KANSAS CITY — One simple change to how Royals outfielder Brett Phillips gripped the bat quite possibly has turned his career around.
Phillips made the adjustment in late May. Since then he hit 10 triples, 15 home runs, and posted a .623 slugging percentage and a 1.024 OPS at Triple-A Omaha.
All of that led Phillips, who was acquired in the Mike Moustakas trade from the Brewers in July 2018, to being promoted on Friday and right into the Royals’ starting lineup in right field, where he turned a double play in the second inning with a catch and throw to second base in a 4-1 win over the Mets at Kauffman Stadium. Phillips went 0-for-3 with a bases-loaded walk in the eighth to bring in an insurance run.
To make room, outfielder Billy Hamilton was designated for assignment.
“It’s exciting,” Phillips said. “I’m blessed to be given a chance to be back here.”
The challenge now for manager Ned Yost is finding Phillips adequate playing time. Bubba Starling has been the primary center fielder, which pushed Hamilton to the bench. Hunter Dozier, Jorge Soler and Whit Merrifield have played right field on and off.
“It wasn’t really a challenge [with Hamilton],” Yost said. “It’s just that Billy had moved off the radar because Bubba was here and Dozier was here. But we’re going to play Phillips out there, just move everybody around, piece by piece.
“We gave Billy an opportunity. It didn’t work. Now we got a guy [in Phillips] we want to look at going forward.”
Phillips, 25, came advertised last season as having one of the strongest arms in the game. But he hit just .188 in 36 games with the Royals in 2018, and he struck out 50 times in 112 at-bats. Those issues at the plate continued this spring at Omaha.
“Honestly, the best thing that could have happened to my career was starting out in the Minors,” Phillips said. “Obviously there was a swing flaw. Everyone could see it. I could feel it. I’m thankful for the Royals to see it through.
“It was quite simple. It had to do with how I was holding the bat. It was so elementary. It makes me cringe talking about it because it was so simple. I was talking to Bubba at the end of May and I said, ‘I’ve figured it out. I’m not going to tell you — we’ll see if I really did figure it out.’ But I hit two home runs that night. And Bubba’s like, ‘You got to tell me now!’”
Phillips did. It was indeed simple.
“[Before] I was losing the barrel in the zone,” Phillips said. “… so with my top hand, I just put it more in my fingertips and I’m able to stay in the zone longer. I’m staying on plane longer. When I looked on film before, everything was the same — the load, the hands. You can’t see it [the grip] on film because it’s so minor.”
Who tipped him off?
“I was using Axe Bats last year,” Phillips said. “I went away from them and use a regular bat now. But when I bottomed out at .165 and it was May 24, I called my mom and she just said, ‘Let’s think about what you were doing when you were having success.’ I wasn’t using glasses. So she sends glasses. I wasn’t using Axe Bats, so she sends them from Florida. I get the Axe Bats and I had no success for two days. But the way I was holding it made me think I need to be holding my regular bat like that [with more fingertips]. A day later, two home runs. I’ve had unbelievable success since then.
“Mom knows best.”
Hamilton, signed to a one-year deal last offseason, never panned out, hitting just .211 with a .544 OPS.
“We were hoping a change of scenery would help,” Yost said. “I mean, he worked hard. Great teammate. It just didn’t translate to improvement for him as a player. We tried to trade him during the Trade Deadline to [a contender]. We’ll see how it works out now.”