KC Royals: Should his good glove save Brett Phillips?

(Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
(Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images) /

The KC Royals have an immensely popular outfielder who plays superb defense. But he hasn’t proven he can hit. Is his glove enough?

Because it is about Brett Phillips, this is a story of carefully chosen words. Phillips–affectionately “Maverick” to his KC Royals teammates and fans–is a talented, popular, engaging and seemingly effervescent member of a franchise that places a premium on such collective qualities.

His contributions to community, something Royals’ owners have always valued highly, are well-chronicled.

Phillips also happens to have a great glove. He’s swift afoot, can cover a lot of ground, and is howitzer-armed, making him an ideal candidate to patrol Kauffman Stadium’s expansive outfield.

The 26-year old fan favorite is almost the ideal Royal. Many don’t want to hear anything negative about such a player.

But Brett Phillips has a flaw. It can’t be ignored or overlooked.

First, though, comes the on-field positive–Phillips is, at this point in his three-season, two-team major league career, a defensive master. No metric more sophisticated than simple fielding percentage is necessary to establish his defensive bona fides. In the 100 games he’s played in the outfield (he’s DH’d three times), Phillips has had 215 chances–176 in center field, 33 in right and six in left–and he’s made one error.

One. Count it. One.

That lone miscue came as the Brewers’ center fielder in his first season (2017) and gave him a fielding percentage of .983, just .002 below league average. He posted a perfect 1.000 the next season and another last year.

But for anyone needing additional proof, such as the more contemporary UZR measure, it’s there. Phillips’ UZR in two Royals seasons is a shade over 12 on a scale where 0 is average. Enough said.

The flaw, though, is still there. Phillips’ command of the major league bat doesn’t match, or come near, his command of the big league glove. After breaking in at a respectable .276 in 37 games with Milwaukee in 2017, he plummeted to .187 in 2018 (.182 in 15 games with the Brewers, then .188 in 36 with the Royals after coming to KC in the Mike Moustakas trade), and sank to .138 in 30 Royal games last year. His career slash is .203/.280/.339; his OPS+ is 65.

There is ample evidence, however, in Phillips’ professional history suggesting he has the ability to hit. He’s hit .274 in eight minor league campaigns; his 92 home runs in that time include five seasons of double-digit blasts, including 18 in 105 games last season at the KC Royals’ Omaha Triple A club.

And my Kings of Kauffman colleague Tyler Dierking, an analytically astute writer and observer of the game who digs deep to find the meaning behind the numbers, finds credible hope for Phillips’ bat in an extensive piece he wrote earlier this year about the subject in which we learn some of Phillips’ own takes on his offensive woes and what he’s worked on to improve.

Whether Phillips will eventually hit big league pitching remains to be seen. Dierking makes the point that Phillips needs consistency, but that will likely be a scarce commodity for him this season–he’s still competing with Bubba Starling for a reserve spot behind Whit Merrifield, Alex Gordon and Hunter Dozier, so playing every day isn’t realistic.

In the short term, especially in the context of this pandemic-truncated season in which backup players will see even less of the field than usual, Phillips’ defense is probably enough. He was a lock for the KC Royals’ recently-announced 60-man Player Pool, and should make the 30-man Opening Day active roster. Unless he plays miserably, he’s likely to retain an active spot when the team cuts to 28 players two weeks into the season, and 26 two weeks after that.

But what if Phillips simply can’t hit when he gets the chance this season? Then, his glove might not be enough to keep him on the active roster. Five of the Royals’ most promising outfield prospects–Nick Heath, Khalil Lee, Kyle Isbel, Seuly Matias and Erick Mejia–are also in the club’s Player Pool, eager to get even a short shot at showing what they can do in the majors. If the team doesn’t contend (a probability), it may be tempted to take a look at one or more of them. And that could come at Phillips’ expense.

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Would the club cut Phillips in such an event? Probably not. Keeping him in the Pool and working would be the wise move; Phillips needs more than a short season, with its fewer opportunities to hit, to finally show whether he can handle major league pitching, and the KC Royals need to give him at least part of the 2021 campaign.

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For now, Brett Phillips’ glove is enough to keep him with the KC Royals. But it probably won’t be if he doesn’t come around at the plate next season.