24 March 2016

The 2012 Zach Phillips

With left-handed spot relief pitcher Brian Matusz questionable for opening day, the Orioles signed free agent left-handed relief pitcher Zach Phillips to a spot on the 40-man roster. Phillips had been in the Orioles organization before, pitching in 16 big-league and 56 AAA games in 2011-2012. He was one of the 75 players (including 6 named "Zach") who played for the 2012 Norfolk Tides; he left the organization as a free agent and has since been with the Marlins and White Sox organizations. He also spent 2014 playing in Japan.

Although Phillips may have evolved as a pitcher since leaving the Orioles - his AAA strikeout rates have been significantly higher in his 2013 and 2015 AAA seasons than before - I thought we could look Phillips' performance, especially his 2012 performance, to see what we could expect if Phillips does replace Matusz. The data comes from the scoresheets I maintained as a MiLB.com datacaster and as a Baseball Info Solutions scorer. Some of the hit trajectories I recorded are imprecise and subjective. I tried to observe the BIS convention that a ground ball is a batted ball that an infielder didn't or wouldn't have caught in the air.

I saw Zach Phillips phase 72 batters in 2012. 25 of those batters hit left-handed; 47 hit right-handed. Some of the numbers will have apparent discrepancies because two of the batters - one left-handed, one right-handed - executed successfully sacrifice bunts. So, for on-base percentage purposes, Phillips faced 24 left-handed and 46 right-handed batters.

Phillips generally wasn't used exclusively as a left-handed specialist in Norfolk. As you might expect when a team uses 40 pitchers, pitching roles aren't well-defined; Phillips was used as a set-up man and part-time closer. Left-handed batters produced a slash line of .261/.280/.391; right-handed batters produced a slash line of .238/.304/.262.

Three things are apparent from this, although one of those three isn't really true. First, Phillips wasn't more effective against left-handed batters than right-handed batters, so he doesn't fit the classic lefty-specialist profile. On the other hand, that makes him less vulnerable to opposite-side substitution. Second, Phillips isn't vulnerable to the home run. Although the slugging percentage against left-handed pitchers looks bad, he didn't allow a home run; the isolated power results from three doubles (one of which came when Phillips was gassed as the end of a 4-inning stint in an extra-inning game.) Third, he appears to have excellent control - but that's not really true. He didn't walk batters in these games but did walk them more frequently over the course of the season.

More interesting is the trajectories of balls put in play against Phillips, as documented in the below table. The fields should be self-explanatory; the totals combine both hits and outs.

Vs. Left
Vs. Right
Ground Ball
Fly Ball
Line Drive

At least in the 2012 games I saw, Phillips was a ground-ball pitcher, especially against left-handed batters. This supports the idea that Phillips is not vulnerable to the home run. The Orioles infield defense is good, and Camden Yards is a home-run park, so there is an intuitive logic that the Orioles should acquire ground-ball pitchers. If Phillips continues to get ground balls, he could be effective and useful to the Orioles.

So, based on Phillips' 2012 patterns, there's reason to believe that he can be an effective piece of the Orioles bullpen. They don't need him to be the closer or top set-up man. He's probably going to be a lefty specialist, but he should be a lefty specialist who can face the occasional right-handed batter (as, for example, if a righty is followed by another lefty or two.) Of course, he could also start his Orioles career with a couple of bad outings and find himself back in Norfolk or as a free agent.


Roger said...

At least this pickup makes some sense and might help to fill the gap until Matusz returns.

Unknown said...

If the O's could get anyone decent for Matusz it is time to cut ties with him. His production compared to salary is bad, but his performance in critical situations is even worse.

Anonymous said...

Matusz is a bust with the only thing he does well is letting inherited runners score. Any lefthander with a pulse will do! Hell, Jesse Orosco is available!

Anonymous said...

Jim Moyer hits the nail on the head!!!