As he prepared to enter his third season in that role, Zaidi chatted with MLB.com at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Ariz., during the final days of Spring Training to discuss his start in baseball, what he learned from Beane, how difficult winning a fifth straight National League West title will be for the Dodgers and why watching Clayton Kershaw pitch is one of the most stressful parts of his job.
MLB.com: How did you land your first job in baseball?
Zaidi: I might take up your whole tape on there explaining that.
MLB.com: The CliffsNotes version, then.
Zaidi: I was in grad school at Cal in an economics Ph.D. program. I was always interested in baseball. I happened to come across the famous -- or infamous -- "Moneyball" book. That really struck a chord with me. Plenty of stories in there about people with unusual paths into baseball; people that didn't necessarily play professionally, people that brought different skill sets to the table. That book was really my inspiration.
I started sending around my resume and got a little bit more active looking for a job in baseball. Despite what I thought was casting a wide net, it wound up being pretty serendipitous that I just happened by chance one day across a listing for a baseball operations assistant with the A's. I didn't know anybody over there; I had no experience with the organization. I just submitted my resume and crossed my fingers. A few days later, I heard from David Forst. A week after that, I was in Billy Beane's office for an interview. It was a very, very lucky set of circumstances.
MLB.com: Given that "Moneyball" sparked your interest in this, how surreal was it to be sitting in Billy Beane's office?
Zaidi: Very surreal. I recall walking into his office, seeing him sitting there having read this whole book about him and how influential he was in baseball. I also remember the moment he stood up from behind his desk; he's a big guy. I don't think people fully appreciate that. In my background, I hadn't been around a lot of professional athletes, so I still remember that feeling of thinking, "Man, this guy is huge."
MLB.com: Most people think he looks like Brad Pitt.
Zaidi: There's that, too. I wouldn't say and have him hear that I was struck by his handsomeness, but definitely just the surrealness of being in his office. It wound up being a great interview and we hit it off really well, but surreal is exactly the right word for it.
MLB.com: You held a few different jobs before getting into baseball, including a position in the fantasy sports division of The Sporting News. Did you ever dream when you were working in fantasy sports that you would have a chance to actually run your own baseball team?
Zaidi: No. It was an aspiration, but being a numbers guy, if you'd asked me to handicap the odds, I wouldn't have gotten too carried away with the chances. I had worked at a management consulting firm, and this fantasy sports company, which I had a great time at, was really the closest access that I could get to working in sports. I did that for a year, and I wound up going to grad school after that, because the path to a team seemed a little too difficult and distant.
MLB.com: You once said, "It always seemed to me that to work in a baseball front office, you had to have played the game at a high level, or been a scout or a coach. It didn't seem like a career you could access from a business background." As you look at the landscape now of GMs, Jerry Dipoto is the only one of the 30 general managers who actually played Major League Baseball. Why do you think more former players haven't gone the route of front-office careers after their playing days?
Zaidi: I think some of it is just that the job of general manager has changed. Baseball has become such big business now that some of the skill sets you get from other careers and professions have brought a benefit. What's very clear is that people that played the game at the highest level are still very influential in the decision-making infrastructure in a lot of front offices. They may be special assistants or vice presidents of player personnel, different kinds of titles; but the GM title now comes with a lot of administration and management responsibility and maybe that's why you've seen a little bit of a trend with that particular title towards people with less conventional baseball backgrounds.
MLB.com: Billy once said of you: "I'm more worried about losing him to Apple or Google than I am to another team." Have you ever thought about taking your talents to another industry?
Zaidi: I do have different interests. I was very fortunate to wind up in this job, but if the A's had decided to go in a different direction or I hadn't come across that job posting, I would probably be in economics academia somewhere. I really enjoyed that. I love this job and am very committed to this organization and what we're trying to do here. I would say on the one hand, I have other interests. But on the other hand, it would be really hard to ever walk away from baseball. That's a question I've thought about but don't have a good answer to.
MLB.com: You worked for Billy for a long time; what did you take away most from your years with him?
Zaidi: I think one of the easiest traps to fall into, or something that can really inhibit your judgement in this kind of role, is just the fear of making mistakes. The fear of making a trade that you get burned on, the fear of signing a free agent that doesn't work out; it can really lead to paralysis. I think if you really look deep inside the soul of any GM, they'll acknowledge there's a lot of that. That affects and maybe even impairs their decision making. That is what I was able to observe with Billy and try to apply in practice wherever I can, which is to not avoid making decisions because you're worried about them making you look bad; to always operate in the best interests of the organization.
As a corollary of that, when we'd be making a trade, he would always say, "Focus at least as much on what you're getting as what you're giving up." Sometimes in our front offices, there's so much conversation on, "How good do we think this prospect we're giving up can be?" rather than saying, "We're getting this guy that can really get us over the hump." I think that mentality, because of the psychology that goes into making decisions in such a public forum, is really important to nail down. I think he does that as well as anyone in the game.
MLB.com: The Dodgers have won four straight NL West titles, averaged more than 92 wins per season during that stretch. Yet despite a large payroll, the Dodgers haven't won a World Series in nearly 30 years and 24 of the other 29 other teams have won a pennant since your last one in 1988. How much pressure is there to get the Dodgers back to the top?
Zaidi: I think it's mostly self-inflicted pressure. We feel that responsibility. I come into the office every day thinking, "This is a huge market and a proud franchise; it's been way too long since we've won a World Series." I appreciate the reminder, but we remind ourselves of that every day. I view it more as a responsibility than as pressure, because every team is trying to win the World Series. If anything, we just feel a greater responsibility because of the history of the franchise, the size of the city and how long it's been.
MLB.com: How do you think Statcast™ is changing the way fans are watching the game?
Zaidi: It's interesting; when I first started with the A's, I would chart our games. Every pitch, we had a video-clipping tool and you would clip the video for that pitch, watch it back a couple of times and make sure you got the exact pitch type and location exactly right. I did that for a couple of years, and that really changed the way I watch the game, because it was almost like I had that grid of the strike zone embedded in my head. And that's what I see whenever I'm watching the center-field camera now.
I think Statcast™, when you see those visualizations of a guy's break, route efficiency, all that kind of stuff, even when people are watching a regular play, they're going to be paying attention to that sort of stuff. I think having those tools, having them show up on telecasts is really going to -- particularly on the defensive side of the ball -- make people more attentive and appreciate great defense a little more.
MLB.com: Dave Roberts won the National League Manager of the Year Award last year. To you, what's his best attribute as a manager?
Zaidi: His best attribute is just his energy and positivity, which I would roll into one. It's such a long season, there are so many times when it's tempting to just emotionally roll over and be a little negative or just give into the frustration. I've never been around somebody who is more persistently positive or energetic or knows that things can turn around on a dime. That kind of thing becomes infectious and has a lot of positive downstream effects in terms of guys not giving up in the middle of games and guys being willing to sacrifice for the good of the team. It's the fundamental trait that makes him a really great manager -- and he has plenty of others as well.
MLB.com:Corey Seager won NL Rookie of the Year honors and finished third in the NL MVP Award vote last season, but he's still only 22 years old. Has he even scratched the surface in your mind on how good he can become?
Zaidi: (Laughs.) If he hasn't scratched the surface, then I think other teams are probably in trouble. It's interesting; people think about guys peaking at age 27 or 28. That's been the conventional wisdom. Now, with amateur baseball being so advanced and guys racing through Minor League systems quicker, I'm not sure that paradigm holds anymore.
That was one of the debates we had when we were wondering whether to call Corey up in September 2015. Do we want to "start the clock" on him? Do we want him from ages 21-27 or 24-30? What's the right time frame where you want a player like this? One of the arguments we made is he could be reaching his peak early; different guys reach their peak at different times. I hope that's not true; I hope he's only scratched the surface, because like I said, look out. We would also be thrilled if he just maintains what he did last year. Being a top three player in the National League is pretty good.
MLB.com: What is it like to watch Clayton Kershaw pitch every five days for your team?
Zaidi: I mean this as the highest of compliments, but it's almost more stressful, because there's such an expectation of winning when he takes the mound that there's only downside.
MLB.com: If he goes out there and throws a shutout, you expected him to do that, right?
Zaidi: Exactly. That's the burden of expectations that being the greatest pitcher of your generation comes with. I guess that's the front-office stress associated with having such a great pitcher and a guy that the team really relies on to be a stopper. But every once in a while when you can step back and just be a fan and appreciate the greatness, it's pretty incredible.
MLB.com:Yasiel Puig's numbers have mostly dipped in each of his last three seasons. He's still only 26. What does he need do to become a more consistent player?
Zaidi: He's got to stay healthy. That's been, in my view, maybe the biggest issue for him over the last couple years. Just the starts and stops that have come from the injuries that he's had. That's been an emphasis for him conditioning-wise this offseason. I think if he can have a season where he stays off the DL, you're going to see a really big and important contributor to our team.
MLB.com: We talked about the four straight division titles; how challenging is number five going to be? How do you assess the state of the National League West?
Zaidi: It's going to be a tough division. You have the Giants, who are always right there with us. I think bringing Mark Melancon in is really going to stabilize the end of the game for them, where they had some issues last year. I think probably when they do the math of how many games behind the division they finished and how many saves they blew, they probably feel like with a better closer, they should have won the division last year.
Then you've got the Rockies and Diamondbacks, who are both teams that gave us trouble at times last year, have a lot of good, young talent and have made some moves this offseason that I think will make them better and in some ways tougher opponents for us. The Padres, we'll see; they're going with the laboratory approach. We don't know what kind of pitching we're going be facing, if they're going to be pulling starters after three innings and matching up from that point on. Sometimes the opponents you know least about can wind up being the most difficult. They have an eye for the future, but they still have plenty of talent on their big league team. I think it's going to be an interesting and difficult race for us.
Mark Feinsand is an executive reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.