Posted by Andy on August 11, 2011
I promised a post about Tony Phillips, and I'll get to his career in a moment. Bear with me as I speak first about this 1990 Score card.
Score started off very strongly in 1988 with their debut set and they kept the same general format in 1989 and 1990. There is so much to like about this card. First off, the dual photo works so very well, especially for a guy like Phillips. He was a muscular badass in the days before most hitters were muscular badasses (i.e. the Steroids Era) and the picture on the front captures that. But he was also a fun-loving guy with an infectious smile and the photo on the back captures that. A card like this does so much more to tell the story of a player than any single-photo card could ever do.
Like the earlier years, Score chose some strong solid-color borders, and their decision to match the Athletics' team colors by painting their cards in green and yellow was a great one. There is exceptional color unity on this card, thanks too due to the photo location of Comiskey Park, where the yellow rails in the background blend right in as part of the color scheme.
The card back is great too, with compact stats and a useful biography. Pretty much the only criticism I can make of this card is true for all cards from this era, which is that some key stats are missing from the back, and it really shows for a player like Phillips, whose primary value was in his on-base percentage. The card, however, doesn't show OBP or even his walks total (which, again, was standard for all companies in the 1980s.) The text on the card does mention Phillips' excellent defensive flexibility, however.
Now on to Phillips the player:
He had a very long career, playing from 1982 (age 23) to 1999 (age 40). He finished with an OPS+ of 109, which while certainly good, doesn't tell the whole story of how good he was. The big problem with Phillips (and his reputation) is that he became a different player halfway through his career, just as all of baseball was changing.
In 1986, Phillips walked 76 times over 532 plate appearances in 118 games. But he batted only .256, so his OBP was "only" .367. He also displayed very little power and slugged just .345. Through 1990, his slugging remained quite low. In 1991, at age 32, though, Phillips transformed. He posted 79 walks but pushed his HR total over 10 for the first time. He also had a then career-high 28 doubles, and a then career-best .284 batting average. Those factors combined to give him both a high OBP of .371 and a high SLG of .438, good for a 122 OPS+.
At this point, Phillips' career could have gone two ways. He could have started swinging for the fences all the time, or he could have used his improved power to work more walks and get on base even more. The latter is what happened, as in 1992 he went over 100 walks for the first time, and in 1993 he led the league in walks with 132. By 1993 his OBP was a whopping .443 in 151 games, good for an OPS+ of 130 (wow!). The problem? In 1993, everybody else was hitting homers and little Tony Phillips, who managed just 7 that year, was invisible to most fans. Think about that--a guy putting up a 130 OPS+ with just 7 homers, right at the start of the Steroids Era.
Phillips' continued to walk a lot, averaging more than 100 walks and a .400 OBP over the next 4 seasons (through 1997.) By then, though, he was 38 years old and close to retirement (from MLB as a player, at least.) He finished out with a couple of solid years bouncing from club to club in 1998 and 1999.
But what might have been if Phillips' had developed his batting approach earlier in his career?
From 1982 to 1990, Phillips had a 96 career OPS+. From 1991 to 1999, his OPS+ was 117. Keep in mind that these numbers correct for the league-wide offensive explosion that started in 1993, and that Phillips' good OPS+ then is particularly good given that he was not among those players swatting 30-40 HR per season.
I haven't even talked about his defense yet. Phillips had a positive dWAR most seasons of his career (save a few in the beginning and a few in the end) and finished with a career dWAR of 4.1. This is truly remarkable given that he played all over the field. And when I say all over the field, I mean all over the field. That's 777 games at second base, 566 games in left field, 428 games at third base, 294 games at shortstop, 169 games in right field, 97 games in center field, and 5 games at first base. He had another 97 games as DH. The guy played everywhere except pitcher and catcher, and he played them all well. He wasn't a utility guy, and he wasn't a guy who was a good hitter who the manager was trying to hide somewhere on the field just to get him in the game. He was an excellent defender who could play any position, and he was very good at the plate (at least in the second half of his career.)
Starting in 1991, Phillips' was intelligently made into a leadoff hitter just about exclusively. For a guy who walked so much and got such a high OBP, that was the right move.
So what's not to love about Phillips? The only knock on him is that he didn't adopt his game sooner in his career. But even with his late start, he still ended up with a way better major-league career than most other players.
Underrated? You betcha.