Thursday, September 1, 2011

DePodesta, scouting

While Brad Pitt and friends filmed Moneyball, Paul DePodesta roamed America, far from his computer and his famous past.

You could find DePodesta at ballparks in cities, suburbs and country towns, eyeing ballplayers at high schools and colleges. Flesh and blood ballplayers, he surveyed, not their statistical lines.

If you wanted to agitate him to Billy Beane levels -- OK, Beane on a good day -- you told "DePo" what the potential draftee's on-base percentage was. Or his WHIP.

"Most of the time when I go to the park," DePodesta told this blog last month, "I try not to look at the stats until after the fact, and then see whether or not what I saw with my own eyes agrees with what the page says."

DePodesta, a former power broker with the Padres and still a La Jolla resident, soon will finish his first year with the New York Mets as vice president of player development and amateur scouting.

The draft is his baby. If his nomadic preparations for it this year were at odds with his stat-crunching persona created by Moneyball, the Michael Lewis best-seller of 2003 soon to hit the movie theaters, so was his new role.

The Mets hired him in large part to scout the amateur ballplayers recommended by their area scouts, and to oversee those scouts and the national cross-checkers. DePodesta said he scouted 150 or more ballplayers to that end.

One of the knee-buckling scouting tasks in all of sports is to predict which of the better amateur baseball players will evolve into worthwhile pros. With Lewis embedded in their front office leading up to the 2002 draft, the A's worked to hedge the risk. At the top of the draft, where the costs are much higher, they favored college players and cleaved to data showing that footspeed and pitch speeds had become overvalued, whereas OBP was a vein of gold.

DePodesta, who graduated cum laude from Harvard with a degree in economics, was the top assistant to general manager Beane and in charge of Oakland's statistical analysis for the draft. The statistics of a college player being far more valuable than those of a high school player, DePodesta's work trimmed the cost of scouting thousands of players.

Nevertheless, DePodesta told me in 2007 that if the low-budget A's had as many great amateur scouts as the Braves had, Moneyball wouldn't have been written. The book belonged in the business sections of bookstores and libraries, he said, not the sports sections.

The Braves, who trusted scouts such as Paul Snyder and Roy Clark, drafted a large number of high school players who became stars, among them Chipper Jones, Tom Glavine, Ron Gant, Ryan Klesko, and, more recently, Brian McCannFreddie Freeman and Jason Heyward.

Another scout who had the knack for reading high school players was Logan White, a former West Coast Scouting Supervisor for the Padres who oversaw drafts for the Dodgers starting in 2003. Moneyball aided him, White told me for a story many years ago, by encouraging other clubs to draft college players and leaving him a wider choice of prep players, among them future Dodgers stars such as Matt Kemp, Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley and Jonathan Broxton.

DePodesta, a former baseball and football player for Harvard, caught the scouting bug long before Beane hired him in 1999. One of his favorite gigs was the advance scouting job he worked, studying big league players for the Indians in 1997 and 1998.

He enjoyed his job with the Padres in large part because it had him scout 100-120 amateurs a year.

"I think anybody, the longer they do it, the more players they see and the larger library of players they have, the more they sort of trust their own eyes," he said.

If statistics discourage ballclubs from being overly subjective -- acting on only what their evaluators see or don't see -- an amateur scout is stat-leaning to his peril.

"One of the things I try to tell our guys all the time is, in your scouting report especially, don't ever reiterate the stats," DePodesta said. "I think you need to try to explain them. That's what I certainly try to do in my own mind."

He bears in mind that "the stat sheet's there for every night."

"But," he said, "it also makes you sleep well at night when you see something, and then you look at the performance and you say, 'That makes sense.' Those are the decisions you feel good about."

In charge of the Padres from April 2005 through March 2009 was the spiritual godfather of Moneyball, Sandy Alderson, and in all four of those Junes the Padres selected a college player in the first round. None of the four panned out. In other rounds, the Padres found value in the college ranks, landing future starters such as Chase Headley, Nick Hundley, Will Venable, Mat Latos  (out of a community college) and Cory Luebke, a supplemental pick,

Non-Padres scouts with friends in San Diego's organization said Padres scouts felt disenfranchised where the top of the draft was concerned. If a Padres scout wanted the club to invest a high-end pick in a high school player, he felt like the club would find reasons to take the college player who had the thicker statistical profile.

Alderson said the club's statistical analysts were adept at sifting the college markets; conversely, the GM at the time, Kevin Towers, blamed the first-round selection of Allan Dykstra on a statistical analyst having too much clout.

Grady Fuson, who oversaw drafts for the A's in the Moneyball era and for the Padres from 2006-09, said San Diego needed to draft for depth, given the depleted state of the farm system when Alderson and he arrived in early 2005.

The current regime of Jeff Moorad and Jed Hoyer more than doubled the number of area scouts, a clear sign the Padres intended to vet both the prep and college markets. Driven by scouting reports, the Padres invested $6.5 million this year in three high school players chosen between 25th and 82nd in the draft and offered $1.5 million to a prep catcher who turned them down. The $3 million they guaranteed to Orange County catcher Austin Hedges reflected their belief that he is a top-5 talent.

Alderson became GM of the Mets last October and hired DePodesta in November. In June, the Mets used a first-round pick on a high school outfielder from Wyoming, Brandon Nimmo. A anti-Moneyball pick that like that would've made Brad Pitt sneer as Beane in 2002. Then again, each draft has its own DNA.

"It's a matter of being in a position to try take the best player that's on the board at the time," DePodesta said. "This year, we thought there was a lot of good college pitching out there that we liked. At the same time, we didn't think it was a terribly deep class position player-wise. We felt if we were going to take one that we really liked, we had to take one early."

He said his use of statistics for the draft "is still all just part of the package and in many respects always was.

"Even if a guy appeals to you statistically," he said, "you still need to go out and see him and try to understand how he's achieving that performance, and to try to figure out whether or not that performance is likely to continue going forward at a higher level.

"I'm still trying to get better at it, like we all are."

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