Quality emollients can come from anywhere. Consider the two who reached 400 career saves last month. Craig Kimbrel was a first-round draft pick out of Alabama and has been a dominant closer since his first summer into the pros. Curacao native Kenley Jansen spent years as a minor league catcher before learning to pitch.
In between the former Los Angeles Dodgers firefighters is the team’s current relief ace, Evan Phillips. He’s always been a pitcher, and he said he’s more comfortable on the mound than anywhere else in the world. He was also released by the worst team in baseball at the time, the Baltimore Orioles, less than two years later, and again by the Tampa Bay Rays two weeks later.
“I feel like I got through the worst in this game,” Phillips said last week before the Phillies. Feel as cool as possible. “
The right-handed Phillips has quietly reigned arguably the best reliever in the majors over the past two seasons. From the beginning of 2022 through Tuesday, he has the lowest ERA in the sport at 1.54 (minimum 65 games played) and a WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) of 0.787 (minimum 65 games played) in the sport. was the worst. His opponent had a slugging percentage of just .244.
His effectiveness was crucial for the Dodgers, who went 38-29 after Tuesday’s win despite a precarious struggle on the mound. The 4.44 mark ranked 19th in the majors by Tuesday after leading the National League in ERA in each of the past six seasons. If Dave Roberts could clone Phillips, he would.
“He commands the strike zone, he has a variety of weapons to get players out, and he’s completely neutral,” Roberts said of Phillips’ strength against both left-handers and right-handers. “You don’t need information to know he’s always the best option. So the next thing is, ‘When are you going to implement the silver bullet you have?’
In Philadelphia, Roberts just couldn’t find the moment. He used Phillips a lot earlier this week and wanted to use him only for one-inning saves on Friday. It never developed and the next two games were pretty lopsided.
Phillips was stopped by a home run by Reds’ Will Benson in Cincinnati last Wednesday, leaving the whole weekend to focus on the final game. It was the first walk-off home run he allowed, but he had already shaken off his feelings.
“I was talking to some pitchers about my mood after the game,” Phillips said. “This won’t be the last time it happens. I’m sure it will happen again and the team will be counting on me for a while in those situations, so I have to be able to turn the page quickly. “
Phillips, 28, has gone from being a typical 4A guy trapped in the underworld between AAA and majors to a real player. Man, solid big-league baseball terminology. His professional journey began in 2015 with Atlanta’s 17th-round draft pick from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and it’s been a winding one.
A brisk fastball, Phillips made it to the majors with the Braves in 2018 before being traded to the Orioles that summer. Baltimore coach Chris Holt taught Phillips the sweep slider, which required him to lower the angle of his arm. The sweeper quickly became Phillips’ best pitch, but the new angle took away some of the hop on his fastball. He didn’t last part of his three seasons in Baltimore.
Phillips’ goals were limited when the Orioles returned to the minors in 2021, when they were the worst in the major leagues with a 52-110 record. He wanted to be a bulk guy (essentially an emergency long relief) in Baltimore. One day in August of that year, Phillips was summoned to the Class AAA Norfolk supervisor’s office and envisioned one of two outcomes.
“It was a 50/50 chance of being released or being called,” he said. “It’s a very strange thought process when you think about it, but that’s the position the team was put in. We need pitchers to cover the game, but at the same time we’re raising our prospects and growing them. I would like to place it in a position where I can” for the future. “
The Orioles ceded Phillips’ roster spot to a burgeoning closer, current Baltimore star Felix Bautista, and Phillips went to the eventual champion Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays just happened to need a new arm, and Phillips pitched three innings in his debut to win the game, earning the first save of his career.
But that’s the problem with long relief pitchers. If they work, they need to rest for a few days. Like Phillips, they are in imminent danger of being drafted if they are considered fungible and out of the minor league options.
So did Phillips, who moved to another team that simply needed big-league skills to win games.
“We were getting close to the day when we needed length out of the pen,” Dodgers general manager Brandon Gomez said. “We said, ‘I think this guy has talent. Let’s try it and see what happens.'” It was great. “
Phillips appeared in nine games for the Dodgers that season, including a win in the National League Championship Series. The team encouraged him to highlight a slider that surprised some opponents.
“I remember that year, an email from Kurt Cazali on the Giants,” Gomez said. “Like, ‘What’s this?’ That looks like the best slider I’ve ever seen.” So he always had it – it was his superpower. — and it speaks to his aptitude and resilience to work with our pitching staff to add cutters and bring back two-seamers. “
Many relievers only use two balls, but by last season Phillips had a reliable four. It was a sweep slider, a cutter, a four-seam fastball, and a sinking two-seam fastball. The result was an ERA of 1.14 and a hard-won belief that he was more than an easily replaced roster filler.
“Because why would I believe we should be pitching leveraged innings for the Dodgers?” Phillips said. “From where I’m from, I could never say that, so it took me a long time to really believe I belonged there.
“Fortunately, I don’t bring those feelings onto the field or anything like that. Every time I go out there and compete, it’s as simple as possible: ‘Do I deserve this at-bat?’ That never happened. or “Why am I here?” Throwing a baseball is the most comforting thing in life for me. I’ve been doing it longer than anything I’ve ever done. It’s like taking a step, it’s very simple for me. That’s what I love to do, so I work on it every day. “
every day? Of course that is not possible. But the Dodgers want him to do it, especially this year.