What if I told you that a fellow MLB team was looking to trade one of its young, Triple-A outfielders that it didn’t have space for anymore? This hypothetical player would have just turned 25 this year, and while he would currently be in the minor leagues, he would have accrued almost 100 games of big league action already.
What if I told you that this player was exactly the kind of guy who fits the role of the “speed and defense” Royals Rebuild 2.0? This player would have a cannon of an arm in right field, an uncanny ability to make fantastic diving catches, and boast equal skill in both the corner outfield and center field. What if I told you that this player was a former top prospect, and was on multiple top 100 prospect lists as recently as March 2018? That would seem to be a pretty good young player, right?
The fact of the matter is that the Kansas City Royals already have this player in their organization. Furthermore, that player is nearly two years younger than Bubba Starling. That player’s name is Brett Phillips, and he is on the 40-man roster waiting to be called up whenever the Royals deem it so.
When Kansas City acquired Phillips as part of the trade that sent Mike Moustakas to the Milwaukee Brewers, Phillips’ stock had fallen a fair amount. After a brilliant 2017 that saw Phillips hit 39% above league average (by wRC+) in his first trip to Triple-A and a big league debut where he held his own by hitting 5% above league average in 37 games, Phillips just couldn’t get it going in 2018. Phillips couldn’t post a league average line in either Triple-A or Milwaukee—slashing a particularly terrible .182/.250/.273 in his 15 games with the Brewers.
We’ll get back to that hitting in a minute, but first it’s important to examine why the Royals wanted him in the first place: his defense. This clip from August 18 last year shows off both components of Phillips’ extraordinary defensive gifts in one minute:
In the first half of the clip, Phillips catches a fly ball in right-center field. While Ryan Lefebvre calls it shallow, Phillips doesn’t really charge the ball much—his drift to right field composes most of his motion. Phillips proceeds to rifle a throw eclipsing 100 MPH to home plate, throwing out the speedy Leury Garcia (whose sprint speed ranked in the 86th percentile that year) who was tagging from third base. In the second half of the clip, Phillips charges a sinking fly ball off the bat of Yolmer Sanchez. Phillips lays out for a dive and makes the catch. Statcast measured the play at a 47% catch probability.
Later in the month, Phillips made another diving play off the bat of Kevin Keiermaier that Statcast gave a 40% catch probability:
And in 2017, with the Brewers Phillips made the hardest outfield throw of the entire year according to Statcast, a 104 MPH rocket that resulted in another outfield assist at the plate:
The stats back up Phillips’ defensive wizardry—with the prerequisite small sample size warnings in place, of course. In 527 career MLB outfield innings, Phillips picked up 20 Defensive Runs Saved and a 13.4 Ultimate Zone Rating. If that sounds a lot, that’s because it is: every other outfielder above him in the DRS rankings for 2017-2018 played at least double the amount of innings he did, and per UZR/150 Phillips was the best defensive outfielder in baseball among everybody with at least 150 innings played there.
Is Phillips actually the best outfielder in baseball? Probably not. Defensive stats are notoriously streaky; it takes longer for the noise to settle, and that’s without considering year-to-year performance volatility that happens to all professional athletes because nobody is equally consistent (unless you are Khris Davis, in which case you can pencil down your .247 batting average before the season begins like some bizarrely cursed clockwork).
But that’s the wrong question to ask. What you should be asking is whether or not Phillips can continue to be an excellent defensive outfielder going forward, and the answer to that is a strong affirmative. When your defense looks like and grades as “Lorenzo Cain but with a better arm” over decent chunks of two seasons, chances are good you’re probably going to stay a great defender until your knee literally explodes, or until your arm detaches along with the baseball during an outfield assist attempt like a meat trebuchet.
If it were based on defense alone, Phillips would be one of the best young players in baseball. But, of course, that’s only half the battle. Remember when we tabled his downsides a few paragraphs above? Well, we’re back. Phillips’ stock fell precisely because of his offense, specifically because this happened all the time:
For those of you unable to watch the video, that’s Phillips swinging and severely missing on a Jose Quintana breaking ball out of the zone. Granted, Quintana’s pitch was an awfully good one, but nevertheless this situation is indicative of many Phillips plate appearances. A look at his recent strikeout rates is pretty gruesome.
- 2017, Brewers: 34.7%
- 2018, Triple-A (MIL): 31.4%
- 2018, Brewers/Royals: 41.5%
- 2019, Triple-A (KC): 30.2%
Striking out 38.8% of the time, as Phillips has in his MLB career, is a very bad thing if you don’t have towering power. Phillips doesn’t; as a result, his big league wRC+ is 72, placing him as basically as good a hitter as Alcides Escobar (70 wRC+) was for his career.
But there’s a silver lining: this season, Phillips recognized what his problem was and fixed it. “I had a serious swing flaw then, but I didn’t realize it,” Phillips told former Kings of Kauffman writer Tyler Dierking* and myself in a message. “My confidence was at an all-time low from being sent back and forth that it clouded what was really going on physically with my performance...I’m supposed to be a high caliber player/prospect that they traded an All-Star for (Mike Moustakas), and I should know where I need to be and what I needed to do to be successful like I did in the past. But I didn’t.”
*Phillips specifically asked me to wait until Dierking’s piece to publish the full story, because he is just the nicest dude. But because Kings of Kauffman is dead and the timing didn’t work that way, I will do the next best thing and let Dierking tell more of the story. Keep an eye on him for that.
Finally, after suffering through a tremendously frustrating spring training and first weeks of the season, Phillips finally found and corrected his swing flaw. The problem was twofold: Phillips began wearing his glasses again, which aren’t prescription but whose color adjustments helped Phillips recognize the ball and spin. Second, Phillips started using an Axe bat again, and once he did he adjusted his grip to be on his fingertips as opposed to his palms. “Once I felt it, I realized that’s exactly how I used to hold the bat when I was my best.”
Phillips made these adjustments on May 24. Between May 26 and June 12, a span of games that has included 133 plate appearances, Phillips hit .312/.429/.661 with a mammoth 16.5% walk rate. Furthermore, he has bettered his career Triple-A strikeout rate by a whopping 10% over that time, striking out 20.3% of the time compared to his career 30.4% Triple-A rate.
“My ultimate goal is to get back to the big leagues and help the Royals win baseball games, but I’m done putting a time limit on when I think that’ll be,” Phillips said. Ultimately, the Royals don’t have the luxury of ignoring a 25-year-old former top prospect who perfectly fits their “speed and defense” strategy and who has been making significant improvements in the largest hole in his game. Phillips’ adjustments may pay off sooner rather than later. Don’t sleep on him.