As we continue to honor Black History Month in February, we look back on the career of Tony Phillips, who spent several years with the Detroit Tigers.
When I was a kid, Tony Phillips was one of my favorite players to watch bat for the Detroit Tigers. I’ll admit, the biggest reason was his batting stance. The way he crouched down and did that big bat waggle got me every time. When playing baseball with my friends, I would often try to imitate that stance, though admittedly, the results I got with it were vastly different than his.
Let’s not forget, though, that Phillips was a pretty good player, too. He is known by fans today as the Ben Zobrist of his era, a guy who could play many different positions while being a solid contributor with the bat. Because of his batting stance and known ability to play many positions, sometimes we forget what a great career he had as a hitter.
Phillips broke into the league with the Oakland Athletics in 1982 and was there through the 1989 season, when he won the World Series. While he was a solid utility man for the A’s, his offensive stats didn’t blow anyone away. He posted a career .702 OPS in Oakland. He left as a free agent, and the Tigers signed him prior to the 1990 season.
It ended up being a tremendous signing for the Tigers, as Phillips had a tremendous five-year run with the team. Check out these WAR totals from 1990 to 1994: 4.8, 5.2, 5.1, 5.6, and 4.7 in the strike-shortened 1994 season. Right before the Moneyball Era when everyone started paying attention to walks, Phillips was a pioneer, drawing an astonishing 519 free passes in his five years with the Tigers.
Indeed, Phillips has to be considered among the premier leadoff hitters of his era. His best season with the Tigers was in 1993, when he finished 16th in MVP voting. That year, he batted .313 and drew an incredible 132 walks. He also scored 113 runs, one shy of his league-leading 114 in 1992. And of course, he did it while playing all around the diamond; he played all three outfield spots along with second, shortstop, and third base for the Tigers.
The Tigers traded Phillips prior to the 1995 season, and he played through 1999. He finished with 1,300 runs scored, 2,023 hits, 360 doubles, and at least 1,000 innings logged at five different positions. His career WAR of 50.9 ranks higher than players such as Jason Giambi, Minnie Minoso, David Wright, Ted Simmons, Orlando Cepeda, and Fred Lynn.
Sadly, Phillips left us far too soon, as he passed away of a heart attack at age 56 in 2016. February is Black History Month, so let’s use this opportunity to take another look at what was a remarkable career for Tony Phillips.