RIP Tony Phillips: Greatest Utility Player Ever?
by Hugh Rothman
Tony Phillips, a major league ballplayer whose career spanned 18 years (1982-1999), passed away on Friday, Feb. 19th. He was one of my all-time favorite players. He was so valuable to the teams he played for, not only just because he was a really good player, but because he could help fill a hole on any team wherever needed. Was Phillips perhaps the greatest utility player of all time? He certainly has a great argument.
First of all, what defines a “utility player” anyway? When one thinks of a utility player, one would likely conjure up a picture of a player who can play multiple positions, but isn’t good enough, either offensively or defensively, to start at any of them. If the player was good enough, then of course he would simply be installed as the starter at the available position.
Tony Phillips certainly meets the first criteria: he could (and did) play every position on the diamond except pitcher and catcher. He played over 100 games at 2B, SS, 3B, RF, and LF, and 97 at CF. His best position was 2B, but he was no slouch anywhere on the field. As for the second criteria, well, Phillips doesn’t quite fit: the problem was that he was too good a player to truly be classified as a utility player. There were several years when he was the best player on his team, and certainly most years he was better than some of the other starters. Essentially, if Tony Phillips was on your team, you could immediately write him in as a “starter”… somewhere. Every team has holes, but with Phillips, no matter where the hole was, Phillips would fill it. Need a third baseman? Tony Phillips can play there. Uh oh, your second baseman got hurt and is out for the year and you have a decent third base option in the minors, but no second base option available whatsoever. No problem! Tony Phillips can just slide over to second without a hitch. That is so invaluable to a team!
During his long career, Phillips had some truly great years. His 1993 in Detroit, in which he compiled a .443 OBP on the basis of a .313 BA and 132 walks, stands as his best season: a value of 5.4 Wins Above Replacement (WAR). However, he had four other seasons with a WAR above 3.7, an all-star level performance. Sadly, Phillips never made a single all star team, but one only needs to look at the 1996 Angels to see how much he could mean to a team. The Angels went 78-67 in a strike-shortened year in 1995 with Tony Phillips (one of his best years), but slipped to 70-91 in 1996 with essentially the same team… minus Tony Phillips.
Perhaps my favorite Tony Phillips year, however, was his last one: his 1999 Oakland A’s season. In that year, Phillips hit .244/.362/.433 in 484 plate appearances, which contributed a solid 2.2 WAR to the team. That’s nice in itself, but Phillips did this while playing every position on the diamond during that year (except pitcher and catcher). There simply has been no player in history who has provided this level of value *and* versatility. And also so very underrated: Phillips 50.8 career WAR is higher than any player not elected to the Hall of Fame!
RIP Tony Phillips. Calling him a utility player may be selling him short, but if he was, he was one of the greatest. It’s not easy to define exactly what he was, except that he was extremely valuable, and there may not be another like him for a very long time.