Detroit Tigers fans all over the internet were saddened today when the heard of the death of Tony Phillips at the age of 56. The news brought back images of his deep crouching stance, his flashing eyes and never ending spray of sun flower seeds. The versatile utility man was a bundle of energy and a joy to watch.
What some fans and media failed to recognize at the time was how good Phillips really was during his five years as a Tiger. According to Baseball-Reference, the switch hitting fireball batted .281/.395/.405 from 1990-1994. Yes, that's a .395 on base percentage! The only player in a Tigers uniform in the last 60 years with a better career OBP is Miguel Cabrera at .405.
In a time before analysts paid a lot of attention to OBP, many observers did not fully appreciate Tony's on base skills. He was in the top ten in Major League Baseball during that period and his .443 OBP in 1993 was second to John Olerud of the Blue Jays, yet he never played in an all-star game.
Phillips was more than just an on-base machine though. He was invaluable defensively playing every position on the field but catcher and first base. He didn't just make token appearances at second, third, short and all three outfield positions. He played them all frequently and played each position with average to above average skill.
When you add up everything Phillips did in all facets of the game, you can see why manager Sparky Anderson loved him so much. He consistently put up all-star level Wins Above Replacement (WAR) numbers during his Tigers tenure:
The most memorable Tiger of the period was mammoth first baseman Cecil Fielder, but Phillips was better. Tony The Tiger finished among the top three Tigers in WAR each year and topped Fielder every year except 1990 (the year Big Cecil hit 51 home runs). In fact, Phillips led the Tigers in WAR each year from 1992-1994.
Historically, Phillips ranks among the top five Tigers in cumulative WAR since 1990:
Miguel Cabrera 47
Justin Verlander 45
Travis Fryman 27
Tony Phillips 25
Lou Whitaker 23
He may not have gotten the national recognition he deserved at the time, but Tony was a fan favorite locally and won't be forgotten. Rest In Peace Mr Phillips.