Without a doubt, this COVID shutdown has been tough for Royals faithful. While it has been nice to do different kinds of “fan brackets” and recount Royals history, KC baseball fans (myself included) miss the Boys in Blue taking the field at Kauffman Stadium. It certainly has been tough for KC denizens to power through this April without parking lot tailgates, Boulevard beer from the Craft and Draft, and the roars of the Kauffman faithful blaring through the stadium after a big Royals play. Yes, baseball has started again in Taiwan, and will be starting soon in South Korea, but it still feels like we are a couple of months out from baseball happening again here in the states, a downer to Royals fans everywhere.
However, if there has been one positive Royals story during this whole “stay-at-home” shutdown, it’s been the emergence of outfielder Brett “Maverick” Phillips, who has suddenly become the most endearing player on the Royals’ 40-man roster. Phillips, acquired from Milwaukee along with Jorge Lopez in the Mike Moustakas trade in 2018, has already been a small fan favorite in Kansas City, mostly due to his infectious laugh, as seen in the video below:
During this shut-down, Phillips, who only played 30 games with the Royals a year ago, and 36 in 2018, has been the face of the franchise, mostly due to his antics while representing the Royals in the MLB Show 20 challenge. While playing the Playstation baseball video game against other players from other teams around the league, Phillips has not exactly shied away from the spotlight as well as the “chatter”, evidenced by this Tweet below where he called out those (including the commentators in the game) who characterized him as a “defense-only” player, a knock on him and his struggles at the plate the past two seasons in Kansas City.
The Royals, who helped with the video above, have continued to showcase Phillips’ penchant for goofiness on frequent occasion over the past month on their Twitter. In the Tweet below, Phillips mocked a “walkup song” for him at Kauffman in the game with Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles”, which seems to have gotten mileage since it was so eloquently used in the comedy classic “White Chicks“.
And it hasn’t been solely a Royals thing either. Phillips has also become a national darling as well. While they were filming him playing a game on MLB the Show’s live feed, Phillips and the crew had a laugh after he heard the news that he was mistakenly thought of as a pitcher. Of course, Maverick’s trademark laugh had everyone on camera in stitches:
Then last night, if that last tweet wasn’t enough, Phillips, fully decked in Royals gear (represent), was balling in laughter after pitcher Lance McCullers, Jr. told a story of what happened with a recent Chipotle order. I will let Lance divulge the details in the Tweet below:
Without a doubt, Phillips continue to become more endearing to Royals nation each and every day during this COVID pandemic. He’s incredibly earnest, accessible to fans, and just a genuine personality who just loves being part of the Royals organization. While this is not a knock to other Royals players (I would say Salvy is the standards when it comes to this kind of endearing demeanor), what Phillips has done during this shutdown has not only brought more fans to his corner, but also has kept Royals fans interested in the Royals in general, not exactly an easy thing to do considering the Royals’ recent lack of success the past two seasons.
That being said, while Phillips has won the hearts of Royals fans through social media, can he parlay that into some regular playing time in 2020 when baseball starts up again?
As I have profiled on this blog before, Phillips is out of Minor League options, which means that if he doesn’t make the active 26-man roster this season, he would likely be designated for assignment, which could mean an end to his Royals tenure (it’s likely that a team would claim him on waivers). Phillips has not exactly torn it up since coming to Kansas City, as his strikeout issues and lack of ability to make consistent contact have plagued him at the Major League level. As a Royal in 66 games and 202 plate appearances, he has put up a slash of .169/.250/.294 with a 47 OPS+ and 73 strikeouts. Thus, it’s not surprising that the Royals opted to not only bring back Alex Gordon for one more year, but also signed Maikel Franco to move Hunter Dozier to right field in order to give the lineup some more power and insurance.
While Phillips has been solid defensively (he’s accumulated 12.5 UZR the last two years in the outfield in KC), his lack of ability to hit at the Major League level has limited his opportunities with the Royals. Furthermore, his Omaha stats were a little questionable as well, for while he hit 18 home runs and posted a solid OPS of .883, his 118 strikeouts (28.5 percent strikeout rate) and .240 average didn’t necessarily boost his case. However, if you watch what he did in Omaha in the highlights below, it’s possible to see Phillips turn into a Brett Gardner-esque player, with a little bit more defensive ability (though he wouldn’t have Gardner’s contact tool).
At the end of the day though, Phillips is in a “make or break” year with the Royals of sorts. Not only is he trying to earn some playing time in an already crowded outfield that consists of Gordo-Whit-Doz, but he also has to be able to hold off Bubba Starling, another bench outfielder who is out of Minor League options as well. Phillips does have more history of success at the Major League and even Minor League level than the former Royals first round pick, but Starling is a local kid out of Gardner, Kansas, and the Royals have been milking that story in order to bring fans to the ballpark. Furthermore, Starling did have a stronger Spring Training performance than Phillips (1.208 OPS to Phillips’ .733 OPS), which may put him in the early lead, but that should be taken with a grain of salt, as Phillips did face tougher competition than Starling (7.3 to Starling’s 6.9 Opponent Quality). Both players will probably get equal shots to give players days off (Gordo seems to be the likely option or perhaps Doz with his injury history), and whoever performs the best out of the gate will most likely win the backup job long term.
Honestly, there’s a lot to like about Phillips and his game, and it’s hard to really judge him on a little over 200 plate appearances. His strikeout issues are hard to ignore (36.4 percent strikeout rate at the Major League level), but he did take strides to improve his plate discipline in 2019, as his K rate dropped (from 40.7 percent in 2018 with the Royals to 29.1 percent in 2019) while his BB rate increased (7.3 in 2018 to 12.7 in 2019). I don’t think Phillips will ever be a high contact, .300 level hitter, but that is not his approach anyways, as he tends to see a lot of pitches and works the count (his swing percentage was 43.8 percent last year, 3.2 percent below average). That kind of approach bodes better for success than Starling’s, which is more free swinging (49.3 percent swing rate) and less effective (14.0 swinging strike percentage to Phillips’ 11.8 percent).
Granted, a lot has to go in Phillips’ favor for him to get a real shot in 2020. Most likely either Franco, Nicky Lopez or Doz have to either get hurt or really struggle for Phillips to move into a regular starting role, and that’s only if he really hits in limited bench duty before that. The most likely scenario would be Franco, as he is on a one-year deal for only $3 million. If he struggles, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Dayton Moore cut him in similar fashion to Chris Owings a year ago, who was also a cheap flier whom Moore signed in the off-season who didn’t produce in two months with the club.
Phillips has done his work off-the-field as a Royal. There is no player who interacts more with the fans or is more enjoyable to follow on social media. But that can only go so far, and Phillips will need to improve at the plate to make this happen. And unfortunately, Phillips won’t have much time to prove his “improvement” at the plate, as a slow start could ultimately mean the end of Phillips’ presence in the Royals organization.
But, if Phillips gets off to a hot start and earns regular playing time, not only could he be Gordo’s replacement in the outfield by 2021, but Royals fans may get to see more “goofy” Tweets from Maverick for years to come.