The Braves made the decision to call up Gwinnett reliever Evan Phillips to bolster a struggling and tired bullpen. Many have called for Phillips to be promoted over the last month as he has dominated for Gwinnett, and he could be a strong addition to the Braves relief corp. Evan was originally drafted in the 17th round back in 2015 out of the University of North Carolina in Wilmington. Phillips had not had much success in his college career as a starter, with a 5.07 career ERA and huge walk numbers, but the Braves saw a pitcher with a live arm and a steep improvement in his strikeouts as a junior and took a chance on him as a relief arm.
Phillips immediately stepped into pro ball and started mowing down batters, striking out 37 batters in the 29 2⁄3 innings he pitched in his professional debut and posting a 2.73 ERA. He earned a spot in High-A in his first professional season, and quickly became the strongest member of the Mudcats bullpen. Over 28 1⁄3 innings he only allowed 4 earned runs for a 1.27 ERA and saw a steep drop in walks, but it also came with a less than stellar 19 strikeouts. Once promoted to Mississippi the strikeouts came back in a big way, and over his last 22 appearances he struck out 43 batters in 34 1⁄3 inning but got touched up with a 4.46 ERA. 2017 was poised to be a big year for Phillips, and but things got off to a rocky start in Mississippi and after 5 outings he had a 25.20 ERA and had allowed 2 home runs. Evan righted the ship over the last month and a half for the MBraves, and in his next 16 innings he had a 2.81 ERA and 18 strikeouts to earn himself a promotion to Gwinnett. Phillips was solid for Gwinnett for the remainder of the season, but still struggled a bit too much with walks and had a tendency for blow up games that led to a 4.75 ERA with the team. Coming into 2018 there was reasonable optimism for Phillips’s future, but what he’s done this season exceeded all expectations and put him at the top of the list to earn a promotion.
In Phillips second game of the season he allowed 3 earned runs and 3 walks for Gwinnett, taking a loss and showing many of the signs of what caused him to struggle the year before. Then, he went on a stretch of sheer dominance, and over his next 23 outings from April 12 to June 19 he struck out 48 batters, walked only 8, and pitched to a 0.85 ERA in 31 2⁄3 innings pitched. His FIP was 1.31 in that span, and he had yet to allow a home run on the season. Phillips finally had another poor outing in his last time out, walking a couple of batters and allowing a home run, but still sits with an insane 12.86 K/9, a 2.31 ERA, and a 2.29 FIP on the season. He is leading all International League relievers in strikeouts.
Phillips dominance is tied directly to his walk rate, and when he keeps the ball in the zone he is incredibly difficult to square up. Phillips has a fairly easy motion with his fastball sitting around 94-95, and he can get up into the 97-98 range while still keeping a strong downward plane on the ball and lively arm side movement. At it’s best it explodes arm side and is extremely difficult to square up, although often it’s not a pitch for Phillips that will get a ton of swings and misses over the plate. When he’s locating the pitch as he has this season it’s deceptive and difficult to square up, forcing a lot of ground balls and getting him ahead early. His best offspeed pitch is a low-80’s breaking pitch that flashes plus and consistently proves to be his swing and miss pitch. He sometimes struggles to keep his breaking ball near enough to the zone to be effective, but often when he doesn’t have his best breaking ball he does enough with his fastball to force weak contact and still get a few strikeouts. He’s also flashed a cutter and changeup that all grade out below his fastball and breaking ball but do exist to add a bit of variance to his arsenal.
The biggest key to watch for Phillips will be his fatigue level, as he’s well on pace for a career high in innings and has already begun to show sparse signs of fatigue. He is the most worked reliever in the International League and the Braves will have to keep an eye on his innings to make sure he doesn’t get into trouble. I don’t know if Phillips will be an immediate impact piece in Atlanta, but you have to feel confident that he’s better than the previous options and is an upgrade. There is a possibility that he could dominate from the outset, but he has tended to struggle in his first taste of a level and may not be more than an average pitcher going forward. If the walks stay down he should be better than average, but again we’re talking about a potential for heavy fatigue that could cause command issues. He’s never been one to give up home runs and that should give him a reasonably high floor as he won’t be a guy who will come in and blow the game with one pitch. Even when he isn’t forcing strikeouts he should be able to keep the ball on the ground and allow the solid infield defense in Atlanta to help him. Over the next few years the expectations should be reasonably high for Phillips. Although he’s unlikely to be a dominant closer that anchors a bullpen he should at the very least be an above average bullpen arm that could work as a brilliant set up or middle reliever.