February 12, 2004

The revolution will not be televised

The Los Angeles Dodgers are reportedly on the verge of hiring Oakland assistant general manager Paul DePodesta as their new GM.

This development is just another step in what is becoming a sabermetric revolution of sorts. As near as I can figure, DePodesta running the Dodgers makes the following list of sabermetrically-inclined teams:

First Tier:

Oakland A's

Toronto Blue Jays

Boston Red Sox

Los Angeles Dodgers

Second Tier:

New York Yankees

Cleveland Indians

San Diego Padres

Colorado Rockies

Kansas City Royals

We're not yet to the point where spreadsheets and Bill James Abstracts fill the majority of major league front offices, but we're certainly moving in that direction.

Billy Beane, in addition to not being a best-selling author, is the GM of the Oakland A's, and now his former assistants, J.P. Ricciardi and DePodesta, are running things in Toronto and Los Angeles. And, of course, Theo Epstein is heading up a front office in Boston that includes Bill James himself.

The links to sabermetrics in the second-tier of teams I have listed there aren't quite as obvious, but they're definitely still there. In addition to the nine teams I have listed above, the New York Mets recently hired their very own "stat guy" and the Texas Rangers will likely be run by another former Billy Beane assistant, Grady Fuson, if/when current GM John Hart steps down.

What exactly does this mean for baseball? The answer to that is far from crystal clear. Some would say that it means high on-base percentages and crappy defenses will be taking over both leagues in no time, but I think they'd be wrong. That's an overly simplistic way of looking at things.

Sabermetrics has never been and never will be about high on-base percentages and valuing offense over defense. Anyone who thinks it is about those things obviously hasn't been watching Beane and the Oakland A's lately.

Sabermetrics, as defined by Bill James, is "the search for objective knowledge about baseball." The fact that something such as on-base percentage is touted is simply an off-shoot of that, stemming from the knowledge that getting on base is an extremely important factor, and perhaps even the most important factor, for scoring runs.

Instead of OBPs taking over the world, I think I would say that the changes will not be as specific as that. The changes you will see (and probably are already seeing) have to do not with a style of play, but with a way of thinking.

Paul DePodesta will bring a way of thinking, a way of doing things, a way of approaching tasks, to the Los Angeles Dodgers that they simply haven't had before. Whether that is good or bad is up for debate, I suppose, but I certainly am of the mind that it is a very good thing.

The Los Angeles Dodgers will be in better hands with DePodesta than they were before him, and at the end of the day that's about all you can ask for. The same is true of Theo Epstein and the Red Sox, and J.P. Ricciardi and the Blue Jays. Billy Beane and the A's have won an average of 96 games per season over the last five years and they've made the post-season in four straight years, so I think Billy Beane's hands are pretty good too.

A side effect of DePodesta joining the Dodgers is that Billy Beane and J.P. Ricciardi have a new trading partner. Not that Billy and J.P. have been shy about trading in general, but they've worked together on multiple occasions since Ricciardi got the job in Toronto.

In fact, since Ricciardi was hired by Toronto in November of 2001, the Blue Jays and A's have already completed four trades with each other. Plus, they were also both involved in a four-team deal in which they didn't directly trade with each other but certainly worked together to facilitate the deal.

That's essentially five trades in about 27 months, which means Billy and J.P. are on the phone a lot. Now all they've got to do is patch Paul in on three-way and they've suddenly got another mind to work with, not to mention another roster full of players and another system full of prospects.

I've already heard talk of concerns over whether Beane and the A's can be as successful without DePodesta. While losing Paul DePodesta certainly hurts a team a tremendous amount, it is not something that is going to wreck the Oakland franchise. For one thing, Beane has already lost Fuson and Ricciardi and, as great as both of those guys were at their jobs, the A's have kept on winning.

I suppose this is starting to be similar to when assistant coaches from Bill Walsh's staff with the San Francisco 49ers started getting head coaching jobs across the NFL.

I've seen "family trees" that have Bill Walsh at the top, with links to a couple dozen of his disciples that have gone on to bigger and better things. The Walsh influence spread throughout the league, as his assistants got head coaching jobs and then their assistants got heading coaching jobs, and on and on and on.

Guys like Mike Holmgren, Brian Billick, Jeff Fisher, Mike Shanahan, George Seifert, Andy Reid, Jon Gruden, Steve Mariucci, Sam Wyche, Denny Green, Mike Sherman, Bruce Coslet, Ray Rhodes - the list goes on and on. And all of their roots can be traced back to Bill Walsh and the San Francisco 49ers.

Can Billy Beane and the A's sit atop a similar family tree of front office men someday? Well, they've got a good start, with Ricciardi, Fuson and now DePodesta. Soon Ricciardi's assistants in Toronto will start to get looked at for bigger jobs and then down the line perhaps the same will happen to DePodesta's right-hand men in LA, and the cycle will begin again.

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

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