The Royals front office saw possibilities in outfielder Brett Phillips when they acquired him from Milwaukee in the Mike Moustakas trade, but for now decision-makers and fans find themselves waiting for Phillips to exhale.
Last September in Cleveland, where Phillips took off like a sports car trying to beat a red light, it served as a microcosm of his season. The intentions were good and the effort admirable, but it ultimately proved more harmful than beneficial for both player and ballclub.
Phillips raced after a ball that ultimately landed on the warning track. In his attempt to make a superhuman play, Phillips crashed into the wall and ended up sprawled flat on his back, feet in the air and glove several steps away. He hurt his shoulder on the play and spent the next week out of the lineup.
A high-energy, high-motor guy with a competitive nature, Phillips must stay within himself, particularly at the plate, if he wants a chance to move to the forefront among the cast of characters vying for the right field job in camp.
If he can’t, the fact that he has options left could mean he’ll be relegated to the minors to regain the mindset that originally attracted the Royals.
The hard crash into the outfield wall in Cleveland most accurately depicts the 24-year-old Phillips’ progress at the plate. A 6-foot tall, 185-pound left-handed hitting outfielder with speed and an above average glove, Philips knows what he must fix.
“It’s just going back to who I was in the beginning,” Phillips said. “The last couple years I’ve struck out way too much. I’ve been looking at film (from) before that when I only struck out 60, 70 times a year as opposed to 120, 130 times a year, which is obviously unacceptable for a guy who is a speedy outfielder who needs to get on base.”
Phillips’ strikeout rate reached 41.5 percent last season. He batted .187 with a .252 on-base percentage and a .306 slugging percentage.
Somewhere along the way, he’d become the Chihuahua who steps into the batter’s box thinking he’s a Great Dane. The swing grew long, and the hits grew less frequent.
Did he simply fall in love with the power game and the all-or-nothing philosophy that’s gained popularity among hitters in recent years?
“I wouldn’t classify it as that,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “I would classify it as a guy in a new organization trying to get his feet on the ground more than anything. It’s hard coming over to a new team, you know. It’s difficult, especially when you’re not an established star.
“When you’re an established star coming over to a new team, it’s a little bit easier. When you’re not (established) and you’re a young guy, you’re pressing to impress. That makes it a little difficult for you to perform at your highest level.”
When he joined the Royals in July Phillips, a former sixth-round pick of the Houston Astros, played for his third organization since the start of the 2015 season.
That’s why this offseason when Phillips looked at old video of himself at the plate coming up through the minors with Houston and compared to this past year, it was like gazing into a funhouse mirror.
When Phillips got traded to Milwaukee in 2015, he said they’d slotted him in as three-hole type power bat. The previous year, he’d hit 17 home runs and registered 68 RBIs in the 130 games in the minors. In 2015, he hit another 16 homers with 77 RBIs in 120 minor-league games.
In each of those seasons he also recorded 14 triples and stole at least 17 bases.
The leadoff guy who’d built his game on hitting for average and getting on base had developed bad habits as he tried to become a run producer. Add to that the desire to prove himself to a new organization, and Phillips let himself get overwhelmed.
“I think it’s human nature,” Phillips said. “It’s who we are as competitors. We want to try to do too much. Sometimes (you’re better off) when taking a step back and being like they traded for me for a reason, let me just be the player I am and go with that.”
Defensively, Phillips could fill a distinct need in the outfield. General manager Dayton Moore had a clear focus in the offseason as he went about shaping the roster.
“I really didn’t feel like that we could cover Kauffman Stadium very well,” Moore said. “In fact, I think the Boston Red Sox really were the only team that could come in and really cover Kauffman Stadium the way it needs to be covered.”
Last season between his time with the Milwaukee and the Royals, Phillips accounted for 12 defensive runs saved in 314 1/3 innings in the outfield and earned an 8.6 ultimate zone rating (UZR) according to FanGraphs.com.
Those metrics would cast him as a significant defensive upgrade over Jorge Bonafacio (minus-3 DRS, 1.4 UZR) and Jorge Soler (minus-6 DSR, minus-0.6 UZR). That duo combined to play 107 games in right field. Phillips’ metrics also put him above right field candidate Brian Goodwin (minus-3 DRS, 2.0 UZR).
Phillips’ defense alone likely won’t be enough to elevate him over the others. He’ll have to show he can contribute to scoring runs in ways other than taking the type of huge hacks that even leave onlookers with pulled muscles.
“I think in those moments it’s more of reminding yourself, taking a deep breath, I don’t need to hit this ball 450 feet,” Phillips said. “Just the move the guy over, have a good at-bat for this team right now. At the end of the day, let the next guy be the hero. That’s always what I’ve done.”