Brett Phillips solidified himself in Tampa Bay Rays lore when he came through with the game winning hit in Game 4 of the 2020 World Series. He wasn’t the first and won’t be the last to come through in a big moment for a team, but few get to do it for their hometown team as he was born and raised in Seminole, Florida.
Phillips was a sixth round pick out of Seminole High School where he was an overs lot signing as part of the Houston Astros draft class that included Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers Jr.
Phillips was ranked in Baseball America’s Top 100 list twice coming in at #57 in 2016 and #80 in 2018. This ranking led to him being one of the two main players traded to the Milwaukee Brewers for eventual Rays outfielder Carlos Gomez, along with Josh Hader.
Despite being well regarded he struggled with the bat over his first four seasons in the majors. He had sporadic playing time after making his debut in 2017 and failed to receive more than 150 plate appearances in a season with a total of 383 plate appearances. He hit .202/.284/.347 and put up a 67 wRC+.
The Rays overlooked the results with the bat and made a surprise trade for him before last year’s trade deadline. The Rays knew he did one thing very well.
His play in the outfield was elite, and would be something the Rays could depend upon in the following season. In 862.2 innings, with the bulk coming in center field (615.1 innings,) Phillips put up a Kevin Kiermaieresque +23 DRS and +20.8 UZR. Those are elite numbers put up in about 2⁄3 of one season worth of playing time.
2020 Heroics —> 2021 Contributor
In 2021 Phillips put up 11 DRS and +5.0 UZR in 713.1 innings split between center field and right field. The defense wasn’t quite up to his prior numbers, but some regression to the mean with such a small sample was to be expected. The numbers were still very good and comparable to Kiermaier’s +13 DRS and +7.3 UZR in 894.2 innings.
The offensive side is where the difference came. He hit .206/.300/.427 and put up a 103 wRC+ over 292 plate appearances. His walks were up slightly from 9.9% to 11.3% along with a strikeout increase from 34.7% to 38.7%. He strikes out a ton, but putting up a .221 ISO makes that palatable, even if i does limit the upside offensively. It’s also worth noting his BABIP stayed relatively stable increasing to .302 from .294.
So what changed?
The power came from an increase of flyballs from 35.0% to 42.9% along with a HR/FB increase from 14.1% to 21.7%. Meanwhile, his exit velocity on flyballs saw a dramatic increase from 89.1 mph to 94.4 mph. This could be the cause to see such a dramatic increase in homerun rate, but it still remains to see how sticky that is year to year.
With back to back seasons of defensive prowess in the books, it seems likely that the Rays have found the “next” Kevin Kiermaier, and will finally be in position to move on from the defensive wizard this winter.
The good news is Rays fans shouldn’t have to accept lower defense when Phillips patrols center field with the local kid that makes baseball fun.