There’s some strange folklore that says people die in threes. Let’s assume for a moment that silliness were actually true. I still have to wonder how society moved from that idea to the one where three “famous” people die around the same time. I put that word in quotation marks because in the death game, famousness is in the eye of the beholder. At the time I write this, all three of Antonin Scalia, Big Ang, and Tony Phillips passed away in the past week.
Since nobody is here for my thoughts on how Scalia’s passing will affect the Roberts court or the 2016 presidential race, and I’m certain nobody is concerned with my predictable views on reality television, I’m going to concentrate on the baseball player in this post.
But first, think about this one for a moment. Try to come up with three more different people than Scalia, Ang, and Keith Anthony Phillips.
As we age, deaths hit us harder, I suppose. And Phillips’ certainly has had its impact on me. I’ve gotten to love him as a player over the last few years as Eric and I have done some intense research into the Hall of Fame cases for pretty much everyone who has ever played the game. We judged Phillips worthy of the Hall of Miller and Eric during our 2007 election, the same year we inducted no-brainers Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn. To me, Phillips is about the 150th best eligible non-pitcher. That ranking, plus the versatility he brought to his teams, got him into the HoME.
As another side note before my Tony Phillips career WAR retrospective, he got a single vote on the 2005 BBWAA ballot. And Willie McGee got 26 votes?!? For those of us who whine about the BBWAA, please note that there’s not a shot in the world someone like Willie McGee, even with a batting title and four All-Star Games, would garner 26 votes in a Hall election today. Sadly, Phillips would still be around one.
Tony Phillips broke into the majors for his first cup of coffee in 1982 as a 23-year-old shortstop. He stunk, totaling just four extra base hits in 100 trips to the plate, more CS than SB, and no games anywhere but short. This wasn’t the real Tony Phillips yet. With my conversions for Defensive Regression Analysis, he totaled 0.72 WAR in ‘82. That’s not bad in a season when you’re lost at the plate and defend for only 256 innings. Very early on, we could see that Phillips contributed in the field. Litt;e was expected at this point.
By 1983, Oakland moved on from Fred Stanley. Kind of amazingly, Chicken, as he was known, he of the .216/.301/.263 career triple slash, played in the third most contests of his career in 1983 and was out of baseball the next year. Boy, those post-Billy Ball A’s were bad. Anyway, Phillips became Oakland’s full-time shortstop. He still didn’t hit much, improving his OPS of ’82 from 75 to 85. To keep a job, Phillips needed to defend, or play for a team content to win 74 games. Phillips did both. Well, according to BBREF, he hurt Oakland in the field. But DRA very much liked his work at SS. In his first decent year, 2.87 WAR by my numbers, Phillips also played 2B and 3B, showing that versatility for which he’d long be known.
Oakland stunk again the next season, but Phillips continued to grow as a hitter. Slowly. It’s not like 4 HR and 35 RBI turning into 4 HR and 37 RBI is a big deal. Then again, moving to a 97 OPS+ for a versatile middle infielder in 1984 is pretty impressive. He shared both 2B and SS in ’84. Short was shared with 1974 #1 pick Bill Almon, and second was shared with Joe Morgan, the Hall of Famer who spent the final year of his extraordinary career with the A’s. Based on Phillips’ soon-to-be-found new skill, I’d say Morgan played a profound role in his career. Another 2.94 WAR in the books in 1984, he remains as a modest 6.52 through three seasons, the only years he’d spend significant time at shortstop
In 1985 Phillips spent almost all of the season’s first five months on the shelf, not appearing in a game until August 22. When he got back, he was great at the plate, posting an OPS+ of 121. And he was impressive at 3B and finally figured out how to defend at 2B. By this point in his career, Phillips was pretty well entrenched as a utility guy. I give him another 1.56 WAR for his short season. Through four years, he’s barely above 2.0 per campaign.
Tony LaRussa got to Oakland toward the end of 1986 and began turning the team around. Despite a sprained right knee that forced him to miss most of the season’s final seven weeks, Phillips was probably the A’s best player that year. Joe Morgan’s shone, as he spiked his walk rate to 14.3%. He was also brilliant defensively at second. And for those interested in such trivia, Mark McGwire got his first call to the bigs when Phillips hit the DL. Overall, I give him 4.38 WAR in 1986, which you might think was the spike that would start HoME;level numbers for years to come.
Not so fast. LaRussa wasn’t really in love with Phillips. Tony Bernazard and Mike Gallego got a fair share of the playing time at second base in 1987. With 83 starts at 2B to go with eight at SS and seven at 3B, Phillips was no longer a full-time player. Based on the historical record, this was a poor choice on LaRussa’s part. But nobody was going to argue with the first .500 record since 1981 or with the mini-dynasty to come. Phillips put up only 2.42 WAR in 1987. It could have easily been 4+ with a full-time gig. By the way, Bernazard and Gallego totaled 0.8 WAR.
Oakland won 104 games in 1988, losing the World Series to Orel Hershiser, Kirk Gibson, and the Dodgers. Glenn Hubbard took over as the regular at second base. Mike Gallego backed him up. And Phillips was reduced to a complete utility guy, playing every non-battery position. Sure, he missed seven weeks mid-season, but that wasn’t the reason for his paltry 251 trips to the plate. Phillips put up 0.40 WAR in 1988, making it six of his first seven years he failed to crack 3.0.
In 1989, the only World Series title in their run came Oakland’s way. The won 99 games, rolled over the Giants, and let Tony Phillips play a lot. He was the main second baseman, he spelled Carney Lansford at third, and he played a bunch of other positions too. But this wasn’t a great year for Phillips. At this point, his 1986 walk rate seemed like a blip. The bit of pop he showed in 1985 didn’t look to be returning. And the chance at a career as anything other than a utility man was all but gone as Phillips entered his 30s. On the other hand, the defense at second was outstanding. Give him 3.30 more WAR in 1989. That gives him 18.58 in his career. Just for a point of reference, that would put him inside the top-1000 non-pitchers ever, roughly equivalent to the other Frank Thomas, Jerry Priddy, or Bill Melton.
Before the 1990 season, the Detroit Tigers let Tony Phillips know he’d be their leadoff hitter and third baseman, and they gave him $3.25 million over three years for just that. I don’t think LaRussa thought so much of Phillips. When he left, LaRussa commented, “We’ll pat Tony on the back and wish him well.” Perhaps those wishes worked. Phillips had his finest season to date in 1990. He came to the plate 687 times, drew 99 walks, played the best 3B he’d ever played, was again excellent at 2B, and got to work with two of the greats who were just about his age, Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell. Maybe their influence wore off some too. His 4.63 WAR took him over 23 for his career. We’re now inside the top-750 non-pitchers. Think Jay Buhner, Oscar Gamble, or Matty Alou.
Playing every day seemed to agree with Phillips. In 1991, he smacked a career-high 17 homers and posted a 122 OPS+. He played nearly everywhere defensively and was again excellent at second base. Travis Fryman had taken Phillips 3B job, but Phillips managed 655 PAs, so he wasn’t complaining much. This was to be the second year of a late-career seven-season run of excellence. I give him 5.44 WAR for this season. And Phillips keeps climbing the ranks. He’s now over 28.6 WAR overall, good for a top-550 finish among non-pitchers. He’s now in a class with Don Baylor, Howie Kendrick, and Tino Martinez.
Phillips got a shade better in 1992, mostly due to his walk numbers, 114 that year. He also led the AL with 114 runs and posted a 119 OPS+. All this came from a guy who was still a defensive star at 2B at age 33 and could hold his own everywhere else he played, which was most everywhere else. Let’s give him another 5.68 WAR. It’s unbelievable, really. This career wasn’t supposed to happen. Phillips is now over 34 WAR, into the top-425 non-pitchers ever. And remember, he still has some very good years remaining. He’s now in league with Stuffy McInnis, B.J. Surhoff, and Ken Griffey Sr.
Phillips’ best year by my numbers would come in 1993. He was a stud at second base. He led the AL with a pretty incredible 132 walks. He posted a 130 OPS+. Phillips was a force both offensively and defensively. He finished 16th in the MVP voting, but it’s not hard to say he was more valuable than the ’93 AL MVP, Frank Thomas. I give Phillips another 6.45 WAR in ‘93. We march on, nearing 41 career WAR, which nears the top-300 non-pitchers ever. Think about Gil McDougald, Jim Gilliam, and Phil Rizzuto.
Now we get into some sticky numbers. I adjust all seasons to 162 games. So when there were 154-game schedules, I adjust numbers up just a tad. But if there’s a much shorter season, I adjust numbers up a decent amount. That’s what happened in 1994. Detroit played 115 games. I can’t just adjust 115 games into 162. I temper my expectations because I think injuries are possible, but I do want to give enough credit that I’m comparing apples to apples in terms of greatness. In 1994, Phillips was great once again. He upped his career high in HR to 19, posted a 126 OPS+, and drew 95 walks in 538 trips to the plate. At this point, left field was his main position. And to the surprise of what should be nobody, he was really good in left field. Adjusted for the short season, I add another 6.22 WAR to Phillips’ case. That brings his career total to an even 47. My comparisons at this point won’t include adjustments for every player. For comparison, I’m just looking at the BBREF WAR leaderboard, but I think the numbers are close enough to be meaningful. And if you think Phillips’ defensive flexibility adds to his value, it all comes out in the wash for you anyway. At this point, Phillips enters rarified air for some. We’re talking about 211 non-pitchers with 47 WAR. A few guys who didn’t reach that level are Mark Grace, Dale Murphy, and Hall of Famer Kiki Cuyler.
In April of 1995, during the work stoppage, the Tigers flipped Phillips to the Angels for Chad Curtis. Curtis totaled 7.6 WAR over the remainder of his career. Bad trade by the Tigers. For the Angels, Phillips set his final career high in homers with 27, walked another 113 times, and posted another terrific 123 OPS+. At age-36, playing 3B and LF, Phillips was still able to pick it. He still added value with his glove even at his advanced age. If you’re looking for reasons he’s in the HoME, that’s one. This was another year of excellence for Phillips, another year building his Hall case. Let’s add 5.02 WAR. He now tops 52 for his career. Only 170 non-pitchers can say that. In 1995 he passed Jim Rice, Buck Ewing, Johnny Evers, Earl Averill, Dave Bancroft, Nellie Fox, Ralph Kiner, Larry Doby, Tony Lazzeri, Orlando Cepeda, Joe Kelley, Kirby Puckett, Bobby Doerr, and Jim O’Rourke on the all-time WAR list. Again, I’m using my adjusted numbers only for Phillips, but I think the point is pretty clear.
Tony Phillips was soon on the move again, signing with the White Sox for two years and $3.6 million. At age-37, he had his last very good year in 1996. He led the AL again with 125 walks, and he tied his career high in runs, set a year earlier at 119. He played almost exclusively in left field in ‘96, and he was great. Overall, I give him another 4.01 WAR. He’s now above 56 for his career, inside the top-140 non-pitchers. Hall of Famers he passed in 1996 include Mickey Cochrane, Bid McPhee, Sam Rice, Harry Hooper, Joe Tinker, Elmer Flick, Jimmy Collins, Gabby Hartnett, Joe Sewell, Tony Perez, Willie Keeler, Bill Terry, Max Carey, George Sisler, Billy Herman, Enos Slaughter, Joe Medwick, Luis Aparicio, and Bill Dickey. Did you just skim through that list? If so, you can appreciate just what an impressive feat Phillips accomplished. He passed so many Hall of Famers, you didn’t read through the whole list. And if you did, you can appreciate his greatness.
In 1997, Phillips was sent from the White Sox back to the Angels. He was good, not great. At age-38, he was nearing the end. And his cocaine possession charge that August didn’t help him hang on longer than he otherwise might have. I add another 2.34 WAR in ’97. And Phillips passed Hall of Famers Joe Gordon, Willie Stargell, and Hank Greenberg to move into 129th place among non-pitchers through that year.
The Angels released Phillips right before the 1998 season began, and he wasn’t in the majors until Toronto gave him a chance in July. At the end of the month he was shipped to the Mets in what was a lost season. I give him only 0.4 WAR. Still, that little bit gets him past Ichiro Suzuki, Sammy Sosa, Darrell Evans, and Dick Allen on the all-time list.
The end of the road came in 1999. Phillips was 40, back in Oakland where his major league career began, playing all over the diamond, and contributing quite nicely for a player his age. He played fairly regularly, totaling 484 plate appearances. The 15 homers were nice, and he still walked enough to reach base at a .362 clip. His WAR total of 1.80 brings him to 60.56 for his career. And four more Hall of Famers eat his dust – Mike Piazza, Yogi Berra, Zach Wheat, and Harmon Killebrew.
But Tony Phillips was a star nonetheless, even if people didn’t see it then, even if people don’t see it today. I’m proud to say he’s a member of the Hall of Miller and Eric. And I’m going to miss him.