Sunday, September 7, 2008

IIATMS Exclusive: Paul DePodesta

I've been lucky enough to be able to get a few minutes of San Diego Padres Assistant General Manager Paul DePodesta's time. I had emailed Paul before I visited San Diego and while he was busy at the time (with things like trading Greg Maddux!), he was generous enough to take some questions from me. As you've seen with some of my other interviews (click here for: Sosnick, Rasner), I've tried to dig into the day-to-day of a senior front office staff. Paul could not answer every question I sent over, but he answered enough for a good round of "20 Questions for Paul DePodesta".

Briefly about Paul:

With that as background, here's the interview:

It's About The Money, Stupid: You’ve had the good fortune to work under an impressive lineage of unconventional thinkers (Alderson/Beane). What are the biggest differences working from the original source of sabermetrically-informed executives as opposed to his most famous protégé?

Paul DePodesta: I’ve been ridiculously lucky in terms of bosses and colleagues throughout my career. In my first job in Cleveland, I was surrounded by the likes of John Hart, Dan O’Dowd, Mark Shapiro, Josh Byrnes, and later Neal Huntington. I’ve tried to learn something from everyone along the way.
IIATMS: With the increased reliance on data/statistics and the success of proponents of this approach (Epstein, Beane, yourself, etc.), many college grads are clamoring to enter the front office ranks. What advice would you give kids entering college regarding a course of study to prepare them to enter the business of baseball? For those leaving college? For those already working (not in baseball) but looking to leverage other experiences?

PD: My advice would be to look for another line of work. I say that jokingly, but with a hint of seriousness. These jobs are incredibly demanding not only for the individual but also for friends and family. It can be difficult to find any semblance of balance or perspective. As far as an area of study, I would recommend as wide an array of subjects as possible. What’s most important is an inquisitive and thirsty mind.
IIATMS: What is the hardest part about your current job? The best part?

PD: The hardest part is losing, and the best part is winning. We get a pass/fail grade 162 times a year, and no matter how good the team is we will fail a lot. The losing can really take its toll when you dedicate so much time and effort to the cause. On the other hand, the triumph of high achievement that accompanies winning is special.
IIATMS: What would you say was your best deal, signing, call up? What is the move that you are most proud of?

PD: More so than any player move, I think I’m most proud of the people I’ve had a hand in hiring throughout the years like Ben Cherington, Chris Antonetti, David Forst, and Dan Feinstein.
IIATMS: What does draft day look like for a front office? How does the vetting process work?

PD: I’ve said this before but to me it’s like Christmas morning. The anticipation is thick, and everyone is excited. Draft day itself, though, is really the culmination of months of grueling work by our scouts. By the time draft day rolls around, we have a very good idea of which players have a good chance to be Padres.

IIATMS: Can you share what the anatomy of a trade looks like? How does the give-and-take look? (I know a Greg Maddux trade works differently than a deal to get Kevin Kouzmanoff or Chris Young, for example. But is there a consistent flow to a deal? How is it initiated, discussed, vetted?)

PD: Every deal is different, and the actual process continues to change with the technology. When I first started in Cleveland, a lot of deals started with face-to-face meetings at the GM’s meetings or events like the All-Star Game. Cell phones weren’t even widely used at the time. Nowadays the communication between GM’s is more routine, so trades can start in person, on the phone, or via text.
IIATMS: How often are you in the lockerroom? Do you seek to develop relationships with players or keep it strictly professional (arm’s length)?

PD: It’s really changed throughout the years depending on my role. I probably spend more time in the clubhouse than most, at least during games, but my relationship with players has always been professional. I’d like to think that I’ve had a good relationship with players, but I’m not going out with them after a game. I had to establish that line when I first became the Assistant GM in Oakland and was younger than a number of the players.

IIATMS: You seem to prefer the West Coast. Are you looking to remain on the West Coast? Would entertain opportunities elsewhere or are you staying in San Diego (or the West Coast) for a longer term?

PD: I think I’ve moved around enough and when you land in a place like San Diego there isn’t much incentive to leave. The reality is that I came here for a number of reasons, both professional (the people who work here) and personal (my wife’s family), so unless those things change I would like to stay here as long as they’ll have me.
IIATMS: Do you think people make too big a deal about “park effects”?

PD: I think it might be a little overdone. Park effects are definitely important when evaluating an individual player’s performance, but on any given night our collective mission is to beat the other team and we’re both playing in the same park. In short, I think there’s a fine line. You can’t ignore the nuances of your own park since you’ll play there 81 times a year, but you can’t be myopic either.
IIATMS: The Padres organization has been very successful in finding middle relievers at a time where a premium is being placed on this role. What, specifically, are you looking at when evaluating these less-heralded players?

PD: I can’t tell you that! Seriously, Kevin Towers is the one who has really done a terrific job over the years in building bullpens without the biggest names.
IIATMS: You are one of the first, if not the first, front office executive with a blog that shares real information. How’d that come about and how did the organization react to your idea?
PD: Lack of sleep. Honestly, I had been talking about it internally for a while and had started an internal blog during the winter primarily for our people in the business operation at the Padres. I decided to take it public late one night when the Major League team was really struggling. I figured our fans both needed and deserved some answers from us. Though there are certainly pitfalls (and I keep finding them), it seemed to me that we should be willing to endure those evils in order to be able to have a direct conversation with our stakeholders, our fans.
IIATMS: In your blog, you question how difficult the trade/rumor mill process must be for the players. How do you deal with players during this time? Do you actively seek them out to keep them in the loop? Do they call you? Are you able to share info with them?

PD: It depends on the situation. There are times when I’ve kept a player in the loop about his situation when I thought it was appropriate. Other times it’s more difficult because trades are tenuous, and you don’t want to burden a player unnecessarily.
IIATMS: Which agents do you most enjoy working with?

PD: I’ll decline to start naming names, because I’m sure I’ll leave some out. There are quite a few who do a good job and genuinely care for their clients.
IIATMS: Which of the other GM’s do you have the strongest relationship with?

PD: I think there are six sitting GM’s and at least that many Assistant GM’s outside of the Padres whom I worked with or for at different times. I also played college football with Mike Hill (well, I spent more time watching and Mike spent more time playing), and Thad Levine’s dad coached my basketball team in 2nd grade. No joke.
IIATMS: Who in the industry do you admire the most and why?

PD: I admire a number of people in this industry for different reasons. Many of them know who they are, so again I’ll decline to name names. That being said, the run that the Atlanta Braves put together for 15 consecutive years still astounds me. John Schuerholz, Bobby Cox, Paul Snyder and many others were responsible, but that collective achievement hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. It’s simply stunning.
IIATMS: There’s been a recent trend of locking up rookies (and 2nd year players) with longer term contracts to buy out their arbitration years. Do you believe in this approach? How do you decide which are worth the risk?

PD: It all comes down to the individual player. I’ve worked in organizations that have been pretty aggressive when it comes to signing young players to long-term deals. In the right situation it can make sense for both the Club and the player.
IIATMS: What changes to the entry draft would you change, if any?

PD: I would prefer a hard slotting system so that the Clubs, players, and agents would not expend so much time, energy, and emotion on the negotiations. I don’t think anybody really wins in the current setup, and it can lead to animosity at the beginning of a partnership.
IIATMS: What sort of things do you and your team read? Asked differently, do you guys dive down into bowels of the internet/blogosphere for ideas, insight, opinion? Do you consider the public’s reaction?

PD: I try to read everything I can, but I probably don’t read as much about baseball as you might think. During the workday I’m interested in the latest studies and insight, but away from work I’d much rather be reading about other subjects.
IIATMS: Did you ever feel pressure to make a deal because a competitor of yours made a deal?

PD: Not really. I’ve always thought you shouldn’t spend too much energy worrying about the things you can’t control. Our mission is to build the best team possible, regardless of what anyone else is doing.
IIATMS: Tell us one thing about yourself that the general public doesn't know and would be surprised to know.

PD: I’m a goofy foot surfer.

Again, a huge thank you to Paul for taking time out of his schedule to provide us with some insight into the life of a senior front office executive. And if you haven't yet bookmarked his blog or signed up for an RSS feed, go visit It Might Be Dangerous... and do it!


tHeMARksMiTh said...

That's really cool Jason. It's always interesting to hear from guys in the thick of it.

e-5 said...

Good work...