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Historically great numbers with the glove sets the bar low for Brett Phillips at the plate

Small sample size warning, but I’m excited.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Kansas City Royals Peter G. Aiken

In a season filled with disappointing performances for the Royals, one of the more exciting parts of this lackluster season has been watching the newly acquired Brett Phillips. While he hasn’t been too flashy with the bat (100 wRC+ with the Royals), watching him make diving plays in the outfield, robbing a home run, and nailing runners at the plate, mixed in with a fun personality, has been a refreshing sight for a struggling organization.

When the news broke out that the Royals had acquired Phillips (and Jorge Lopez), I was really satisfied with the value in return. I wasn’t particularly high on his bat (though it still has plenty of potential), but the idea of his stellar glove making him a fourth outfielder at his floor was comforting.

It’s here where I wanted to focus on the glove, because it’s been phenomenal by almost any measurement. If you’ve watched a majority of his 14 games with the Royals, you’ll see that he’s pretty much passed the eye test. But being a numbers guy, I wanted to dive in on some of those defensive metrics. You can argue about the reliability and stabilization of sample sizes of these as a caveat, which is fair, but the goal here is to point out how much of a positive outlier Phillips is with the glove.

To gather up this data, I exported defensive data on center fielders (careers, not individual seasons) from 2000 to 2018, setting a 200 inning minimum to qualify. This gave us a sample of 348 separate career numbers.

I’ll start with defensive runs saved to get a good feel of where he stands historically so far. Prorating the figures to 1,000 innings for every player’s career, here’s what we get.

Phillips comfortably stands with the highest mark (admittedly with a somewhat small sample size compared to the others). My first though is the majority of this came from his arm, which ended up being true, as out of that same group of 348 players, he ranks first in outfield arms runs saved (prorated to 1,000 innings).

Worth adding in that his range doesn’t come out to shabby either. In plus minus runs saved per 1,000 innings (range component of DRS), he comes out in third place among the 348.

Jumping over to another metric, I wanted to look at the fielding component for fWAR, which is mainly based off the aforementioned Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating. Prorating to 1,000 innings again, we on see a familiar name near the top.

If Brett Phillips is going to become a valuable player at the big league level, his glove will likely do the majority of the work. This can be evidenced by his career 1.5 fWAR in only 66 games while hitting at a below-average level of a 94 wRC+. Most of his value will come from the glove and positional value. Most of his current value is coming from those two things. To measure this, I prorated and z-scored the offensive and defensive runs above average for every player with as many plate appearances as Brett Phillips (small sample size caveat again, but I think a lot of the point still stands). Finding the difference between the two z-scores, we find the Brett Phillips has the 14 lowest mark (lower = good defense, bad offense, higher = good offense, bad defense) among the group of 427 players. Matching these differentials with the every player’s fWAR, we find that offense is clearly weighted higher (nothing groundbreaking here).

Circled dot is Brett Phillips in 2018.

But looking on the negative side of this graph (a lot of which are defensive dependent players), we see there is a clear route to becoming a valuable player of Phillips mold. Think 2017 Byron Buxton (3.5 fWAR, 90 wRC+), 2015 Kevin Kiermaier (4.3 fWAR, 97 wRC+), or to a less extreme and more likely extent, 2017 Bradley Zimmer (1.6 fWAR, 81 wRC+).

Brett Phillips is unlikely to sustain this level of play in center field for the long-term, but I think it’s pretty safe to say he can play there at a significantly above-average level. With that, the amount of production asked from Phillips at the plate isn’t that high. He could hit 15 percent below-average and still be a valuable player. Now just imagine if the bat develops...