Analysis

Binder Joe and the challenge of getting the most out of the Phillies


Joe Girardi will be the 55th manager in franchise history. (Tim Kelly/Phillies Nation)

General manager Matt Klentak opened up Joe Girardi’s introductory press conference at Pass & Stow on the third base side of Citizens Bank Park briefing the media on the process of hiring the Phillies 55th manager. While on the flight back from California to deliver the verdict to former manager Gabe Kapler, Andy MacPhail, John Middleton and Klentak all agreed that prior experience managing at the major league level was the most important attribute in the team’s next skipper.

The three candidates interviewed – Buck Showalter, Dusty Baker and Joe Girardi – have a combined 53 years of experience managing in a big-league dugout and 4,402 wins under their belts. Ironically, the Phillies went with the least experienced out of the bunch. Girardi, however, is the youngest, most successful and the only candidate out of the three who could amass excitement amongst a fanbase beyond frustrated with the direction of the team.

Girardi is also the guy most well versed in analytics. The Peoria, Illinois native was given the nickname “Binder Joe” during his time with the New York Yankees. He was sporadically spotted in the dugout holding a large binder full of matchups and strategies. The 55-year-old also holds an industrial engineering degree from Northwestern University and declares himself as someone who “wants to know everything.” If you thought the hiring of Girardi was an indication that the Phillies were steering away from a data-driven approach, think again.

During an interview with Phillies radio color commentator Kevin Frandsen, Girardi said he was scheduled to meet with the Research and Development department for the first time later in the week. He was eager to “[Get the R&D department’s] evaluation of everything: from players who played here last year to players that are coming, matchups and different things they have.”

Girardi went on to mention that his favorite subject in school was math and that he comes from a “math-oriented family.” In an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Scott Lauber, Ajit Tamhane, Girardi’s introductory statistics professor at Northwestern, called him “left-brained” and said “he never met a student with that detailed data and evidence,” in reference to a time when Girardi convinced Tamhane to raise his final grade because he felt his work earned him a higher mark.

Girardi may consider himself a numbers guy, but that wasn’t the narrative surrounding him when the Yankees fired him after losing to the Astros in the 2017 ALCS. He reportedly pushed back against the analytics department in New York during the later stages of his tenure as the team grew more and more progressive in its usage of data. Phillies bench coach Rob Thompson, who served as a coach under Girardi throughout the entirety of his tenure as Yankees manager, addressed some of the criticisms Girardi received in an interview with NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Jim Salisbury.

“As far as analytics, I can tell you this about Joe: He’s going to tell you what he’s thinking. He is honest, accountable and straightforward. I don’t know what happened at the end in New York, but if that is what it was and he said his piece, so be it. I’d want someone like that working for me.”

“Balance is Joe’s strength,” Thomson went on to say. “He looks at numbers as part of his process in making a decision, but he also relies on his senses, what he sees and feels. In the wild card game in ’17 in Minnesota, he took [Luis] Severino out in the first inning because he just didn’t see good results. He didn’t think the ball was coming out good and he pieced it together with [pitching coach] Larry Rothschild and won us a game. Typically, you wouldn’t do that, definitely not in the regular season. But he sensed, ‘This is something I’ve got to do right now.’ There were no analytics involved.”

Perhaps a balanced approach could be the reason why advanced metrics rank Girardi as one of the best bullpen managers of this century. The hope is that Girardi’s fluency in analytics and his willingness to trust his baseball instincts in the appropriate situations will bring stability to a clubhouse that was anything but stable in the latter half of the 2019 season. According to a report from Matt Gelb of The Athletic, Kapler stopped relying on some of the Phillies pitching models during the 2019 season. Instead of continuing to rely on models he didn’t think were getting the necessary results, Kapler began to pick-and-choose the best metrics and send his own game plans to pitchers and catchers.

It was also reported that the ground-level analysts in the clubhouse struggled to gain credibility among players. Players also spoke anonymously about the pitching process with Gelb and Meghan Montemurro, with one of those players saying, “We were asked to do things based on the way they want to see it done – not what has worked before.”

There’s no indication at this point that those who worked in the R&D department under Kapler won’t be back in 2020, but nonetheless, Girardi will have his work cut out when it comes to both imposing structure and getting to know how much information certain players can and cannot digest. Each player’s preference for analytics over feel and vice versa differ greatly and can range anywhere from Rhys Hoskins, who “enjoy[s] the information” and believes it can give the team a three to four game edge to Aaron Nola, who when asked about how he makes use of analytics said “I don’t want those things to take away my competitive nature, and I don’t want to think about those things on the mound.”

It was apparent that the one-size-fits-all approach employed by Kapler and his coaching staff didn’t work. Girardi will surely look back on his time in New York and reflect on what did and didn’t work when thinking of ways to get the most of the 2020 Phillies with the use of analytics. He’ll also account for the failures of the last regime. For now, though, Girardi isn’t sure if there is necessarily one exact answer on how to strike the right balance of analytics and feel.

“I don’t know if there is a perfect way,” Girardi said in his introductory press conference. “I think it’s important to understand what players are looking for [and] what they understand. The one thing that I always felt is this is a game of reactions and [not] a game of acting.”

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