Phillies manager Joe Girardi’s devotion to analytics is rooted in a Northwestern University statistics class | Scott Lauber
The new Phillies manager credits an engineering professor from Northwestern with helping to teach him to basics of data and analytics.
For 44 years, Ajit Tamhane has been a professor at the engineering school at Northwestern University. He has taught, by his uncharacteristically imprecise calculation, thousands of students, scores of whom have appealed for a higher grade. Rarely has he been moved to grant such requests.
Then there was the case of Joseph Elliott Girardi.
An industrial engineering major from Peoria, Ill., Girardi took Tamhane’s statistics course in the mid-1980s and received a final grade that didn’t measure up to what he felt certain he had earned. So, he gathered each of his assignments and exams, marched into Tamhane’s office, and argued for why too many points were deducted here and too few were credited there.
“What impressed me about Joe was how thorough he was and how he presented the evidence,” Tamhane said by phone this past week. “He actually succeeded in convincing me to raise his grade.”
The point, Tamhane said, isn’t that Girardi is some sort of master negotiator. It’s that, for more than 30 years, he has exhibited an interest in and a passion for statistical analysis that he claims to have used often as a catcher for 15 seasons in the big leagues and then as a manager for 11 years, 10 at the helm of the high-profile New York Yankees.
But as Girardi takes the reins of the Phillies, it’s fair to wonder about his devotion to analytics, especially considering he got fired by the Yankees two years ago in part because he reportedly pushed back against their progressive use of data.
“Joe came by my office maybe three years ago and said how he learned statistics from me,” Tamhane said. “He said, ‘You taught us the basic principles of statistics. You taught us how to draw inferences and how to use data, and I thank you for that.' He said, ‘I use it all the time.’ ”
Analytics has been a hot button for the Phillies over the last few years. At the direction of managing partner John Middleton, they built a research-and-development department that was nearly non-existent before 2015. Four years ago, they brought on general manager Matt Klentak, a 39-year-old with an economics degree from Dartmouth.
Then, after the 2017 season, the Phillies hired a manager, Gabe Kapler, who takes a decidedly data-driven view of the game. But Kapler produced a two-year record of 161-163 and was fired on Oct. 10.
Although the Phillies’ foray into analytics has not yet netted a winning season, Middleton recently doubled down on the use of data. The Phillies likely found Girardi’s inclination to delve into numbers to be desirable, although he promises to bring a managerial philosophy characterized by a more balanced blend of data and old-school gut-feeling, at least relative to Kapler.
"I do embrace [analytics],” Girardi said at his introductory news conference. “It is important to me because numbers tell a story over time. They really do. I’m an analytical guy that has an engineering degree that loves math. They can never give me too much information.”
Tamhane can vouch for that.
It would be disingenuous for Tamhane to say that he has a strong memory of Girardi in the classroom. He didn’t know until after the semester that Girardi played baseball for Northwestern, and it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. He isn’t much of a baseball fan, preferring basketball and even cricket.
But Tamhane won’t forget his hourlong meeting with Girardi — a two-time academic all-American — after the final grades were posted.
“That interaction is so distinctly etched in my memory because I never met a student who’d come with that detailed data and evidence,” Tamhane said. “He explained to me how he’s deeply interested in statistics and assured me that the analyses that he had done of the homework problems that I had given, how he had thought about those problems creatively and independently on his own. It really impressed me.
"I rarely have seen that level of maturity in undergraduates. It definitely convinced me that this guy’s different. He may not get the top score in the class in terms of the points that he got on the exam, but his thinking is very deep and thorough.”
Tamhane described Girardi as “left-brained,” meaning that he tends to excel more in mathematics, sequencing, and logic. “Right-brained” people — Girardi’s wife, for example, according to Tamhane — are typically more creative and artistic.
In restating his commitment to analytics, Middleton said the Phillies must evaluate how best to present the data to the players. It’s hardly a unique challenge. Most teams are grappling with how to take the information produced by analysts and apply it at field level. Girardi will have a strong influence on the Phillies’ process.
“I don’t know if there is a perfect way,” Girardi said. “It’s important to understand what players are looking for, what they understand. I’ve always felt this is a game of reactions. If you act, things happen too fast. You have to react.
"Players need as much information as they can handle that helps them perform their job to their best, and we’ll continue to talk about ways to disseminate it. I want to know everything, and I want my coaches to know everything and embrace it and be able to help the players.”
It’s a good thing, then, that Girardi learned the basics in a Northwestern statistics class, a subject that meant enough to him to argue for a better grade.
“He gives me a lot of credit — I don’t know if it’s deserved or undeserved — that my teaching and the Moneyball book excited him to analyze each batter, each pitcher, their performance, when he should replace a pitcher, and so on,” said Tamhane, who declined to divulge the grade. “He told me all these decisions are very much data-based. He uses not very advanced techniques, but simple things like mean, median, and histogram and looks at distributions.
"I did not realize that I had inculcated the basic points for him, but that’s what he says. He’s a very smart guy, no doubt about it.”