2017 Reds

Phillip Ervin: The Journey

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+.

Phillip Ervin (Photo by Doug Gray)

Phillip Ervin (Photo by Doug Gray)

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.

4 thoughts on “Phillip Ervin: The Journey

  1. Very well written. I am also in the camp of those who weigh too much on the traditional “high batting average / Total HR” traditional trap” . I have followed Phil Ervin’s stats through the years and have been “disappointed” with the results like a lot of Reds followers . But he has been the player whose stats I look at first every day first. because I just like him and I know the talent is there and I root hard for the “all the tools” type players. I know that attitude puts me into the “Jim Bowden camp” , but I can’t help it. I have only actually seen Phil play 1 game with the BATS live But he remains as the “tools” player in the organization I want the most to succeed with the Reds .. So I have taken heart when I have read on this blog ( and Doug Gray’s Blog) how well Phil has done based on the “new” analysis tools like WRC+. I want to see Phil Ervin to get his chance. I think that time should be now . Why not ?

  2. Surprised there are so few comments here considering how solid this piece is. Good stuff Jordan.

    I’m not completely dismissive of batting average and it can tell us some things over a long enough sample. For example, it tells me that Ervin is probably not ever going to be a high contact guy. It also makes me wonder if he has a contact profile that may make him an MLB player. It’s not so much that he had a low AVG but more that it has been consistently low… Now, what can’t be ignored and what so many who don’t look beyond batting average still often seem to ignore is the context of the park and league. This gives me more hope for Ervin considering the league average for the Southern League and how Pensacola is such a pitcher’s dream.

    There are also the peripherals such as his BB% and K% along with ISO that suggest Ervin can be a solid MLB player. You already pointed to some of those though so I won’t elaborate. I wish more of the fanbase would read stuff like this. It seems so many look at avg/hr/rbi and do so out of context, then make judgements based on just those numbers. They aren’t getting much of the story.

    • Thanks for the kind words! I agree, AVG can tell you some things. It’s a very dangerous stat to use by itself, however, which people have unfortunately been doing for years. Ervin probably never would have been given much of a shot even 10 years ago. We’ve come a long way with player evaluation – you just have to hope you’re rooting for a team who’s shown progress and forward-thinking abilities as well.

      • If teams don’t look past AVG now, they will be left behind. Our Reds were late to the party but seem to be coming around.

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