Paul DePodesta Got the Last Laugh

If Paul DePodesta’s baseball career was made into a movie, January 5, 2016 would have been a fitting epilogue. In one of the more unique decisions in recent sports history, DePodesta was hired away from his job as Mets Vice President of Player Development in order to become the chief strategy officer of the NFL’s Cleveland Browns.

The move likely marks the end of one of the more interesting front office careers in MLB history, as the well-traveled DePodesta has now come full circle from his days as a member of the Cleveland Indians analytics department. He went out on top, too – the 2015 Mets team that won the National League Pennant may have had Sandy Alderson as its general manager, but DePodesta’s fingerprints were all over it. It was a far cry from ten years earlier, when DePodsesta was run out of L.A. in disgrace.

In a way, part of DePodesta’s career has already been made into a movie. It’s well known among baseball circles that he was the primary inspiration for Jonah Hill’s character Peter Brand in the film Moneyball. In the story, Brand is hired away from the Indians to become the right-hand man of Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt), just as DePodesta actually was in 2001. And like Brand in the movie, DePodesta and his affinity for advanced stats were instrumental to Beane’s and Oakland’s success in the early 2000s. That success landed DePodesta the biggest job of his career: the Los Angeles Dodgers’ GM position.

When DePodesta was hired by then-new Dodgers owner Frank McCourt in 2004, the move was immediately met with criticism by T.J. Simers, a veteran Los Angeles Times sportswriter who was vehemently against the analytics-heavy approach championed by Beane and others. “So now the Dodgers have a guy who doesn’t know much and doesn’t have the answers,” Simers wrote after the hiring. “Happy days are here again,” the sarcastic columnist added.

In an article published after the Dodgers won an arbitration battle with star closer Eric Gagne, he made it clear he wasn’t above calling DePodesta a “kid” or mocking the name of assistant GM Kim Ng despite the fact that she was breaking barriers as the first woman in such a prominent front office role. (Gagne would blow out his elbow less than two seasons later and never return to his former dominance.) Simers, however, was just getting started. In the following months, he resorted to calling DePodesta a “computer GM” and a “geek” before finally settling on a nickname: “Google Boy.”

As the Dodgers and the Giants battled it out for the National League West title in the waning days of the 2004 season, Simers was quick to credit DePodesta for “making the season so exciting” for San Francisco. When the Dodgers won the division, played their first playoff game in eight years, and won their first playoff game in sixteen, it only bought DePodesta a small reprieve from Simers’ onslaught. By December, the columnist was back at it, with lines like “Obviously the brass will do whatever is necessary to put an underdog on the field, and we all love an underdog, so the Dodgers are really giving us just what we want.” and “The Dodgers maintained to a man last season that they made it all the way to the playoffs because of team chemistry. It certainly wasn’t because of the brilliant moves made by Google Boy.”

Then came 2005.

As the Dodgers sunk to a 77-win season, Simers preened, proudly relating DePodesta’s visible disgust with him to readers while reminding them at every turn that he had counted the team out ever since Opening Day. Simers gloated as he made enemies out of the team he was supposed to cover, and one could almost count on his columns being filled with veiled “I-told-you-so’s.” “Where the Dodgers go from here rests on the… baseball insight of Paul DePodesta, which just might be the scariest sentence I have ever written,” he opined as the lost season neared its end. When the season was over, Simers wasted no time recounting all the “wonderful” players DePodesta had shipped out because “his computer” didn’t like them – players like Paul Lo Duca, who was later fingered as a heavy steroid user in the infamous Mitchell Report. By the time McCourt fired DePodesta, many speculated that the public pressure brought on by people like Simers had something to do with it.

Fast forward a decade, to October 15, 2015. The Dodgers had been under new ownership for over three years, but it took them two of those years to realize that Ned Colletti, DePodesta’s replacement, was far too old-school for the evolving MLB landscape. They hired former Rays GM Andrew Freidman as president of baseball operations and Freidman, in turn, hired Farhan Zaidi as his general manager. Colletti’s successor, like his predecessor, had been Billy Beane’s right-hand man in Oakland before coming to the Dodgers.

DePodesta, meanwhile, had wound up with the Mets, serving as New York’s Vice President of Scouting and Player Development. He was back at his old stomping grounds that night, with the Mets facing the Dodgers in the deciding Game 5 of the NLDS. While in New York, DePodesta had helped Sandy Alderson and his staff do what many deemed impossible: turn the Mets back into a contender on a shoestring budget.

Manager Terry Collins was toeing the visiting dugout steps, and he was there partially because he and DePodesta had known each other from when Collins was overseeing the Dodgers’ minor league system in the early 2000s. On the mound was Jacob deGrom, a one-time blank slate after going through Tommy John surgery in the low minors. Perhaps the crowning achievement of DePodesta’s player development staff was helping deGrom develop a cocktail of pitches that turned him into the 2014 NL Rookie of the Year. On the opposite side of the field in the home dugout was perhaps DePodesta’s greatest gift to the Dodgers franchise, though nobody knew it at first. The Dodgers’ dismal 2005 season that had gotten DePodesta fired wound up landing them the seventh overall pick in the following year’s draft, which they used to select a high school southpaw from Texas named Clayton Kershaw.

The Mets won that Game 5, as you’re probably well aware of, behind six gutsy innings from deGrom and Daniel Murphy‘s temporary transformation into Babe Ruth. They went on to reach their first World Series in fifteen years, something nobody saw coming at the beginning of the season. When DePodesta left for his new job on Tuesday, Alderson was quick to make sure everyone knew how instrumental his right-hand man was in achieving that goal. “Paul completely reorganized the Mets scouting and player development functions and had an extraordinary impact in both areas, but he was also very directly involved in our trade and free-agent acquisitions,” Alderson said in a statement. “His commitment to excellence and his passion for innovation will be missed by the Mets and all of baseball.”

After being run out of Los Angeles in disgrace ten years earlier, DePodesta truly got the last laugh.

Oh, and speaking of seeing things coming at the beginning of the season, T.J. Simers was doing alright for himself as well. He stayed with the L.A. Times for several more years before leaving for a stint at the Orange County Register then retiring. Then, perhaps because he couldn’t stop himself from antagonizing more people, he sued the Times for age and disability discrimination and won $7.1 million in a settlement. Yet a couple of hours after the news of the Browns’ hire of DePodesta broke, another story hit the airwaves. Sometimes, the universe just has a way of working things out for ol’ Google Boy.

Several quotes for this article were obtained through the Los Angeles Times archives.

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