No one in baseball knows Joe Girardi better than Rob Thomson.
Thomson was on the coaching staff, as either third base coach or bench coach, all 10 years that Girardi managed the New York Yankees.
When Girardi was let go by the Yankees after the 2017 season, Thomson moved down the road and became Phillies bench coach under Gabe Kapler.
Now Kapler is gone and Girardi is in as Phillies manager.
So, just what are the Phillies getting in their new skipper?
"A very intelligent person," Thomson said in a telephone interview. "Joe prepares as well as anybody, he has a great work ethic and a passion for the game. He's really good.
"He cares about his staff and his players, cares about the organization and the city he works for.
"He's been a winner his entire life."
It's difficult to recall a Phillies managerial hire that has been more widely applauded by fans than Girardi. The guy brings a brilliant resume to town — three World Series rings as a player and another as a manager. The new schoolers like him because he knows his way around the numbers game. (He has an engineering degree from Northwestern, for gosh sakes.) The old schoolers like him because he'll go off the menu and use his gut when he needs to. He's got a brush cut and a square jaw. He'll go at it with an umpire and slam his cap to the ground.
"We're getting a very good man," Thomson said.
Having already spent two years on the Phillies staff, Thomson will be a tremendous resource to his new/old boss as he gets to know his new club. Girardi, who will be officially introduced to Philadelphia at a Monday news conference, has already begun seeking intel from Thomson.
"I don't think I've ever heard Joe as excited over the phone as I have this last week or so," Thomson said. "As he got into the process and found how great the people in the front office and ownership are and as he started learning about the players and the way they prepare and compete, his excitement has only grown. I think he wishes spring training started tomorrow."
It's best not to rush spring training. In adding Girardi, the Phillies have one big offseason item checked off their to-do list, but several big ones remain. Surely, Girardi already knows what the biggest one is, but we asked Thomson just the same what he'd tell the new skipper if he was asked about the team's biggest need.
"Every team wins and loses with pitching," Thomson said. "You can't have enough. George Steinbrenner used to say it all the time. We'd have eight starters and he'd say, 'Not enough.' So I think I'd tell Joe that's probably our biggest need.
"But I'd also tell him we have a very talented group and talented core here and we're really, really close, and I truly believe that. We have a group of guys that really wants to win and compete. We have a good thing going. I've already said that to him."
Thomson and Girardi go back more than 20 years. Not only is Thomson a brilliant baseball man — anyone lucky enough to talk the game with him for five minutes knows that — but he's a stellar planner and organizer. That's why the Yankees in the late 1990s had him coordinate both big-league and minor-league spring training camps in Tampa. Girardi was still playing for the Yankees in those days. The two former catchers gravitated toward each other and peppered each other with questions and feedback about all things baseball.
"Depending on what the situation called for, Joe could be strong with a person or he could be soft with a person. He had a touch," Thomson said. "You could see great leadership ability in him. I always figured at some point he'd manage in the big leagues. There was really no question in my mind."
All big-league managers, even the best of them, have their detractors and Girardi had his share at the end in New York. Some said he'd gotten too rigid and lost his feel for connecting with young players. There were reports that Girardi had stopped playing nice with a front office that he believed was going overboard on analytics. All of these matters have relevance in Philadelphia because the Phillies have young players and a front office and ownership group committed to using analytics.
"As far as not connecting with young players, I did not see that," Thomson said. "You hear the rumors about what's written and said. But we went to Game 7 of the ALCS (in 2017). He's connecting with somebody, right?
"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 (as far as pushing back on analytics), but if that is what it was and he said his piece, so be it. I'd want someone like that working for me."
As the 2019 season was coming to an end in Philadelphia, a significant player on the Phillies roster offered this about the way the team was run:
"They've gone overboard on the analytics," the player said. "They're making it way too complicated. They need to simplify."
Analytics, however, are not going away in the game and they're not going away in Philadelphia. Ownership pushed for and has funded the building of an analytics department. Nonetheless, the team has acknowledged that there needs to be a blend between baseball's old and new ways.
The baseball man who knows Joe Girardi better than most says that's right in his guy's wheelhouse.
"Balance is Joe's strength," Thomson said. "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."
Thomson spent 28 years in the Yankees organization before coming to Philadelphia. He has loved his time here and thanks Kapler for that.
"I loved my time with him, I really did," Thomson said. "He treated me like gold. He treats everyone like gold. He's a wonderful person. He has a great managerial career ahead of him. I believe that. I just love the guy."
Maybe Thomson will be right. Maybe Kapler will grow from his two years in Philadelphia and go on to win World Series somewhere else, just like Terry Francona did after he was fired from his first manager's job/learning experience in Philadelphia. Ownership cited two September collapses in firing Kapler, but there was more to it. Owner John Middleton confirmed as much when he said he began thinking about letting Kapler go in July. Kapler ran a loose ship with little structure. The September collapses may have been a symptom of that.
Thomson was asked about structure and all that stuff.
"The biggest problem we ran into was the injuries," he said of the 2019 Phillies. "That and we just didn't play well. Why didn't we play well? I don't know. Gabe had structure and Joe has structure, it's just a little different. Joe's will be a little tighter, but it won't be over the top. He'll hold himself accountable and he'll hold others accountable, just like Kap did. Joe has a winning pedigree. When he walks into a room, people straighten up.
"He's a good one and he's excited about getting going."