PITTSBURGH — When the Pirates traded for left-handed reliever Zach Phillips at the trade deadline, it wasn’t exactly a deal that moved the needle. Phillips was acquired for recently-DFA’d minor-league swingman Kyle Lobstein, wasn’t on the 40-man roster, and frankly, with a 4.45 Triple-A ERA, he didn’t seem like he’d amount to much.
But Phillips has thrived in the Pirates’ bullpen. He was pretty much the lone bright spot in the team’s ugly 12-2 loss to the Chicago Cubs Monday, coming in with the bases loaded and bailing out Chad Kuhl by striking out Anthony Rizzo and getting Wilson Contreras to ground into a double play. His last outing against the Nationals saw him strike out Bryce Harper with the bases loaded — quite an impressive list of victims for a lightly heralded lefty.
“He punches out Harper with the bases loaded the other day and then he comes in this situation, gets a pretty good left-handed hitter out then gets a ground ball from a right-hander,” said manager Clint Hurdle. “He’s showing the things you want to see out of people that are hungry for opportunity.”
Through 5.1 innings in Pittsburgh this season, Phillips has yet to allow an earned run and he’s put just four batters on base — three hits and a walk — while striking out six. Hurdle said it would be fair to call Phillips’ time with the Pirates this September an audition.
“Everybody out there is trying to get something done,” he said. “Zach’s ground-ball contact rate was something we were impressed with when he was in Baltimore. He’s been kind of a reverse-split guy.”
Phillips doesn’t have a lot of velocity (his fastball barely averages 90 MPH) and he doesn’t do all that well against left-handers. In fact, as Hurdle said, lefties hit .294 off him in Triple-A this year and right-handers hit .222 against him. To most teams, a soft-throwing lefty that isn’t that good against lefties isn’t that useful, but Phillips has shown the ability to do something the Pirates love: get ground balls.
In 49 games with Triple-A Norfolk this season, he had a 1.73 GA/AO ratio and he had a 1.74 number with Charlotte in 2015. For comparison, Jared Hughes, the Pirates’ incumbent ground-ball specialist, has a 1.83 figure this season. Hughes is a non-tender candidate after this season and his role could be up for grabs in 2017.
Phillips is 30 and has six years of control remaining beyond this season, which explains why he’s being given an opportunity to show what he can do at the highest level.
Phillips’ smooth outing was a stark contrast to that of fellow left-hander Steven Brault, who immediately followed up on the mound. Brault gave up seven runs (three earned) on six hits over 1.2 painful-to-watch innings.
His command was “bad” and he fell behind hitters, which didn’t go well.
“The kid’s out there pumping everything he’s got into it but the first-pitch strikes were six out of 16,” Hurdle said. “He’s got six three-ball counts. Up here, when you have to throw fastballs in fastball counts to major-league hitters … it usually doesn’t end well.”
Hurdle and Brault were hoping the trip to the bullpen would clear away a layer of overthinking and just let Brault pitch, but instead he got a different lesson.
“The one way you get outs up here is being aggressive and pounding the strike zone,” Hurdle said. “Nibbling is never going to work up here.”
“It’s just getting ahead of hitters,” agreed Brault. “Sometimes basically what it comes down to — as a starter or as a reliever — is getting people to swing the bat. So when I had people not swinging the bat, they could sit on the pitch and swing when they really wanted to.”
Brault will attempt to take some things away from his outing, mostly in regards to being aggressive early in the count, but also about the way he will need to make adjustments at the major-league level.
“The problem is, learning sucks, because learning is so frustrating,” he said. “It’s so hard. [Tuesday], I’ll come in and watch video and I’ll learn. Right now, it’s frustrating because you want to go out and do well for your team. I’m frustrated, but I’m alright. … Hopefully, I’ll get one or two more before the season ends and keep fighting and keep busting my ass.”+ posts