Paul DePodesta Explains His Path to the Cleveland Browns
In his first interview since joining the Cleveland Browns, Paul DePodesta, long known as baseball's sabermetric whiz, talks about the philosophy that has guided his whole career, in and out of sports.
Photo by Jon Soohoo/EPA
In the summer of 1992, between his freshman and sophomore years at Harvard University, Paul DePodesta was an intern working for Jim Pinkerton, then the deputy assistant to President George H.W. Bush. He spent most of his time either in the Eisenhower Executive Building adjacent to the White House or in the Library of Congress, combing through books and transcribing quotes.
He still calls those few months working for Pinkerton, and the ones he would spend on the job again the next year, as hugely influential in his career. The work itself, it seems, was not profound, but the lessons he gathered were. The transformative moment occurred less than a week into the job.
Nearly as soon as DePodesta arrived in D.C., Pinkerton handed him a $20 bill and shooed him away to a bookstore. He told him to buy Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions—a 264-page tome arguing that world views are displaced every so often during scientific revolutions, creating new paradigms in their place—and not to return until he had read it.
Pinkerton's working philosophy, which he later captured in his book What Comes Next, was also about building new models. Specifically, it centered around one question: If we weren't already doing it this way, do you think this is the way we would do it? It was the first time in DePodesta's life that he had thought about the world in such a way, and it would become the underlying premise of his whole career.
Pinkerton intended his ideology to reimagine government and the economy, but for the past two decades DePodesta has used it to build a new way of understanding baseball. As an assistant general manager to Billy Beane with the Oakland Athletics, he was a central figure in Moneyball, the book that became an animating force for a new generation of sports minds and executives. Labeled a sabermetric whiz, he spent the past five years at the helm of the Mets' farm system, shuttling around the country to scout amateur players—the kind of old-school grunt work that Moneyball was supposed to make obsolete. Last week, he moved to the NFL, as the new chief strategy officer for the Cleveland Browns. While the news shocked most, the new position fits DePodesta well. His grander worldview—he's also dabbled in healthcare and finance—has always pushed him out of baseball; this is just his latest challenge.
"I always felt those other things were informing me and making me a better executive," DePodesta told VICE Sports this week in his first interview since joining the Browns. "I think a big part of it was being this continuous learning. It's not necessarily conscious. It's just the way I am. For 20 years it was, 'What can I take from this and how can I maybe apply it to baseball and make us better?' Now it's obviously branched off differently than I anticipated. Look, I loved working in baseball. It certainly wasn't an explicit attempt on my part to leave baseball and do something different. That's just kind of how it's evolved."
That curiosity has led DePodesta to this point. Now he will step into the front office of one of the most wayward franchises in the NFL, hoping to bring the Browns back in from more than a decade in the wilderness. When the hire was announced, DePodesta's arrival was met with skepticism. Twitter was a one-note echo chamber: same old Browns, bouncing from one bad idea to the next.
Analytics has not yet revolutionized football like it has baseball, but DePodesta has never been about numbers, per se; rather, the key is in his philosophy, in looking at the status quo through critical eyes and discarding conventional wisdom. In Cleveland, where the Browns have had just two winning records in 17 seasons since returning, and seven head coaches, the conventional wisdom isn't working.
"I'm no expert on these things, but one of my favorite quotes is from the philosopher Kant: 'The actual proves the possible,'" Pinkerton said. "Paul proved it in baseball. Why not football?"
To explain DePodesta, Josh Byrnes wants you to ponder the Warriors. Note that they hired Steve Kerr even though he had never coached before. And that a big strategic change he made in the NBA Finals was to suddenly put Andre Iguodala into the starting lineup despite bringing him off the bench the entire season. And then consider that the move was spurred by the advice of a young staffer and that it was explained through several types of data and persuasive argument. Then recognize that the Warriors won the NBA title, in part, because of it last June. Igoudala, who averaged 16.3 points, 4 assists and 5.8 rebounds, was named the Finals MVP after the Warriors disposed of the Cleveland Cavaliers in six games.
"In some ways, all of this sort of outside the box stuff, you're just trying to get the best ideas and information moving within an organization and then have them flowing freely without these blind spots," Byrnes said. "That's the spirit of Paul, as opposed to he's found the secret sauce. He's always sort of pushed the best ideas and information to the surface."
Byrnes, now the senior VP of baseball operations for the Dodgers, has known DePodesta since their days in the Indians organization. He preceded him in Cleveland and was his superior. He remembers DePodesta as incredibly efficient, doing more than what was asked of him and improved whatever system he was tasked with running.
DePodesta joined the Indians as an intern in 1996, worked his way up to become John Hart's assistant general manager, and he left in 1998 to have the same role with Oakland. He was just 27.
This was the first unanticipated turn in DePodesta's career. When he graduated from Harvard, he had wanted to be a football coach after an unspectacular collegiate career. He was on the varsity team for only his senior year. He lined up at wide receiver but did not register any statistics.
Among teammates, he is remembered for being incredibly precise. Vin Ferrara, the starting quarterback that year, still speaks in some awe of how DePodesta ran routes.
"He must have been doing the math in his head about the angles of his routes," Ferrara said. "It was almost like you could map them with a protractor."
If the route called for a 45-degree turn, DePodesta wouldn't cheat it by a degree. If it needed a 90-degree cut, he would move at an exact right angle. Tim Murphy, the head coach, calls him "meticulous."
"I was well aware of my limitations as a football player and knew that I needed every edge I could possibly get in order to compete," DePodesta said. "A big part of that was to be as precise as I could and make as few mistakes as possible because I figured that was the only way I could survive.... It was that or a deep-seated fear of getting pancaked by somebody."
His relationship with football has diminished greatly since then. He had an unpaid internship with the Baltimore Stallions, of the Canadian Football League, right out of college before being diverted into baseball. Only when the Browns reached out to him after the end of the World Series in November did the sport come back into his life. An Eagles fan since childhood, he had little time to watch games while with the Mets and as a father of four. But one Sunday, as he neared a deal with Cleveland, he tried to scratch out some time. "I think I've got about six hours of work to do today," he told his wife with a laugh.
His immersion in the sport has been immediate. He was part of the group that selected Hue Jackson as the Browns' new head coach Wednesday, finally returning to California midweek, where he will continue to live while working for Cleveland.
"In the last 10 days I've learned so much and I know how much more I have to learn," he said. "That's sort of my mindset, more than anything else, whenever I get into anything new. I'm in this constant pursuit for new knowledge. I think I sometimes focus more on all the things that I don't know and what I'm trying to figure out."
DePodesta's arrival will likely be the highest-profile test case of analytics in the NFL. Though it has been around in the league for a while and has multiple practitioners, it has never been so squarely in the spotlight.
Joe Banner, the former Browns CEO for 16 months under owner Jimmy Haslam until 2014, sees promise in the hire. He was among the first to create an analytics department some 20 years ago with the Eagles and commissioned a quarterback study with the Browns leading up to the 2013 season.
Yet, even he sees trouble spots. Football is ultra-traditional, to an extent that even surpasses baseball.
"He's very good at this and he can help them because the NFL is far behind the benefits that this can bring," Banner said. "But they just gotta realize that they can't structure things or hire people where the analytics is driving the ship instead of the head coach or the evaluator. If they can get that right, this will help them get better fairly quickly. If they get that wrong, it could actually be a step back."
DePodesta's actual job description is a little murky. The Browns declared he would actualize "best practices" and help lead to "optimal decisions." One person with knowledge of the Browns' hiring process felt the organization wanted to change the status quo. It is likely an experiment worth trying: thinking inside the box has only earned them a reputation as a laughingstock of the NFL to this point.
Applying advanced analytics will certainly be a part of his work, DePodesta says, but it's not so plain.
"There's probably a lot more to it, not just in terms of me but analytics in general," DePodesta said. "It's one thing to be able to analyze something. It's another to implement it or execute on a vision or even to get a whole bunch of people to rally behind it. So there a lot of different elements that are involved in leadership in general and decision-making in general. There's no doubt that going forward that analytics will—as a means to help us make better decisions, that's probably here to stay."
Labeling him strictly as a Moneyball zealot is too simple. Byrnes calls it a lazy narrative. Pragmatist might just be a better description—one who finds ideas and efficiencies wherever he can.
This past June, an email landed in Eric Topol's mailbox. Topol, a cardiologist and the director at Scripps Translational Science Institute, usually lets these messages pass with little notice, but this one was too captivating to disregard:
"Dr. Topol, your book, The Patient Will See You Now made a profound impression on me, so profound that I needed to reach out to you to see if there was some way I could help this transformation in health. I'm one of the principals in the Moneyball story, and while I currently work for the New York Mets, I reside here in La Jolla. While reading your book, I was struck by the similarities in our experiences in venerable, yet staid industries."
Topol's interest was piqued. He was a baseball fan. He had read Moneyball and seen the movie. Though he didn't know much about DePodesta, he did want to meet with him. So they set up a meeting in La Jolla, where the facility and DePodesta reside. Topol allotted an hour and ended up sitting there for more than three.
Just as he had emailed, DePodesta saw parallels between the burgeoning datification of medicine and baseball's ecosystem in the late 1990s—a comment Topol found especially insightful. Topol's book was about bringing healthcare into this new age of information. DePodesta wanted to help somehow in speeding up that curve.
"I just thought, I have to reach out. I'm sure there's a lot more I can learn," DePodesta said. "I'll say this: the last 20 years in baseball, much what I've done is try to learn as much as I can about other industries, especially ones that I thought shared common characteristics to what we were doing in baseball. Because I was always trying to learn how they dealt with similar interests to what we had. That's how I picked up his book in the first place."
DePodesta's mother was a nurse, and he had always felt tethered to healthcare in a way. Topol instantly was intrigued and compelled to find a way to work together. Soon, DePodesta was attending Monday morning faculty meetings. He spoke at the institute's conference on big data in medicine, leaving more than 500 guests "spellbound" after a presentation made without notes or slides, Topol says.
"He has very unique data analytical capabilities, whether it's more suitable for an algorithm or how to slice and dice a data set that maybe we haven't thought of because we're in the forest," he said. "That is his forte. I think he has a gift for that—in fact, I see a rarified talent. That's why he's been, I think, so influential in baseball. He may not be the one that does the analysis or writes code for the algorithm, but he has a gift that is very rare to see. He, coming from outside the medical perspective and biomedical research, gives us a whole fresh look at ideas."
Earlier this month, DePodesta began a term as an assistant professor of bioinformatics, where he will work with information the institute has collected and try to find patterns or understand the science of the data. Some of the projects he could be involved in projects will include utilizing data derived from genome sequencing or from body sensors, like those on athletes that track heartbeat and vital signs and monitor sleep. Eventually, there could be use for that information in improving athletic performance in DePodesta's job with the Browns, as well.
It is not the first time DePodesta has stepped out of the sports world to work on something else. He has sat on the Sears board of directors for the past three years. When Sears chairman Edward Lampert announced his addition, he noted that DePodesta's "ability to scrutinize data and use it to assess talent and drive execution makes him ideally suited to join our board."
DePodesta has also branched out into financial services and done advisory work for venture capital companies. After Moneyball came out, Michael Mauboussin, currently a managing director at Credit Suisse, reached out to him, and it led to time spent with Bill Miller, the former chairman of Legg Mason Capital Management. DePodesta now jokingly calls Mauboussin a "partner in crime."
DePodesta first realized the capacity of baseball to influence other fields just as Moneyball was about to debut. Before the book went on sale, Lewis told him stores were having trouble deciding whether to put it in the business section or in sports. Now stores are saturated with books on leadership authored by, or at least with, plenty of coaches and athletes—a cross-pollination of two ecosystems.
In Oakland, DePodesta and Beane often found ideas outside of baseball. Beane, like DePodesta, is a voracious reader, he said. They would read very little about their own sport and look to outside sources for information and, hopefully, guidance. Sometimes, something would click.
"We didn't have the resources to keep up with everybody else and the idea of following best practices within our industry, we knew that wasn't a great strategy for us," DePodesta said. "In fact, it was probably a losing strategy for us because we didn't have the resources to keep pace. So our challenge was to try to create new best practices and ones that would actually provide us some sort of competitive advantage. The only way for us to do that was to look outside of baseball for inspiration."
DePodesta has thought about leaving sports for good at some point. Although he's just 43, he's already spent 20 years in one professional organization or another.
He could see himself waking up one day, and bending his energies elsewhere—but he can't imagine himself just stopping, either. Nothing else, he believes, could match the emotional high.
"It's just too much a part of who I am," he said. "I love the competition. I love that aspect of it. I love that it is a drama without a script and it is unpredictable. That keeps it, to me, super interesting. For all those reasons, I think I'd have a hard time completely walking away, but I could see myself at some point in my life maybe spending more time on other things. But who knows, I think it would be more organic than kind of purposeful."
Whichever job DePodesta holds, he'll continue to ask the same question he has for the past 20 years, the one he'll think about regularly now in Cleveland: If we weren't already doing it this way, is this the way we would start? And for the Browns, a new way of thinking can't hurt.