When Tyler Phillips was a member of the 2017 Hickory Crawdads, the outings were painful to watch. A 6.39 ERA over 25.1 innings and a .280 OBA quickly showed that Phillips was not ready for class Low-A. The five hit batters and 9 walks over that stretch showed he didn’t trust the stuff he had.
A demotion to the Texas Rangers extended spring was an awakening for the then-19-year-old from Pennsauken, N.J. Dealing with the anger over the demotion, Phillips, who was 18-0 during his high school career, was also dealing with the reality that he was experiencing failure and needed to make mental changes.
The start of the short-season Northwestern League at Spokane (Wash.) had its ups and downs, including a three-walk over a four-inning start on June 23. Since then, Phillips has made 26 pro starts. He’s walked more than one in a start just once. That came on opening night 2018 to back-to-back hitters at Greensboro.
Over his last eight starts with Spokane, the right-hander in 49 innings allowed 47 hits, 13 earned runs (2.39 ERA), one hit batter, 5 walks with 55 strikeouts.
For much of the season, Phillips has been the Crawdads most consistent starter. Following the opening-night loss to the Grasshoppers, Phillips has gone five innings in his remaining 14 starts. All 14 has seen 0 or 1 in the walk column. He has 85 strikeouts to just 10 walks over 88 innings (through July 9).
His fastball is around 91-92 mph consistently, but it’s the changeup that is often his money-maker. In a July 2 start vs. Greensboro, Phillips had, by my count, 16 missed bats out of 54 strikes, 12 of those on changeups.
However good Phillips’ control has been over the last 12 months, that has come, in many ways, through the ability to control some of the fiery emotion he battled on the mound, and to control some self-doubts, regaining his confidence.
The following interview took place the day after the Greensboro start on 7/2/18 and it starts with the outcome of that outing and then weaves through the events of his career over the past year.
First of all, last night’s start, I don’t know how you felt about it but it seemed like once you got through the first inning you seemed to find a groove. What was the key for you?
Phillips: To be honest, in that first inning I was pretty gassed. I was down there in the bullpen warming up and the humidity was getting to me and I was sweating, and I couldn’t catch my breath. And there was a little bit of miscommunication in the dugout, so I went out there earlier than I wanted to. That’s kind of the whole reason the first inning seemed a little longer than it should’ve been.
After that, me and (Yohel) Pozo – I told him the plan before the game, they’re an aggressive team and they swing a lot. You don’t really see many adjustments made, so I’m just going to keep pitching to my strengths. I said, “Hey, I’ve been watching them and we’re just going to keep them mixed up and let them get themselves out.” As hitters, they’re hitting .250 for a reason and they’re not going to hit it every time. So, I just kept it mixed up and kept making them uncomfortable. That’s why I fell into that groove there. We just stuck to our plan. I just kept making pitches and he was blocking pitches in the dirt. That was a big help from him.
A lot of changeups last night. Has that pitch come along for you over the last year?
Phillips: I mean, the changeup is a feel pitch. I guess it was two years ago I started working on it, because it was always too hard. I got it and then I started to lose it a little bit, then I got it back last year when I went back to extended after getting sent down from here. I just practiced that because that’s the last pitch a hitter is going to learn to hit, and it looks just like a fastball, if you throw it right. I just practiced it every single day.
My last three, four outings, it hasn’t really been there. So, like I said, it’s a feel pitch and every day for the past two weeks I’ve been out here every day just tweaking my grip and messing around with different things until I got it back. I was playing catch with A.J. (Alexy) and he was throwing his hard, so I just started throwing mine hard and that’s kind of how I got it to come back. You’ve just got to trust it. That’s been the big pitch for me.
Is that the hardest pitch for a starter to learn?
Phillips: I picked it up pretty quickly, but it’s different for every guy. Some guys have more feel than others. It’s just something that I put a lot of time into it. I kind of take pride in that pitch a lot. I know (Alex) Eubanks is working on one right now. Some things will click for some guys and some things won’t. I tried telling him things that I do with mine, but that might not click for him. So, you’ve just got to talk to teammates and talk to coaches, and eventually it’ll come. It’s a tough pitch to come along with.
Who have you seen either on the major league level, or even at this level, that has a changeup that you have looked to, or were impressed by?
Phillips: Probably Cole Ragans. Unfortunately, he got hurt in spring training; I would’ve loved to have had him here. He’s another guy, we’d sit there and we both have similar swing-and-miss changeups. I love watching it because it’s a fun pitch to watch come out of his hand.
I know he models his after Cole Hamels, which – I’m a Phillies fan because I’m from New Jersey, and I’m a Cole Hamels fan, too. Those are the two guys that come to mind when I think about a changeup. Obviously, there’s Pedro Payano, he’s got a good one. There’s a lot of guys, but both of the Coles, they come to mind when you talk about changeups.
You mentioned Cole Hamels, have you been able to talk to him any?
Phillips: He talked to us just about routines and stuff, like all of the pitchers. But whenever I see him, we talk about the Eagles basically. I wish I could have a little bit more time with him, just to talk about pitching and all the different aspects to it. He’s a smart guy, obviously. He’s been in the league for a long time and he’s had success. I wish I could talk to him more about it.
Is that an awe thing for you? Like, dude, this is Cole Hamels.
Phillips: This was weird how that came about. My assistant high school baseball coach, his brother’s friend sent him these selfies with Cole Hamels, so apparently, they’re friends. Cole came up to me and my heart was pounding, and I was like, “Oh my God, this is Cole Hamels.” It is a little weird, but he’s just another guy, just like us. He just has a little bit more experience.
You have a real calm presence on the mound, or at least it looks like that to me sitting up in the press box. I get the impression that you have this cool demeanor on the mound. Is that important for you as a starter? Where did you gather that?
Phillips: That’s another thing that just comes along just talking to older guys and talking to all kinds of people that have been through it.
I know in high school I was successful. I was 18-0 and I didn’t really experience failure. I went to Spokane my first year and struggled there, and there were errors and stuff. I wasn’t really liking that and I was getting fired up on the mound. Then I sat down with Rags (Corey Ragsdale) and he was like, “Hey, man, they’re not perfect and you’re not perfect. You’ve just got to trust it, man. You’re working. You can’t sit there and deny that stuff and you can’t control it. You need to work harder and get better yourself.”
That’s kind of where it started, that and all the peak-performance classes we have with Josiah (Igono), who’s our big-league, peak-performance guy now. He was just like “You don’t want to waste energy out there and it’s not going to do anything by getting upset.”
When I walk guys – I don’t like walking guy, when I walk guys, I get angry – you’ve just got to step off, regather yourself and make your pitches. I try to do that and I try to have a little fire in my eye. It’s just a big confidence thing and it’s what’s making my season better now. I go out there and I walk out there and I think I’m the best one here and no one’s better than me. It’s not true, but you’ve got to fake it until you make it. There are plenty of pitchers out there better than me, but it’s all up in the mind.
Did you grow up a lot from when you were here last year?
Phillips: A whole lot (laughing). Maturity, I feel like. A lot of guys and a lot of coaches have said that I’ve become much more mature. I guess I do see it and it’s just like, you just learn things.
My offseason throwing partner (Scott Oberg) – he’s in the big leagues with the Colorado Rockies right now. He talks to me a lot right now about philosophies and Chinese proverbs, and I’m just sitting there just taking it in. I know that he’s in the big leagues, so why not listen to him and take advantage of your resources. And the whole thing with Josiah, just listening to him.
I’m getting older and if I want to move, I’ve got to get mature. Just like Spanish players, you’ve got to learn English. They don’t have to, but it makes a big impact in the game. I feel like it makes me a better person on the field and off the field. It makes it easier to be a pitcher if you’re not worried about that other stuff.
I know you saw my tweet about your last 25 starts (Tyler Phillips walked 3 in a start with
@spokaneindians on 6/23/17. In the 25 starts since, he’s walked more than 1 batter once – back-2-back on opening night 2018. Since then: 144.2 IP 16 walks, 147 Ks), Was there a point where you began to trust your stuff? I know you went down from here last year and learned some things, but there comes a moment where you’ve got to trust what you do. For some guys there’s a moment or a conversation that gets you to trust your stuff.
Phillips: It’s just a big confidence thing. At instructs, Rags asked me, “What’s different?” I came from here and got moved down, and obviously, I’m not going to be happy. Josiah said, “You should take this week to be pissed off. I know you’re going to be angry and you’re going to be upset, but none of these younger guys here in Arizona, they don’t feel bad for you. They see it as an opportunity for them to move up and they’re going to take advantage of that, if they can.”
That kind of really hit home for me and I really starting to get worried, like “What am I doing? Yeah, I’m going to be pissed off, but I’ve got to get back there and I’ve got to keep moving up and keep getting better.” So, I went out there every single day and just worked hard. That’s really all you can do. It just clicked for me there and that’s the big thing. I went out there and started to throw better and started to pitch better and my confidence started to come back up. I realized, “Hey, this is what’s going to make me better than everyone else.” I’ve been there, and I wasn’t confident, and you saw what happened last year at the beginning of the season. That was just a big thing for me.
Was the all-star selection a big moment for you?
Phillips: Honestly, I didn’t think I was going to make it. My last outing wasn’t the best and I was looking at my stats on the milb thing and thought, “Oh man.” But it happened. That was one of my goals for the season.
I told them in my individual meeting, “Yeah, I want to make an all-star game. I want to move up halfway through the season.” Hopefully, that happens, but if it doesn’t, as long as I progress in my pitching and just keep getting better, that’s what I want. But, the All-Star Game was big for me. I was happy about that.
Good experience for you?
Phillips: Yeah, it was a really good experience. It was weird being in the clubhouse with all the other teams. Like, you’re trying to beat them as a pitcher and I’m trying to strike them out and I’m trying to get them out. Like I told you, I had that little fire in my eye and I’m thinking of staring guys down. It’s just a mental thing, but I get in the clubhouse with them and I feel like nobody liked me. Like, this is weird. But, it was definitely fun to meet some of those guys and hear some of their stories of the things they’ve done. It was all a good time.
What does your path to the major leagues look like? You probably don’t see the whole journey, but you guys are always looking at the next thing, the next step.
Phillips: I mean, I’m still young. I’m only 20-years-old right now. I’m hoping I move up every year from here on out, kind of just keep a steady track. That’s what my goal is. If anything happens before that, great, but I don’t need to rush myself, I don’t think. Because, what’s the point of going up too soon and you risk not having a good season and you just go back to square one? Hopefully that doesn’t happen to where I’ll lose some confidence. I just want to move steadily.
Who have you met from the Rangers – I know you mentioned Cole Hamels – but who you’ve met that you’ve gravitated towards?
Phillips: I mentioned Rags. I mentioned Josiah, and I try to talk to him as much as I can. It’s a little different now because he’s pretty busy with the major leaguers. That’s the main one, Josiah.
Everyone says that baseball is 90 percent mental and the other 90 percent is physical, but it’s all mental, I think. This is a grind. I like talking to teammates just to see what they have to say. I try to go towards older guys and put myself out of my comfort zone. I used to be really shy and I didn’t really want to talk to anyone. You’ve just got to force yourself to do some things.
I talked to Kyle Cody last year before I got sent down. I talked to him the short time I was here to get some input from him and his thoughts. I talked to guys my age just to see what they think and compare things and see what works for people. I’m a big observer. I like to watch and not talk as much.
And there’s a time where you can let some stuff out, because you’ve experienced it. I like to experience things through other people’s experiences. That’s really what I do; I don’t really have a set person. I just try to watch people and see what they’ve got going on. There’s a lot of smart guys and I’m not going to get to talk to all of them.
You call the call to the major leagues, what do you think that will be like for you? Who do you call?
Phillips: Both of my parents, obviously. My girlfriend, she’d definitely be pretty excited about that.
I wish I had my grandpa around to tell him that. So, I try to pitch for him every time I go out there. If you ever see me behind the mound just staring up, I pick out a cloud out there, a tree or something and just try to talk to him a little bit right before I pitch. That always settles me down. I wish I can call him, but I know he’s watching. That’s one guy, but my parents will tell everyone else and reach out. I’ve got my two best friends that I’d call.
What’s your grandpa’s name?
Phillips: Frank Phillips.
What did he mean to you?
Phillips: I was young when he passed, probably 9 or 10 years old, but he was one of my heroes. He was in wars, he was in all the wars. He has a purple heart and just had some great stories and just took care of me, whenever my dad would bring me over there. We had fun and he showed me how to pitch and play checkers and do all the things that you teach younger kids how to do. I just loved being around him and he was really a great guy. He was awesome, and I was pretty close to him. I like to try to model myself after him, I think he was a good guy. He taught my dad everything that my dad knows and my dad tries to teach me everything that my grandpa knew. I know he would’ve loved to be there. He’s never seen me pitch. That’s something I wish he could’ve done, but I know he’s up there watching.