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Oakland A's Paul DePodesta: The Unsung Hero of the Moneyball Movie

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Oakland A's Paul DePodesta: The Unsung Hero of the Moneyball Movie
Jeff Gross/Getty Images
Paul DePodesta signs Derek Lowe to the LA Dodgers

The Moneyball movie is mainly about the Oakland A's general manager, Billy Beane. And rightly so. For it was Beane that first imposed "sabermetrics," or baseball science, on a major league club. But if his was the vision, DePodesta was the execution. The title of this article gives "Peter Brand," his rightful identity.

Most baseball clubs follow sabermetrics to some degree nowadays, but with the possible exception of the Boston Red Sox and the Toronto Blue Jays, probably no club is as religious about it. (We'll soon see what the New York Mets do, now that Beane's former boss and former subordinate are both there.)

The movie condenses sequences for dramatic effect, and thereby fictionalizes some key events. (For instance, Beane did hire DePodesta from Cleveland, but not in the melodramatic manner portrayed onscreen. And he placed a call to, but did not drop in on, Scott Hatteberg on Christmas.) This created the motive, and the legal right, for DePodesta to refuse to allow the movie to use his real name. 

The plot centered around the fact that the low-budget Oakland As lost three of their most recognized players, first baseman Jason Giambi, outfielder Johnny Damon, and relief pitcher Jason Isringhausen all at the end of 2001 in free agency to richer clubs.It seemed unlikely that Oakland could repeat its 2001 trip to the postseason in 2002 without them.

Beane solved the problem by redefining it. Giambi was certainly a loss in any event, but Damon was so only on defense (more on this later), but not offense. And their designated hitter, Orlando Saenz had actually been a drag. So the job was to replace the combined offense of one star and two mediocrities, hopefully with three players at comparable positions.

Lawrence Lucier/Getty Images

The three choices were Jeremy Giambi, Jason's younger brother (with many of the same talents and faults) promoted from the minors, Dave Justice, whose injuries made him an inferior outfielder, causing him to be "dumped" on the A's, and a comparably injured and "dumped" catcher, Scott Hatteberg. All of these men were good at drawing walks with the knack for getting on base that the Oakland A's prized.

Between the three of them, they replaced all of Saenz' and Damon's offensive contributions, and some fraction of Jason Giambi's. (Other A's veterans, third baseman Eric Chavez and shortstop Miguel Tejada had banner years that made up the difference.)

Moreover, the A's coach Ron Washington miraculously converted Hatteberg into a superior first baseman (the movie does not show this), and his defensive upgrade over Jason Giambi compensated for the defensive downgrade of Jeremy Giambi and Justice versus Damon.

The emergence of Hatteberg as a first baseman allowed Beane to trade Carlos Pena, a promising rookie, for a badly needed fourth starter. (Oakland already had three superlative ones in Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito.)

The movie glosses over the fact that the Pena was sent to the Detroit Tigers for this pitcher--which turned out to be the New York Yankees' Ted Lilly. (It was a three way trade in which the Tigers sent one of their pitchers the Yankees to close the loop.)

While it was Beane's idea to trade for a new reliever, Cleveland's Ricardo Rincon, DePodesta did a lot of backup work, identifying a (minor league) prospect to offer to Cleveland, and also finding prospects at the San Francisco Giants and the New York Mets to ask (not too much, not too little) in trade for their inferior reliever, Mike Venafro. This was to distract the latter two teams from pursuing Rincon.

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It was DePodesta that ultimately found a suitable replacement for Isringhausen. This was Chad Bradford, a minor leaguer in the Chicago White Sox organization. He had a low ERA but also a slow fastball, and a "submarine" delivery. that smacked of Little League ball. He was a great pitcher who didn't look at all like one, a situation called "cognitive dissonance,"  over which DePodesta's computer easily prevailed. 

DePodesta also found a plausible substitute for Kevin Youkilis, a fat, slow, infielder with a high walk rate that the Oakland scouts had allowed Boston to take in the 2001 draft. This was Jeremy Brown, a fat, slow catcher featured at the end of the movie, who could both walk and hit home runs, but not run, playing a key defensive position where his lack of mobility didn't hurt him.

Brown was considered by many to be a failed draft choice. He rocketed through the minors, including AAA, but couldn't "cut it" in the majors, thereby becoming "4A." Some 60 per cent of first round picks don't earn careers in the majors, so Brown was in the 10 per cent sliver between "above average" and "made it."

Some say that Oakland lost its advantage since the early 2000s because the Moneyball tenets were adopted by other clubs. The truth may be more prosaic, although the decline probably stemmed from the success the club DID enjoy in 2002.

This led to an offer by the Boston Red Sox that nearly took Beane away from being Oakland's general manager. More to the point, it led to DePodesta's being hired away from Oakland as the general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2004.

Without him, Beane continued to choose players that were "in the zone," based on sabermetric principles, but the quality of his choices seemed to decline mid-decade, lacking the pin-point accuracy of DePodesta and his computer.

It has been said that the U.S. South lost the Civil War as a result of their greatest victory at Chancellorsville, in which their second-ranking general, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, was accidentally shot and killed by his own men. General Robert E. Lee lamented, "I have lost my right hand."

It may not be an accident that Oakland's best years in recent history, 2000-2003 coincided roughly with DePodesta's tenure in the front office. The miracle may have been attenuated when the events of 2002 caused Billy Beane to lose his right hand man.

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