When Tyler Phillips last pitched for Hickory, it was at home against Greensboro on May 14. The pitching line for that game: 3.2 innings, 4 H, 5 R (2 ER), 3 hit batters, 1 BB, 3 Ks and a wild pitch. Of the 40 pitches he threw, 25 went for strikes.
Fast forward to the South Atlantic League opener on Thursday, against Greensboro on the road. The pitching line: 3.2 IP, 6 H, 5 R (all earned), 2 BB, 4 K, 68 pitches, 45 strikes.
While the pitching lines are similar, where Phillips is in comparison to the 2017 season is far different.
“I think last year was a big learning year for him,” said Crawdads pitching coach Jose Jaimes in an interview earlier this week. “He had a good spring training. He showed up this spring stronger, bigger, but most important, more mature.”
The Rangers 16th-round pick in 2015 seemed almost out-of-place with the Crawdads and there seemed to be a timid approach to hitters by the then 19-year-old hurler. In 25.1 innings, he struck out just 15, but walked nine, hit five more and the SAL hit .280 against him.
There was none of that at Thursday night’s opener as he attacked hitters from the start.
In comparing the two circumstances from last year to this, Phillips feels more of a sense of belonging on the Crawdads roster this season.
“Yeah, it’s a lot different than last year,” said Phillips. “I came in and wasn’t really expecting to be here in Hickory. This year, I came in here and I was the opening-day starter, so it was pretty cool.”
After his re-assignment from Hickory, Phillips put the struggles behind him and put together a strong short-season at Spokane. With the Indians, he posted a 3.45 ERA in 73 innings with 78 strikeouts to just 11 walks.
The changes since leaving Hickory last May, Phillips said, were twofold.
Going to Surprise, Ariz., Phillips looked to re-center himself mechanically. Listed at 6-5, 200 pounds, he worked to find control of a fastball that ranged from 92-94 mph on Thursday. With the aid of Rangers pitching coaches at the team’s extended spring training complex, Phillips found some answers on video.
“What I did find out was at the beginning at Hickory,” Phillips said. “I got away from my routine and I changed a bunch of things with my mechanics. I got around the ball, around the side of it. So, I did fix my fastball; I got more on top of the ball and I was able to bring it down. My changeup has always been there. The curveball has always been a work in progress; I changed my grip up a little bit. So, I’m always trying to improve something.”
Mechanics and repertoire aside, there was perhaps an underlying issue at hand: believing he pitch.
“When I went back to Spokane, honestly, it was a big mindset thing,” said Phillips. “Just going out and being more confident with every pitch that I had, knowing that I could get guys out, knowing that I was good. I definitely found out that baseball is just a game and you’ve got to make it fun.”
With tools and a new outlook, Phillips took to the mound on Thursday and went after hitters. Of the 68 pitches he threw, 18 missed bats, including all three pitches during a second-inning plate appearance by Eric Gutierrez, and on two of the three pitches thrown to Isael Soto, who was caught looking in the third.
Phillips said that as his mechanics improved, the increase in swings-and-misses increased.
“It kind of just started when I got to Spokane,” he said. “A lot of those are the changeup. I kind of developed that, keeping the same arm speed as my fastball. The fastball, this year, it’s harder because I got into my lower half better, so that’s another thing I’m fiddling around with.”
So, while the numbers between the final start with Hickory the first are the similar, Phillips left Thursday’s start feeling more assured of where he is as a pitcher.
“The results, obviously, were not what I wanted them to be,” Phillips said. “But I feel like I accomplished the things I wanted to work on.”