Throughout the course of his professional career, Zach Phillips has always needed an adjustment period.
The left-hander spent two years at Single-A Clinton, posting a 5.96 earned-run average in 2006 before lowering it by over three runs the next season.
He was knocked around in 2008 during his first stint with High-A Bakersfield, as he logged a 5.54 ERA in 144.2 innings. Phillips repeated the level in ’09, this time working as a reliever, and his ERA dropped all the way to 1.23 in 44 frames.
Phillips’ dominance out of the Bakersfield bullpen earned him a late-June promotion to Double-A Frisco last summer. While his 1.60 ERA in 20 relief appearances with the RoughRiders certainly didn’t suggest any struggles, he walked a career-high 5.1 batters per nine innings.
The California native is currently in his second go-around with Frisco, and true to form, he has been dominant.
Working as a late-inning reliever, Phillips has surrendered just four hits in 13 shutout innings, walking two and striking out 17.
He is even improving upon his excellent 2009 numbers. With Frisco last season, Phillips averaged 18 pitches per inning. This year, it’s down to just 12.8 per frame.
“The season is fun so far,” Phillips said. “We have a real good team. I just like going out there in close games––the adrenaline really kicks in. I like being able to go out there and help the team out.”
With a sparkling 1.19 ERA in 90.2 innings since moving to the bullpen at the start of last season, Phillips has clearly taken to the relief role well.
In fact, the Rangers were optimistic enough about Phillips’ future as a relief pitcher to give him a spot on the 40-man roster over the offseason, protecting him from the Rule 5 Draft.
As a member of the 40-man, Phillips gets a few perks, even though he has yet to reach the big leagues. For one, he now gets better pay than the average minor leaguer. But he also got a guaranteed invitation to Major League camp this spring.
|Phillips' big breakout came in Bakersfield.
Phillips spent a few weeks with the big league club, and he got to appear in two Spring Training games with the Rangers, logging two innings of relief.
Though it wasn’t the first time Phillips has pitched in a Major League game––he has seen action as a ‘just in case’ player in the past––he enjoyed being able to work with the veterans on a day-in, day-out basis.
“I had tons of fun being with all the guys,” he said. “They were really welcoming. It was good to get the stress off your shoulders and get a little experience.”
Of course, he also used his time wisely, soaking up information from a pair of All-Star caliber players.
“I threw a few live BP’s to Michael Young and Kinsler,” Phillips said. “They would give me some pointers after I was done throwing with them. That helped out a lot too––just knowing they were there for me to help me get better as well.”
Ever since Phillips was selected in the 23rd round of the ’04 MLB Draft out of Sacramento City College––and signed as a draft-and-follow the subsequent summer––he has had a strong three-pitch mix.
Phillips has a two-seam fastball with good sink, a solid curveball, and his low-80s changeup has developed into a plus pitch–-perhaps his best secondary offering.
When Phillips has run into trouble in the past, the problem was rarely stuff––it was command. With both Clinton and Bakersfield, he was often too hittable because he worked up in the zone with his fastball. He would sometimes try to be too fine and fall behind in counts. Though the hurler’s control was never below average, he finished second in the Cal League with 73 free passes in 2008.
So far this year, Phillips appears to have corrected both issues.
The 6-foot-1, 200-pound prospect worked in the 86-88 mph range in his final season as a starting pitcher, but his velocity has ticked up to 88-91 mph out of the bullpen over the last two seasons. This year, Phillips has been working more around 90-91, even touching 92 on occasion.
But the key for Phillips is pounding the bottom-half of the strike zone, getting ahead of hitters with his sinker, and putting them away with his two quality secondary pitches.
So far in 2010, Phillips’ strikeout rate is at an all-time high. Part of it is command, and Phillips says another aspect is mental.
“I’ve learned to judge the reactions of hitters and how they are swinging,” he said. “It’s just attacking them and knowing where to put the ball at the right time.”
After working more as a long reliever last season, the 23-year-old has been counted on as one of Frisco’s late-inning relievers this year. Phillips currently leads the ‘Riders with four saves, and he enjoys the rush of pitching with the game on the line.
“It’s awesome,” he said of closing. “This year is a new role. I like being in close games and having the ball in my hand and getting the job done for the team. Any role is fine with me, but it’s fun.”
Natural thought process generally suggests that a left-handed reliever without an overpowering fastball or back-end bullpen potential is destined to become a lefty specialist. But that may not be the case with Phillips.
The fastball-curveball combination has certainly given Phillips success against fellow southpaws, as they are just 18-for-135 [.133] with one extra-base hit against him over the last two years.
However, because of his quality fastball-changeup mix to combat righties, he isn’t exactly a one-trick pony. Right-handers are just 32-for-191 [.168] off him.
Because he has the stuff to face both left- and right-handed hitters, Phillips profiles as a big league middle reliever that can work one or two innings per outing.
Potential bullpen role aside, it's all about command for Phillips. As long as he is working down in the zone and getting ahead of hitters, his stuff will allow him to carve out a career in a Major League bullpen.
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