they got that part right. I've got food, every day, on my shirt," he laughed.
Moving from the fantastical world of Hollywood, Lesher asked about Beane's reputation for aggressive trading.
"I don't view trades as a zero sum game," Beane said.
"We prided ourselves on what we were getting back, not what we were giving up," DePodesta said, referring to when he was Beane's assistant GM.
"We weren't afraid to fail, to be wrong," Beane added. "We stormed forward. In our marketplace, we needed to be hyperactive, to try to advance."
Both men said they looked outside of baseball for lessons in leadership.
"If all we did was follow the best practices of baseball, that was a losing proposition for us, because we couldn't keep up with (big budget teams)," DePodesta said.
Today, Beane said baseball is in great shape and "smart, wealthy people" are interested in being a part of the business.
"There's remarkable talent coming in. Ken Griffey and Alex Rodriguez were the two best I'd ever seen in the game, but these kids coming in, they're the next best," he said, adding, "I love seeing international players coming in."
DePodesta's remarks prior to the lecture addressed using sabermetrics (data analysis) versus traditional, subjective scout reporting for player selection.
"We learned every year. We discovered where we were wrong. There were things we implemented in a simplistic or incredibly straightforward way. Ten years later, we laugh at how extreme those positions were."
Suggesting the idea that measurements matter the most has swung too far, DePodesta said before the formal program, "Today, if a guy throws 97 miles per hour, that takes on more relevance, without taking other things into consideration. We've gone to the other extreme."
He added that performance enhancing drugs ("PEDs") have caused a complete blow out of the data collected before 2005.
"We were building models to predict future performance and players were doing things that would fundamentally change how they would perform," DePodesta said. "We had to throw out 15 years of data."
Onstage later, Beane wasn't so quick to toss the bean-counting, saying, "The amount of intelligence and intellectual capital coming into the game -- I wouldn't be able to apply for this job today. To me, the greatest impact is that (management) became about the best and the brightest."
DePodesta insisted Beane's "force of will" is the vital element in the A's past and recent surge, culminating in their unlikely capture of the American League West title and playing the Detroit Tigers tough in the playoffs. DePodesta recalled walking into the office and sharing an idea barely percolating in his mind with his GM.
"He'd be picking up the phone and be on it -- and I was still just thinking on it!" he exclaimed. Beane, admitting to "gyrating at ever pitch" during close games, said he once became so emotional he threw a chair.
"I assumed it would bounce off. Well, it stuck. You gotta understand, the press was coming in, and there's a huge hole in the drywall. We covered it up with an American flag," he laughed.
DePodesta, offering sympathy for Beane's outburst, said, "We go out, see a 17-year-old player, draft him, see him move up in the minors, realize his major league (dream) -- and we're supposed to be completely unemotional about this? It's impossible."
The key to good management, they agreed, is getting along with people. Making acquisitions more equitable is the single biggest change they'd like to see in the game.
"A manager has a huge impact," DePodesta concluded. "It's not about tactical decisions; it's managing 25 young talented guys. The data can go too far. It's up to a manager to understand his players."
Beane, getting the last word in and forecasting, said, "There's no question, everyone wants to see us succeed here. The Oakland fans, on a day like the last day of last season, are as good as it can get."