The MLB Draft is often appreciated more in retrospect than in present tense. We look back years later at the what-ifs and the bargain pickups that shaped organizations and gain a greater understanding of what an inexact science it really is.
It is, of course, nothing like the NFL Draft, an event that enraptures football fans with its unencumbered spot in the offseason schedule, its instant impact on rosters and its real-time drama from the potential swapping of selections.
There is one man with a deep and unique understanding of these disparate draft worlds. Paul DePodesta spent 20 years in Major League Baseball, famously serving as Billy Beane's "Moneyball" co-pilot before a stint as Dodgers general manager and front office roles with the Padres and Mets. Then, in January 2016, he stunned both the baseball and football industries by joining the Cleveland Browns as their chief strategy officer.
In MLB, DePodesta had his hand in a lot of Drafts. With the Browns, DePodesta has had his hand in a lot of picks, including two of the top four and five of the top 67 this year after an 0-16 finish. So we thought this would be an interesting time to check in with DePodesta to tap into his thoughts on the differences between the two drafts and what we can learn from his unorthodox switch in sports.
Two-plus years into the transition to football, how are things going?
It's been super interesting. One of the reasons I wanted to take this on was because I knew I was going to be back at the very, very beginning of the learning curve. The exciting thing about that is that part of the learning curve is really, really steep. And that's the way it's been. That's what has made it fun and exciting.
You joined the Browns in a period in which they've had a lot of high-profile draft picks. From the outside looking in, it seems so much of your role with the Browns is about creating a process used to evaluate players, especially for the draft.
From a strategic point of view, like you said, we've been accumulating a lot of picks. In baseball, you don't have that capability. Well, I guess on an extremely limited scale you do [teams can trade competitive balance round picks].
We all know how difficult drafting is. It doesn't matter the sport or enterprise. Picking people is really, really complex. You get it wrong a lot. One of our early philosophies that we've stuck by is not to assume that we're going to be better at picking players than anyone else. But if we can give ourselves a lot of [opportunities], we'll find more good players. It's certainly been a staple of our strategy but not something you're able to do in baseball. In baseball, though, you are supplemented with what you're able to do internationally or in Minor League free agency or the waiver wire. Football just doesn't have as much volume as baseball, so you have to really look to the draft to be your primary pipeline of incoming talent.
How far along is the NFL in the realm of analytics influencing evaluations, compared to MLB?
I think they're probably at different stages. Then again, I've only been a part of one organization. In baseball, I had a 20-year run with five teams and had a pretty good idea of what was going on in that space. My view of the NFL is much more narrow. The NFL just a month ago released the tracking data to all the teams. That's certainly a significant step.
But it's a very different game you're analyzing. Baseball in many respects had an early advantage because statistics were prevalent on every single player and had been around for decades and decades. Football is different. If you want to look at what a particular offensive guard had done in his career, you might get games played and Pro Bowls. There's just not nearly as much to go on, as opposed to baseball where everyone who has stepped on the field has a number of statistics -- some more meaningful than others. Wealth of data tracked for more than 100 years. In some respects, that created some challenges in baseball because some of those stats aren't all that helpful. But just because it had been tracked for a long time, it was perceived to have some value. So you have that sort of institutional bias either for or against a particular metric. That doesn't exist in football because there haven't been as many metrics for a lot of positions and players.
So much of what you guys did in Oakland back in the day was about finding undervalued stats and skillsets. I'm just spit-balling here, but it would seem that if football has fewer "sacred cow" statistics, maybe there's less room to exploit inefficiencies.
It could be. That said, every industry that's been around a long time is going to have its share of sacred cows. They just might come in different shapes and sizes [laughs].
Do you miss this time of year in baseball with the MLB Draft approaching?
Oh, yeah. I loved going to see players. And I love the baseball Draft. The baseball Draft was almost like an Iron Man competition that ends in a sprint. And that's not even to speak about everything the area guys and crosscheckers are doing all summer and fall. But once you get going in February, you know you're going non-stop from February to June. You're seeing high school guys, college guys. You might see one guy in a day, or you might go to a conference tournament and see 12 players. And then it culminates in this period where you have a week to 10 days to put it all together and then you're drafting, you're calling names.
In football, they're done playing the first week of January, for all intents and purposes, and the Draft isn't until the end of April. You have the better part of four months to break down every player and parse every piece of information. You've got the combine, the pro days, you do all the interviews both at your facility and also at the combine. There's an incredible amount of work, but you're basically done seeing players. It's just a very, very different pace to it.
It's always seems to me -- again, from the outside looking in -- that so much emphasis in the NFL is put on things that happen after the college season is over. What happens in the combine seems to take on more precedence in some cases than what happened in October, November, December.
That cuts both ways. Because in baseball, you'd have a guy pitch a dominant game at the SEC tournament and suddenly he jumps a couple rounds. Because it's the last thing you saw going into your Draft meetings, so it ends up being prominent in your minds. It definitely can cut both ways.
The other interesting thing about the baseball Draft for me is the sheer volume of people you need to contribute. I'm still sort of in awe at what all the area scouts do, year in and year out -- identifying players, making sure they get seen by the right people. In New York, I had the whole staff in the Draft room in meetings and then for the Draft. So you could call on those guys in the moment. "It's the 13th round and we're looking at these two guys. Who do you like?" The Draft is moving so fast, so much faster than the NFL Draft. In the same time frame, rather than doing seven rounds, you have to get through 40. So it's just very collaborative. At least the way we did it. I miss that part of it. I think it was always fun for us as an organization and a scouting staff to do it as a group.
It's a much smaller group in the NFL.
It's different. Fewer players, so every scout in the room gets to see every single snap the guy ever took in college. In baseball, you're relying on what people saw live. You weren't there and they were, and you have to be reliant upon that. Football is very different. Everybody gets to evaluate the same tape.
Is the adrenaline different on NFL draft day, just knowing the attention people place on the draft -- especially in a situation like the one you're in with the Browns?
It's just very different. For a scouting staff, I don't think there's much difference, because it's what you work for. But organizationally and publicly, there's a big difference. In baseball when it came to be Draft day, I'd get a call or a message from our big league manager saying, "Good luck, go get 'em today." That was about the level of involvement they'd have. Partly because that's the amount they'd want to have, and secondly because they were playing. They don't have the time to go see these players and get wrapped up in it. So it's a real focus of a subset of the organization, but the rest of the organization has other things on their plate, day in and day out.
For the NFL, it's all hands on deck -- the coaches, front-office people, trainers, medical people, everybody. So that gives it a different feel when draft day comes. One of the things I miss [about baseball] is the pace of it. On the other hand, I love the activity of the NFL Draft. You never know, if you're on the clock, when your phone is going to ring and what might be on the other end of that phone call. So that part of it is really neat.
On that note, would you like to see a change made in baseball where teams could trade Draft picks?
I was always in favor of it. In general, anything that provided clubs with flexibility, I was generally in favor of. Obviously there are parameters you'd have to put around that so things don't get abused. I would think most front-office executives would prefer to have flexibility to be able to transact in general. But there is a balance there because the Draft is in place for a reason and the rules are in place for a reason. You've got to make sure you're not compromising the purpose of the Draft and the framework of the Draft.
Because of your background, playing football in college [Harvard], maybe you were the rare person equipped to make the transition you made. But the Twins recently hired [director of baseball operations] Daniel Adler, who worked for the Jaguars [as director of football research, after stints with the Patriots and Browns], the Indians' farm director, James Harris, worked for the Eagles [as Chip Kelly's chief of staff]. Are you guys simply outliers, or do you think front-office roles between the sports are more translational than people realize?
I definitely think it can happen. And I would go well beyond sports. I think a lot of these things are skills that can translate into different industries. You look at the two World Series GMs last year -- Jeff [Luhnow] and Andrew [Friedman]. Fifteen years ago, those guys were at McKinsie [& Company] and Goldman [Sachs]. And they met each other in the World Series, right? So they're just really, really smart guys who are excellent learners and decision-makers. So I think those things translate, regardless.
That said, there's clearly a lot of nuanced knowledge you need to have. There's a reason those guys weren't GMs in Year 1 and in the World Series in Year 1. It takes a while to gain that knowledge. I'm in the steep part of the learning curve there. That's part of the excitement for me, in many respects. There are so many similarities in decisions that have to be made, processes that have to be established, there's definitely a lot of crossover. But I don't think anybody could just cross over in Year 1 and expect to be hugely successful. You need a lot of support and you definitely need a lot of institutional knowledge not just of your organization but the actual sport and the industry.
How has the reception been for you in the NFL industry, among the so-called "football people"?
When I first went to college, I was pretty concerned about not being thought of as just a dumb jock. I made sure I dressed appropriately and wore my glasses instead of contacts -- things like that to make it known I deserve to be here. Then I got into baseball and was immediately dubbed the "geek" or whatever from that world. It probably took me until leaving baseball, then I was finally dubbed the "baseball guy." So the labels for me have always been a little sloppy and maybe a little late. I found it kind of humorous.
As I've said before, the reality is I knew nothing. I spent the better part of the last couple years learning as much as I possibly can. I'm sure there are some sideways glances. I was never in a position to profess that I had it all figured out. Quite the opposite. I think overall, I've been pretty well-received. People are incredibly curious about what went on in baseball -- the things I learned, the things that translate. I will say I've been surprised that there are probably a lot more similarities than I anticipated. Maybe because I was so focused on the potential differences. But the similarities have surprised me. Some of the differences are obvious and in your face. Something as basic as there is no farm system. I can't tell you how big a difference that makes, culturally, just in terms of what everybody's mindset is. But from a similarities standpoint, I've been pleasantly surprised how much crossover there is in the two experiences.
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.