Although the Mets’ draft in 2011 has yielded modest returns to this point, skepticism among fans regarding the then-new front office regime’s first venture into the amateur draft remains prevalent. The front office made their first splash by drafting a relative no-name from Wyoming named Brandon Nimmo. Using their first pick on a kid who never played high school ball felt as much like a statement regarding the new modus operandi as it did an attempt to find authentic Big League talent. But the organization’s most audacious maneuver in 2011 coincided with selecting Phillip Evans in the 15th round. Nearly six years later, Evans remains an enigmatic prospect who we are still parsing out.
Evans was an undersized high school middle infielder with soft hands and a promising line drive bat when the Mets took him 462nd overall. On the surface there was nothing unusual about the Mets using a deep round pick on a high schooler with moderately projectable tools. However, complementing the 15th round selection, the Mets offered Evans a mind-numbing $650,000 to sign—a draft bonus more in line with a late first/early second round pick in 2011. Whatever someone noticed in Evans, it was enough to coerce the Mets into peeling off more cheddar for the 15th rounder than they’ve offered any pick lower than the third round to date. Six years later, Evans is coming off his best season on the pro-circuit and may have faintly displayed the potential identified in him by the Mets back in 2011.
Prior to 2016 success for Evans was fleeting to nonexistent. In parts of 5 seasons from 2011-2015, Evans slashed a dreadful .236/.303/.310 across 1,475 plate appearances, including a stop in the hitter’s hell hole of Savannah in 2013 where he slashed .203/.268/.263. He was decent at getting the bat on the ball, though, sporting a modest 14.7% strikeout-rate, but he supplemented the decent contact he was making with only a middling 8.6% walk-rate from 2011-2015. The low SLG% speaks for itself—any type of HR power eluded Evans, hitting just 15 total HRs his first 5 years as a professional. By 2015’s conclusion, Evans had fallen completely off the radar as his production reflected a hit tool that simply failed to develop.
The Mets promoted Evans to AA Binghamton early in 2016 despite poor production across his entire Minor League career. The move was essentially a social-promotion meaning Evans basically aged out of A-ball. But perhaps escaping the generally pitcher friendly confines in which Mets affiliates in the lower Minor League levels play was exactly what Evans needed to spark a breakout. Across 386 plate appearances in AA last year, Evans put up a .335/.374/.485 triple slash line including a suddenly respectable 8 HRs and 30 doubles. The newfound offense was a welcomed manifestation of potential for Evans who put himself back on the prospect radar by succeeding at the critical AA level. But the 2016 renaissance leads to questions regarding how a presumably failed prospect turned struggles into success overnight.
Let’s address the elephant in the room first. Phillip Evans had a .384 BABIP last season in AA. The Major League average BABIP sits around .300 and normalizing Evans’ production for a .300 BABIP results in a triple slash line of roughly .266/.310/.398. On the bright side, even that adjusted production represents a marked improvement for Evans offensively, which we should not ignore. Furthermore, we cannot assume the elevated BABIP was solely a function of luck, especially when the player in question achieved career high power numbers. Looking beyond the cursory stats, there may have been some identifiable changes in Evans’ approach precipitating the overnight success.
Evans was drafted as a line drive contact bat and throughout most his career the stats reflect the all-fields approach consistent with such a hitter. From 2013 through 2015 (years for which we have the data), of the 424 balls Evans put in play to the outfield, 31.6% were to left, 37.5% were to center, and 30.9% were to right. Tradition has conditioned us to believe an all-fields approach leads to a purer, more complete hitter. But when a player does not complement all-fields hitting with legitimate gap to gap power he resigns himself to being a singles hitter, vulnerable to the influence of defensive shifts and unable to rely on extra bases to bolster his production.
After years of unsuccessfully employing an all-fields approach, Evans appears to have made a drastic change at the plate in AA. Of the 214 balls Evans hit to the outfield in 2016, 39.7% were to left, 34.1% were to center, and 26.2% were to right. The pull-heavy approach paid massive dividends for Evans in 2016 as the majority of his career high extra base hits were to left field. In conjunction with his new pull-heavy approach, Evans became much more aggressive at the plate last season. While Evans’ K-rate remained relatively constant with his career norms, he walked in only 4.9% of his plate appearances last season, constituting a 3.9% drop from his pre-2016 Minor League walk-rate. A more aggressive, pull-heavy approach combined with some additional luck seems to be at the foundation of Evans’ breakout 2016.
Unfortunately Evans does not have elite or even above average power, calling into question his ability to survive at advanced levels, specifically the Majors, while pulling the ball 40% of the time. The viability of a pull-heavy approach is highly dependent on a player’s overall power. At the Major League level, Evans’ generally mediocre power could lead to countless lazy fly balls if he sticks with trying to pull the ball. Moreover, the low walk-rate would further exploit offensive deficiencies. An aggressive approach has its benefits, but a player whose bat generously projects to be average will not succeed by giving away outs—the BABIP will regress so the health of Evans’ future triple slash lines will rely on his ability to draw walks at a clip better than 4.9%. Despite the laudable improvements he made with the bat, Evans’ Major League outlook remains decidedly opaque.
Performing well in AA deserves credit, especially when a player takes a noticeable step forward through a change in approach. But Evans’ approach may not be suitable for future Major League success considering his overall profile. Given the gains Evans made in Binghamton, it is too early to write him off as a future Major Leaguer in some capacity. If he can theoretically parlay the newfound pull power into legitimate gap to gap power more in line with a prototypical line drive hitter, while rehabbing his walk-rate to an acceptable level, there may be a path to the Majors. Unfortunately for Evans, a path to the Majors with the Mets is unclear.
Regarding Major League personnel and potential Major League personnel, the Mets are rather deep in both middle infielders and utility infielders. Evans projects to be a second baseman or third baseman, and he should be respectable on the defensive side of the ball, even at third base where his arm can definitely play. Evans’ primary position in the Minors has been shortstop. Although it might be a bit much to ask Evans to man a respectable shortstop in the Majors, it is not off the table, and even modest skill at shortstop is a good asset for a potential utility player to have.
Evans’ problem with regards to further advancing within the Met system is the organization’s depth. Between guys like Gavin Cecchini, TJ Rivera, Matt Reynolds, and a host of solid shortstop prospects throughout the system, no clear path to the Majors exists for Evans with the Mets. Beyond that, Major League teams passed Evans over in the Rule 5 draft this past offseason, despite his winning the Eastern League batting title. So it’s safe to say Evans hasn’t sold the league on his Major League potential at this juncture.
2017 will be a pivotal year for Phillip Evans. To establish a clear Major League trajectory he will need to build on the gains he made last season in AA. As a legitimately versatile infielder who finally showed moderate offensive potential last season, an optimistic outlook would project Evans as a potential utility player in the Majors. We probably won’t see Evans crack the Major League squad with the Mets in the foreseeable future considering solid organizational depth in the infield. But given the natural volatility of prospects, a good season can change a player’s outlook significantly. Therefore Evans is a player to watch in 2017 as quality depth is always in demand.