Sometimes, there is no questioning a ballplayer’s eventual greatness.
Kris Bryant and Bryce Harper were anointed superstars before they could even be drafted — even at that point, their inevitable success was apparent to anyone paying attention. Brewer fans might remember Ryan Braun following the same path to success in his younger days. In a move widely praised, Milwaukee drafted Braun fifth-overall out of Miami (FL) in 2005. Within two years, he was slugging for the big club.
Carlos Gomez, who posted a string of True Averages below .250 until his breakout season at age 27, was a far more unlikely brand of star for the Milwaukee Brewers. His 2014 BP Annual Player Comment called him “the post-hype sleeper, awakened.” Brett Phillips is the headliner in the package that Milwaukee received for Gomez at the trade deadline. Phillips, like Gomez, is a player who didn’t always look like a future franchise cornerstone. But his rapid improvement over the past year and a half bodes well for the future, and it should have Brewer fans giddy with excitement.
The Houston Astros drafted Phillips in the sixth round of the 2012 MLB Draft out of Seminole High School in Seminole, Florida. That year, the Astros hit Florida hard in the draft — supplemental-round pick Lance McCullers, second-rounder Nolan Fontana, Phillips, and seventh-rounder Preston Tucker all played their amateur ball in the Seminole State before the Astros scooped them up.
Prior to the draft, experts pegged Phillips as a fourth- or fifth-round talent, and several teams even debated selecting him in those rounds. But Phillips, like Carlos Gomez, is represented by super-agent and reputed lizard-person Scott Boras. Boras used the scholarship offer Phillips had to North Carolina State as leverage to drive away those teams, and Phillips fell to Houston in the sixth for an overslot bonus.
As a teenager, Phillips looked like he was going to be yet another athletic prep prospect who ultimately amounted to nothing. He drew a good number of walks and scouts raved about the cannon of an arm he wielded, but his bat was pedestrian — even for the low-minors — and he was inefficient as a base-stealer. In 2013 and 2014, Houston’s preseason prospect lists were peppered with future stars. Phillips, on the other hand, appeared to be nothing more than organizational depth. Coming into the 2014 season, the 20-year-old needed to improve spectacularly in order to get recognized in such a crowded field.
Phillips did just that. In 103 games for Class-A Quad Cities, he slashed .302/.362/.521 with double-digit home runs and stolen bases for the first time in his life. Late in the season, the Astros challenged him with a promotion to High-A Lancaster, where the JetHawks were fighting for the California League championship. The young outfielder stepped his game up another level, raising his slash line to .339/.421/.560 and spearheading a championship push. In one of the deepest farm systems in the game, Phillips’s breakout year was good enough to win the organizational Minor League Player of the Year award.
One year of success might turn some heads, but baseball history is littered with the unsung stories of guys who had one great minor-league year. The biggest questions coming into 2015 were, in order — could Phillips do it again, and could he sustain his newfound success outside of the hitter-happy confines of the California League?
Phillips spent the first sixty-six games of 2015 answering the former question. Back in Lancaster, he thoroughly proved that he had mastered the California League, slashing .320/.379/.588. He also hit for the highest isolated power mark of his young career, which was good enough to earn him a midseason promotion to Double-A Corpus Christi.
The promotion from High-A to Double-A is one that the Brewers’ brass has long been known to value. In terms of talent gap, that’s the closest comparison that exists to the jump to the big leagues, and, as the logic goes, a player who handles the jump to Double-A will more likely have the mental makeup necessary to succeed at the major-league level.
Freed from the hitter-friendly conditions of “The Hangar,” Lancaster’s home stadium, Phillips experienced a bit of a predictable power outage. Other than that, his slash line is eerily identical to what he did prior to the promotion: .321/.372/.463. Perhaps even more encouragingly, he offset the drop in power by stepping his game up defensively and on the basepaths. He’s solidly above replacement-level again after dipping below it in Lancaster.
Phillips has never been a terribly efficient base-stealer. Way back in his rookie-ball season of 2012, he stole seven bases on 12 attempts. The next season, at two levels, he swiped five in nine tries cumulatively. During his breakout 2014 campaign, Phillips stole twenty-three bases, but was also thrown out stealing fourteen times. For the Lancaster portion of his 2015 season, Phillips was eight of 14 on stolen-base attempts. But since moving up to Double-A, Phillips has been successful on seven of 10 base-stealing attempts. It’s too small of a sample size to prove anything definitively, but seeing the numbers trend in that direction is promising nonetheless. Some talented, athletic players never develop those base-stealer instincts — Milwaukee fans can un-repress the memories of Alex Sanchez for a textbook example — but many others do. With Phillips, there’s reason to be hopeful that he will shake down firmly into the latter group.
Baseball Prospectus scouted Phillips twice prior to his promotion to Double-A. Wilson Karaman filed a comprehensive report on June 8, and Chris Crawford followed up after seeing him on June 12. Both reports unanimously rave about Phillips’s mental makeup. Karaman, in particular — the scout who watched Phillips regularly for nearly a full year — had this to say:
Off the charts; football mentality, max effort; engaged with teammates, leadership qualities; significant demonstrated improvements
And while Crawford lacked the long-term intimacy to go out on such a limb, he was sure to note that “the scouts [he] spoke with all had positive things to say about [Phillips’] demeanor and work ethic.” These notes are supported by what we see on the stat sheet and on the field.
Here’s some video of Old Brett Phillips, uploaded in 2012, when he was a rookie-ball player:
There’s not much to like about those swings. Phillips struggles to make solid contact, and the slow-motion breakdowns make it abundantly clear why. He’s fighting against a natural tendency to waggle his bat, and the resulting swing is predictably unnatural. His legs are finishing up their weight transfer before his upper body can even begin. The result is a slow, wild, wayward swing that generates lots of whiffs and bad contact.
Now, let’s fire up the time machine and jump to 2014. Statistically speaking, Phillips has become much more of a threatening offensive player. And watching an at-bat of his from early 2014, it’s not hard to see why:
In stark contrast to before, Phillips looks exceedingly comfortable in the batter’s box. His pre-pitch movements are free and natural, where they felt awkward and forced in the video from two years earlier. He’s still a little bit longer than ideal with his swing, but now, his upper and lower body aren’t fighting one another. In batting practice, this comfort level is even more pronounced:
It’s no wonder that 2014 saw Phillips drive the ball unlike he ever has before. Even at just 20 years old, he was making the kind of adjustments that you need to in order to survive at the highest level of the game. Phillips’s swing could use some minor streamlining and abridging for him to truly max out his potential as a leadoff hitter. However, his progress up to this point, combined with the scouts who rave about his work ethic and mental makeup, should instill worlds of confidence that he could get there in time.
In his scouting report — filed before Phillips’ promotion to Double-A — Karaman classified Phillips as a “raw base-stealer” whose “stolen base attempts lack a demonstrated feel for timing pitchers and releasing efficiently.” Just two months later, it already looks like Phillips is beginning to discover that instinct, a promising development for Brewer fans who would like to see him live up to his potential as a top-of-the-lineup threat. Phillips has stolen only one fewer base at Double-A than he did in High-A ball, and it took him both far fewer tries and far fewer at-bats to reach that plateau. Those instincts might not solidify overnight, but they are trending in the right direction.
Defensively, any concerns about Phillips should immediately be laid to rest. His arm has always been considered his surest big-league tool. Both Karaman and Crawford grade it as a 70 and proceed to gush using phrases like “cannon,” “double-plus velocity and carry,” and “elite centerfielder.” Here, in a clip from his high school days, the underwhelmed competition makes for a superbly impressive highlight. Phillips fields a base hit and nails the catcher squarely in the glove, as if he was firing in a third-strike fastball from out in centerfield. The throw beats the runner by a three-point jumper’s length, at least:
Crawford didn’t get to see him handle any chances during the one game he watched, but Karaman spoke quite positively of Phillips as a centerfielder:
Good instincts in center with first-step quickness and solid start-up; charges well, takes direct routes with plus range into the gaps; inconsistent tracking balls over his head; can struggle projecting angles off the wall; speed and athleticism to recover; easy plus closing speed, finishes routes well.
Phillips’ six-foot stature makes him mildly undersized for a centerfielder, and this has led to questions about whether to slide him into one of the corners. But his skills, athleticism, and most of all, his arm, more than make up for anything his size takes away. Outside of The Hangar, which combines abundant fair territory and extreme wind unlike any other park in America, Phillips has been three to five defensive runs better than average at every other step of his minor-league career.
Out of the group of prospects for whom the Brewers traded Carlos Gomez and Mike Fiers, Phillips has the highest ceiling. He’ll be the player that makes or breaks this trade for Milwaukee. Most estimations don’t place him on a major-league roster until late 2016 or even 2017, but if he keeps growing and improving as a ballplayer like he has over the past year and a half, he could be something truly special by the time he arrives.