Self-Appointed 'Keep-It-Simple' Coach Brett Phillips Lifts Rays

Analytics, shmanalytics. Outfielder Brett Phillips, left off the ALCS roster, has only simple messages for his teammates.
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SAN DIEGO — With only seconds remaining before first pitch of Game 3 of the American League Championship series, Brett Phillips stalked the Rays’ dugout, urgently tapping players on the shoulder. The slick-fielding, light-hitting outfielder had been left off the roster in favor of an extra pitcher, and he had taken this to mean he was being promoted to coach. Now, as game time neared, he pulled his pupils aside one by one to share an important tidbit scrawled across a piece of paper on his clipboard:

[A drawing of a pair of eyes] [a drawing of a baseball]

[A drawing of a bat] [a drawing of a baseball]

See ball, hit ball.

“That’s my coaching contribution for the boys,” says Phillips.

When manager Kevin Cash informed him before the series began that he had not made the roster, Phillips’s disappointment quickly gave way to inspiration.

“I'm looking around and I'm like, We got the manager and the bench coach, and the analytical guy, but we don't have the keep-it-simple guy,” Phillips says. “So I call myself the keep-it-simple guy. I consider myself a player-coach for the ALCS.”

He’s doing very well. The Rays are 3–0 since Phillips created his position.

Brett Phillips playing outfield

The first thing a coach needs, he decided, is gear. At Phillips’s request, bench coach Matt Quatraro scrounged up a spare navy blue stopwatch, which Phillips says he uses to keep track of “a lot of important stuff, like how long the ball goes in the air for and how long it takes the bullpen pitcher to make it to the mound after being called in.” He says he plans to submit all of these statistics as part of his year-end scouting reports on his teammates.

Next he found a clipboard, which he labeled PHILLIPS “just so the other coaches wouldn’t get mixed up with what’s on their clipboards, because it’s very similar information,” he explains.

But what to do with the clipboard? The other coaches carry scouting reports and stacks of data, which didn’t seem quite right for him. He spent Game 1 writing down the outcome of every at bat. He eventually decided to change his strategy, not because this is information available instantly on any number of websites, but because it felt too analytical for the keep-it-simple coach. He realized he needed to take his own advice.

So he has settled on a new plan. He attaches to his clipboard one suggestion—before Game 2 he went with HIT BALL HARD—and one fact. Game 2’s fact was RANDY GOOD PLAYER, a reference to left fielder Randy Arozarena, who is hitting .500 with a 1.372 OPS this postseason. Game 3’s fact was RANDY > YOUR FAVORITE PLAYER.

Arozarena liked that. All of the Rays seem to. Tampa Bay acquired Phillips from the Royals at the trade deadline, and he immediately set about fitting in. The clipboard has been a natural extension of his clubhouse personality. “When he pulled that out the other day, I thought it was awesome,” says lefty Ryan Yarbrough, who started Game 3. “Great teammate, great player. Just a guy who keeps it light in the dugout all the time. Always gonna have your back and always there to cheer you on.”

First baseman Ji-Man Choi, who did not play in Game 3, so enjoyed Tuesday’s suggestion that he took it upon himself to carry the clipboard around the dugout and remind each hitter of its message. Perhaps, if he tries hard and believes in himself, he might find a role as assistant keep-it-simple coach.

In the meantime, the other coaches mostly mask what is surely a growing insecurity by laughing at Phillips. He has so far stayed out of their meetings, because he does not wish to draw attention to how successful he has been. “I would hate for them to feel self-conscious,” he says. “Or [Chad Mottola], our hitting coach—I would hate for him to feel like he’s going to lose his job to me. That’s the last thing I want, because I’m here to encourage everyone and give energy to everyone. Even the coaches need encouragement, too.”

Phillips’s tenure as coach might be limited. MLB eliminated off-days from the early rounds but retained them for the World Series, so if the Rays advance, they may not need the extra pitcher. That would leave room for Phillips. But he will take from his time “so many memorable memories,” he says. There was the time he told Arozarena he was a good player. There was the other time he told Arozarena he was a good player. Yes, he will carry with him all these moments. Also the clipboard. That’s his now.