On Friday afternoon, the Reds recalled OF Phillip Ervin from AAA Louisville. If you’ve been following the Reds and their minor league system, or read Redleg Nation regularly, you’ve likely heard Ervin’s name pop multiple times. Check out multiple pieces by Doug Gray (who also took the great photo accompanying this article!) and an article by Grant Freking to get re-acquainted. More recently, C. Trent Rosecrans wrote a piece about Ervin embracing the ‘bust’ label some Reds fans have painted on him.
And, if you look at Ervin’s traditional statistics throughout his minor league career, it’d be easy to label him as a bust. Drafted in the first round in 2013, Ervin exploded onto the scene in his first professional season, hitting .331/.425/.564. Unfortunately he backed it up with a .237/.305/.376 in 2014 with the Dayton Dragons.
To put that in 2017 perspective, Ervin’s sudden drop in production would be similar to if Reds uber prospect Nick Senzel suddenly dropped to a .237/.305/.367 line. Ervin, like Senzel, was a college bat looking to get to the big leagues relatively quickly, and had all of the tools to do so. Ervin wasn’t selected number two overall, but he wasn’t far off. Needless to say, the Reds fanbase soured on him relatively quickly.
And, as I eluded to earlier, the batting average never really came around. After hitting .237 in ‘14, he hit a combined .238 at the A+ and AA levels in ‘15, and then a full season of .239 at AA in ‘16. Many fans value batting average much more highly than they should, and indeed, they were the fans who took a look at these numbers and wrote Phil Ervin off as a bust.
But as most of us know, Batting Average only tells part of the story. In 2016 – the same season that Ervin hit .239 in AA Pensacola – he finished fifth among players with at least 400 plate appearances in the Southern League in wRC+.A quick refresher for those unfamiliar with wRC+ – it’s a statistic that does a lot more than tell you the percentage of times you hit the ball and don’t get out. It’s a statistic that quantifies everything a player does on the ball field, giving higher weight to actions that help to create more runs, in an attempt to nail a player’s offensive production to one number. Rather than traditional counting or rate stats, wRC+ is adjusted for the league the player is in, the time period the player is playing in, and even the park in which the player is playing in. All of this is placed in a formula and adjusted to the baseline of 100. So, a completely league average player will have a wRC+ of 100. For every point over or under 100, that player is 1% better or worse than league average.
So, Ervin’s 126 wRC+ is pretty good, despite the low batting average. It’s mostly thanks to a Winker-esque .362 OBP, a well-above league average 12.9 BB% and his 36 stolen bases. Ervin’s 16 home runs might seem low for a guy who was drafted for his ability to hit for power and run the bases, but it was good for third in the Southern League, where home runs are harder to come by. This is yet another example as to why park adjusted statistics are vital for player evaluation.
It’s a testament to the new Dick Williams-led front office that the low batting average and counting statistics were pushed aside and Ervin was given a shot at AAA in 2017. That’s not a move I think we could safely say would happen in other Reds front offices in this millennium, and quite frankly, it’s a breath of fresh air. A new wave of analysis has been embraced by this front office – an approach that doesn’t worry about glorifying the statistics we used to memorize from the back of our favorite childhood players’ baseball cards, but instead takes into account everything that happens on a ballfield and weights those actions according to how they help your team win baseball games. Phil Ervin is a great example of a guy who can split two different fan bases. It’s easy to call him a bust. It’s also easy to see that he could potentially be a diamond in the rough.
Since getting that deserved opportunity to play in Louisville, Ervin has done nothing but hit the baseball. In 51 plate appearances, he’s hit .289(!!)/.360/.556 with an outstanding .398 wOBA and 152 wRC+. His BABIP is a little high, but it’s not outlandish at .303. He’s walking less, but still above league average at 9.8%, and his strikeout rate of 17.6% is right around his career average. Small sample size warning goes here.
And now, Phillip Ervin is a Cincinnati Red. It didn’t happen overnight. He wasn’t “Quick to the Majors”, and his cup of coffee might only be a Starbucks Tall sized cup for this particular timeframe, but Ervin has made sure to one thing perfectly clear: He deserves to be in the conversation for an outfield spot on the next great Reds team. He wants you to forget about Aristides Aquino. He wants you to forget about Taylor Trammell. He wants you to forget about TJ Friedl. Because Phil Ervin is here now, at least for a little while.