The primary goal for the 2018 Texas Rangers pitching staff was to walk fewer batters in part by throwing more quality strikes.
It’s a fundamental concept but one that needed to be reinforced after posting the third-most walks in the American League in 2017 while striking out the fewest in baseball.
The Rangers have accomplished their fewer-walks goal with only four weeks remaining in the season. They’re still last in strikeouts, though.
Down in the minor leagues, the message has been pounded into the minds of the young pitchers. Reducing walks starts with commanding the fastball, which then makes the off-speed pitches more effective out of the strike zone.
The off-speed pitches needs to be able to be thrown for strikes, too.
One pitcher in particular seems to have taken the message to heart. He’s up next in the Star-Telegram’s Top 10 prospects rankings.
No. 9: RHP Tyler Phillips
Born: Oct. 27, 1997
Height: 6-foot-5. Weight: 230.
How acquired: 2015 draft (16th round, 468th overall)
Among the many things Tyler Phillips does well is listen to his coaches.
As one of the younger players in 2017 at Low A Hickory, Phillips didn’t feel as if he fit with the rest of his older teammates. His performance lagged even though he had earned the right to be there.
It got to the point where he had to return to the short-season A team in Spokane, where he finished 2016. He went back with messages from minor-league pitching coaches reverberating in his mind.
Phillips needed to find a way to believe them. He has, and he is a leading candidate to be the Rangers’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year.
But his impressive 2018 started last year.
“They kept asking me after games, ‘Do you know that you’re good? Do you believe that you’re good,’” Phillips said. “I understood what they were saying, but I didn’t truly believe it. It was just confidence.
“After having not pitched very well, being sent down was probably a good thing. They were all starry-eyed just trying to get a ring. That made it a lot easier for me. There wasn’t any pressure to impress anyone. I also figured I’d been in Spokane before, so I did what I could do and I just started believing.”
The Rangers say Phillips essentially matched left-hander Cole Ragans, the 2016 first-round pick, at Spokane following his demotion. Ragans would be named the top prospect in the Northwest League by Baseball America, and deservedly so after going 3-2 with a 3.61 ERA, 35 walks and 87 strikeouts in 57 1/3 innings.
Phillips, though, went 4-2 with a 3.45 ERA, 78 strikeouts and only 11 walks in 73 innings.
“He was toe-to-toe with Ragans,” assistant general manager Jayce Tingler said. “He parlayed that into a good off-season, and he’s maturing. He’s getting stronger.”
Phillips actually improved his strikeout-to-walk ratio this season, which he wrapped up Sunday with his debut at High A Down East after 22 starts at Hickory.
Overall, he went 12-5 with a 2.64 ERA over 133 innings. He struck out 127 and walked 16.
“I did it last year in Spokane, too, and people just kept asking me, ‘How do you not walk guys?’” Phillips said. “I don’t want to. There are nine guys out there. I try my best not to get into 2-0 counts. I will it there. I will it into the season. I just don’t like walking people.”
Phillips does it with excellent fastball command but also a changeup that he says has become his go-to pitch. He said that his curveball hasn’t been as good this year, but the Rangers still like it.
He also keeps the ball on the ground with a four-seamer that sits 92-94 and “moves a lot,” he said. Not only did he limit walks, he allowed only four home runs this season.
Phillips found a routine and has stuck to it, something that he said has come with a better understanding of the mental side of the game. He’s had help from the Rangers staff and also from Colorado Rockies reliever Scott Oberg, his off-season throwing partner in New Jersey.
“He tells me everything he knows,” Phillips said. “We’ll be done throwing, and we’ll just sit there for at least two hours and talk. Just talk about anything. It doesn’t have to be baseball, just things that help you mature. That’s also helped me a lot this season.
“The whole just-becoming-more mature makes it a lot easier to stick to a routine. I keep a mental note of things I didn’t do well my last outing, and I’ll take a list into my next start and just try to perfect it.”
All it took was a little confidence.
Star-Telegram Top 10 Rangers prospects
No. 10: Cole Ragans
No. 9: Tyler Phillips
No. 8: Wednesday
No. 7: Thursday
No. 6: Friday
No. 5: Monday
No. 4: Tuesday
No. 3: Sept. 12
No. 2: Sept. 13
No. 1: Sept. 14