Brewers Farm Update

Brett Phillips’ Contact Issues are Officially Worrisome

In July of 2015, the Milwaukee Brewers traded away Carlos Gomez, and the centerpiece of the return package was centerfield prospect Brett Phillips. Later, that fall, I profiled Phillips as the newest impact prospect in the team’s rising farm system. In the context of evaluating Phillips, I took a long look at the evolution of his swing from 2012 to 2014. I looked at how he learned to accept his natural tendency to waggle the bat, and how this turned him into a much more fearsome hitter. This evolution was, in no small part, what made Phillips so appealing to the Brewers.

However, since the trade to Milwaukee’s organization, Phillips has seen an instantaneous, and troubling, rise in his whiff rate. With Houston’s minor league system, Phillips’ highest K-rate ever at a level for a single season was 22.7 percent in 2013 at A-ball, before his 2014 retooling and subsequent breakout. In 2014, he struck out 17.2 percent of the time for class A Quad Cities and 15.6 percent of the time for high-A Lancaster. In 2015, prior to the trade, he whiffed at a 19.9 percent rate in Lancaster and a 17.9 percent clip for Double-A Corpus Christi. Since then, he’s played for the Brewers’ Double-A affiliate, Biloxi. In 2015, he whiffed 30.6 percent of the time. In 2016, that rate was 29.8 percent.

By WARP, Phillips has still been quite a productive player in his 147 games at Biloxi. In 2015 he was worth 1.1 wins over 23 games; in 2016 he was worth 2.4 over 124. Phillips isn’t putting up the gaudy power numbers he was in the artificially easy realm of Lancaster, California, but his isolated power rate has been in the .160s each of his two seasons at Biloxi, and that’s good. Plus, he stole twelve bases in 2016, and his walk rate has slightly improved in correlation with the strikeout spike.

Down in the Arizona Fall League this October, though, things have taken a turn for the worse. Though the eight games Phillips has played so far are the textbook definition of “small sample size,” Phillips’ worrying trend has continued. In 32 plate appearances he’s struck out 9 times. Phillips’ average sits at a woeful .130, and his OPS is merely .540 for AFL action. Phillips has been massively outshined in centerfield by Salt River teammate JaCoby Jones of the Detroit Tigers, who is hitting .375 with five stolen bases.

Jones, of course, has a full AAA season under his belt and even saw 28 plate appearances for Detroit already. He is a much more polished player at this stage in his career, and, like Phillips, he’s got all the makings of a future leadoff hitter. It’s not surprising that he’s doing better than Phillips is. But when Colorado’s Noel Cuevas, an organizational depth-type player who spent three years at AA, is outperforming Phillips? Yes, we might be talking about a small sample size, but that is concerning, especially because Phillips is displaying problems that have been showing up for a while. The player Milwaukee was envisioning when they parted with Carlos Gomez did not strike out a third of the time.

Phillips is undoubtedly one of the keys to the current farm system. It will set this rebuild back several years if his bat doesn’t quite play at the highest level, and he turns into a low-average fourth outfielder, the Younger Kirk Nieuwenhuis. Luckily, Arizona Fall League action gives us ample opportunity to check out film of Phillips at the dish. Let’s pop the hood and see if the problem won’t announce itself.

First, as a control group of sorts, we’ll recap the 2014 batting practice video I highlighted a year ago, in discussing the positive strides Phillips had made at the plate:

Three things to keep in mind from that clip:

  • Phillips’ swing follows an easy, well-timed rhythm. As I’ve noted in the past, he added a bat waggle that he seemed to be fighting as a teenager, and it helped him immensely with his comfort at the plate and the timing of his stroke.
  • Phillips swings with tremendous confidence, and is able to put a genuine charge into the ball when he barrels it up.
  • My one criticism a year ago was that “Phillips’s swing could use some minor streamlining and abridging for him to truly max out his potential as a leadoff hitter.” He is a bit more armsy in getting to the ball then you like to see, especially given his power potential. But for an A-ball player transitioning into AA, there was a lot to like.

Now, let’s check up on what Phillips’ swing is looking like nowadays:

It would appear our boy has added in a high front-leg kick, which is a notable mechanical wrinkle that was absent prior to the trade. Now, a high leg kick isn’t automatically a bad thing. Every hitter is an individual, and for some individuals that kick can help time a swing while delivering a solid boost of power. But Phillips was already timing his swing off of the bat waggle. As a result, he’s now got two timing mechanisms in place in his pre-swing, and they’re fighting one another.

With a small leg kick and a bat waggle, Phillips’ swing was fluid, rhythmic, and smooth, if a bit long. But now, Phillips has a bigger leg kick, plus the waggle, plus the arms-first swing. It’s a tremendously complicated, colossally overengineered mess. In order for it to work, all of those moving parts need to be timed to precision. And when the timing fails to line up, it results in a hitch. Phillips’ hands have to wait for his body to catch up, or his lower body needs to pause and wait for his hands. If you watch the video clip at .25 speed this becomes obvious on almost every pitch. Most good high school pitchers can easily exploit a hitter with a hitch in his swing–against pitchers at the AA level, and in the Arizona Fall League, he’s had no chance. Pitchers are feasting on Phillips, and exploiting his timing at will.  The numbers show it, and the tape shows it. Here’s a clip of Phillips’ at-bats from October 14th:

It’s like he went for the full-card cover-up in Bad Swing Bingo. He’s jumping out in front of changeups and breaking balls, and he’s swinging through fastballs that already passed through the zone. He check-swings an easy, excuse-me roller back to the mound. He looks off balance at all times, especially on his checked swings. Even when he makes contact, it’s not what anyone would call good contact. The current iteration of Phillips’ swing might be more powerful, but it’s also really easy to exploit. And at the AA level, or in the Arizona Fall League, pitchers are generally capable of taking advantage of such a swing, to the tune of a 30 percent strikeout rate, as Phillips and the Brewers have learned the hard way. The bad news? Things are only going to keep getting harder from here on out.

There’s a third video of Phillips during AFL action and I’ll share it, too. There’s really nothing new to pick up here that can’t be taken from the first two videos, so I’m not going to go too in-depth in discussing it, but it’s worth noting that we have video of three days worth of at-bats, and Phillips did not square up the barrel of the bat on the ball one single time; not a one hard-hit out, not a single long foul ball–just a lot of mistimed swings and a lot of guessing wrong:

The one positive note I can give on Phillips’ new swing mechanics is that the high leg kick clearly makes it easier for him to delay his decision to swing, and hold up on bad pitches, as evidenced by his higher walk rate since the trade. Whether the high leg kick caused this, or it’s just a false correlation caused by his batting eye improving as he gains more experience, I really can’t say for certain. But now, in order to become the terrifying leadoff hitter the Brewers had in mind when they traded for him, Phillips is going to need to translate that improved hitting eye to a leaner, more compact swing, lest quality pitchers continue treating him like a punching bag.

The good news, if you’re a Brewer fan, is that scouts have long raved about Phillips’ makeup, and his ability to adapt to the game. His 2014 breakout is proof positive that he’s capable of recognizing those major adjustments, implementing them into his game, and sticking with them. Hopefully, the woebegone Arizona Fall League campaign will wake up both player and organization to the fact that something has got to give with Phillips’ swing, though. You can tell, just from watching him, that he’s frustrated and angry with himself. That’s a bad thing in the short run, but could be a blessing in disguise over the next several years. He’s got an entire offseason to remodel his swing, and it’s pretty obvious the things that need to be remodeled.

The ceiling for Phillips, as a prospect, has not changed. That being said, it would be a lie to say that the odds of him reaching that ceiling have not dropped since the last time I wrote about him, and the odds he turns into a retread of Nieuwenhuis have seen a corresponding uptick. Still, Phillips has reinvented his swing and turned in a monster bounce-back year once in his young career already. If he can do it again, this will be nothing but a temporary bump on the road.

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