Brett Phillips’ stock as a prospect was down coming into this season. The 23 year old was acquired by Milwaukee back in 2015, when he was considered to be the crown jewel of the Gomez/Fiers trade with Houston. At that time, Phillips was thought of as one of the top up and comers in the minor leagues, ending 2015 ranked as MLB Pipeline’s #32 overall prospect. But after a down season for the AA Biloxi Shuckers in 2016 where he hit only .229/.332/.397 with a 30% strikeout rate, Phillips had fallen out of the various top-100 lists. He plummeted to outside of the top-10 prospects within Milwaukee’s own system. Once the organization acquired Lewis Brinson and used a 1st-round selection on Corey Ray, both center fielders, many fans put Phillips on the back burner in their minds.
Despite his struggles in Biloxi (which is a tough hitting environment), the Brewers thought fit to start Phillips with the AAA Colorado Springs Sky Sox this season. The aggressive assignment paid off in spades, as Phillips found his groove at the plate and restored his confidence in the high altitude of Security Service Field. In 432 plate appearances for the Sky Sox, Phillips totaled a .305/.377/.567 slash with 19 home runs for a stellar 139 wRC+.
Phillips’ outstanding play earned him his first MLB call-up in early June. He shuttled back and forth between the big leagues and AAA a couple of times during the summer, never really finding his way into Craig Counsell’s lineup with any sort of regularity. Phillips, along with several others, returned to the big leagues at the beginning of this month as a September call-up. But Lewis Brinson, his outfield-mate in Colorado Springs (and the man the org refused to part with for Sonny Gray) would not be joining the cavalcade of reinforcements thanks to a season-ending hamstring injury suffered in August. Opportunity seemed to be brewing for Phillips.
Brett joined a Brewers club that has found itself in the middle of a pennant race, hoping to do whatever he could in a bench role to help push the club over the top. Instead, he’s become an integral part of the lineup down the stretch. Keon Broxton’s inconsistent season opened the door for some spot starts for Phillips earlier in the month, a role that has expanded into a straight righty/lefty platoon between the two players. Phillips, the left-handed bat, has started in center field in 10 of Milwaukee’s last 14 contests. In three of the four games he didn’t start, he entered the game later as a defensive replacement. Of course, he wouldn’t keep finding his way into the lineup if he wasn’t producing.
Brett has appeared in 33 games this season and has accrued 85 plate appearances thus far. He’s hit a nifty .267/.345/.427 in that time, popping three home runs and clubbing three doubles. He has .816 OPS this month alone, and smacked the game-winning RBI double in the 6th inning of yesterday’s must-win tilt against the Reds. On the whole Phillips has been roughly a league-average player at the dish, registering a 97 wRC+, and has been surprisingly adept on the base paths. Phillips boasts above-average speed but wasn’t considered to be the strongest base runner by scouts, though so far he’s stolen five bases without being caught. His base running contributions have been valued at +1.9 runs by Fangraphs.
Where Phillips has really opened eyes is with his defense. Scouts have long praised his ability to play the outfield, including an arm that some have called the strongest in the minor leagues. Here it is on display, making a 104 MPH throw to home plate:
Brett Phillips' 104 MPH Rocket to Home!— Baseball Express ⚾ (@BB_Express) September 24, 2017
That throw is the hardest that Statcast has tracked all year. In fact, Brett owns the top three hardest outfield throws in the MLB in 2017. He’s already recorded four outfield assists, and we’ve seen runners now becoming hesitant to test the cannon that’s attached to the right side of Brett’s body. Defensive metrics are notoriously wonky, especially in small samples, but it definitely cannot be a bad thing that Defensive Runs Saved rates Phillips at +8 runs and Fielding Runs Above Average Rates him at +5.2 runs so far in hus brief MLB career. Both of those totals ranks him among the top 17% of MLB center fielders defensively this season. Oh, yeah, and he has only played 187.0 innings in the outfield, the equivalent of less than 21 full games.
Beyond his contributions on the field, Brett Phillips is just tons of fun. It started with the laugh. Then there was the incident with the opposum that was immortalized with a Shuckers bobblehead. He teamed up with Josh Hader to film “Brett’s World,” a parody of a comedic sketch he’s not even old enough to know much about. His middle name is “Maverick” and often comes to the plate with the tune from “Top Gun” playing over the Miller Park speakers. After his 104 MPH throw earlier this month, he tweeted at MLB Pipeline asking what he needs to do to get his arm grade bumped from a 70 to a perfect 80, so they re-graded him. Following his game-winning hit in yesterday’s contest, this is how Brett addressed the media:
No single player has improved his standing within the organization this month than Brett Phillips. He’s come up and been put in tough spots, but the lights haven’t shined too brightly and Brett has thrived in the high-pressure environs of a pennant race. There are indeed warts in his game, namely the major penchant he’s shown for swinging-and-missing so far (35.3% K rate, 11.1% swinging strike rate). His .405 BABIP is sure to come down at some point, too. But even if he can settle in somewhere between a 90-100 wRC+ with some consistency, his defensive contributions could make him a well-above average starter in the MLB.
Based on his production down the stretch in 2017, it seems likely that Phillips is earning his way into at least a share of a center field platoon to begin next season for the Milwaukee Brewers. He’s got intriguing raw power when he does make contact, has been a strong base runner, and looks like he could be one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball. With his personality, it’s not far-fetched to think that if Brett Phillips can stick in the big leagues, it won't be long before he becomes one of the most popular players in the game.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus