A talk with Evan Phillips on how help and patience from the Dodgers reinvigorated his slider and career

LOS ANGELES — The Dodgers did not name a designated closer going into the 2023 season, but they had been quietly developing one of the league’s best relievers in Evan Phillips. While not being given the role, his 1.65 ERA and impressive 0.77 WHIP over the past two years with the Dodgers is the best in the majors among qualified relief pitchers with at least 70 innings pitched.

The 28-year old right-hander was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in 2015 and didn’t fare well at first. Phillips posted a 8.53 ERA in 6.1 innings before he was traded to the Baltimore Orioles in 2018. He pitched even worse for Baltimore, allowing 11 earned runs in 5.1 innings for an 18.56 ERA. Phillips also struggled the next two seasons there, totaling a 7.36 ERA and 1.87 WHIP in 44 games. Eventually his favorite team growing up sadly gave up on him, and he spent most of the 2021 season in Triple-A before the Orioles organization released him in early August.

That’s when the Dodgers selected Phillips off waivers after a pit stop with the Rays in August 2021 after he was designated for assignment by Tampa Bay. The Dodgers saw something in Phillips, and believed they could develop his pitch arsenal, including that deadly slider. He was throwing his four-seam fastball 66% of the time with Baltimore. The Dodgers told him to use the slider his former pitching coach Chris Holt taught him in Baltimore more. This changed everything.

In 2021, Phillips pitched briefly down the stretch for the Dodgers in seven regular season relief appearances and two postseason outings. He proved valuable out of the bullpen for L.A. in October and even closed out Game 5 of the NLCS against the Braves with a win to really make a name for himself.

The team encouraged him to continue to use and develop his devastating sweeping slider. Pitching coach Mark Prior worked with Phillips to develop four pitches he trusted including that effective slider, the cutter, the four-seam fastball and the sinking two-seam fastball. Now he throws his slider 46% of the time and his fastball 30% of the time. They also exchanged his changeup for a cutter, now his second-most used pitch at 24%. It worked. Phillips posted career-best numbers last season, including a 1.14 ERA, 0.762 WHIP and 1.94 FIP, primarily in a set-up role behind their traditional closer, Craig Kimbrel.

The Dodgers’ bullpen was still evolving this June with no designated closer role appointed. It seemed as though the Dodgers were trying a new guy every night depending on the matchup. When asked early in the season about the lack of a defined closer, Andrew Friedman hinted to the LA Times that the notion of forcing Phillips or any of the other relievers into the closer role wasn’t a good idea.

“We feel like we have the talent down there to navigate close games and win them,” president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. “If you have a designated closer, that’s helpful in a lot of ways. But I also think it can be harmful if you force that.”

As they say, good things come to those who wait. With some help and patience from the Dodgers, Phillips was able to reinvigorate both his slider and his career. He explained to me that the Dodgers individually cater to each players’ strengths as well as needs in their personally customized development process within the organization.


Stacie: How do you stay so calm in high leverage situations?

Evan: You know, it’s just something that I’ve just learned over the years. I think I’ve tried to get emotional and try to fire myself up you know especially when I was in college I was trying to find my identity as a pitcher. Getting over emotional never really worked out for me, and I’m typically just a simple calm guy. I try to carry that same mindset out to the mound and just focus on what I can do best out there, and that’s making pitches. It’s just the strategy I’ve been taking so far, and it’s been working out okay for me.

Stacie: What is it about the Dodgers organization that can take guys, see something in them, work with them, and change the trajectory of their career really?

Evan: I think their investment into the individual person, the individual player. The easier way to go about it would be giving a cookie cutter approach to each team and say “this is what the Dodgers do and just go try it this way.” I think they really analyze what the player does well and try to make them excel at those things. And also just make small adjustments here and there that they think may help those individuals have success.

For me, specifically, it was really honing in on my slider when I first got to the Dodgers. Then just adding a couple of pitches to help keep hitters off balance. I think just their patience with me and that dedication to that slow growth over the course of the first couple of years here in L.A. has given me plenty of runway to have success.

Stacie: Their positive and almost nurturing environment (the Dodgers organization) helps your attitude overall when the team has faith in you?

Evan: The team was in a position in 2020-21, when I first got here, to allow some time for me to grow and develop. It’s not always like that. Especially at the major-league level. I think the particular situation I was in, I didn’t have the ability to go back to the minor leagues. I had to stay at the major-league level. So the Dodgers gave me a little longer leash. They said “hey let’s see, let’s give Evan a few weeks, let’s see if he can really figure this out“. I think luckily for me I really took that in stride and made a lot of growth in a very short amount of time.

Stacie: You’ve moved into the closer and high-leverage role in the bullpen. Does the bullpen consider roles, or are ready to go whenever Dave Roberts needs you?

Evan: It’s pretty clear that there’s a separation between leverage roles and the closing role. I think what helps in our identity as a group down there is that the Dodgers expect to win the World Series. We have this overall mindset of getting the last out of the season in the World Series. We know that each game and each out along the way is going to be important, because it sets everybody else up for success down the road.

So I think especially on a game-to-game basis, the way our lineup has been playing, and especially over the last couple of months, we know we’re never out of a ballgame. So I feel like if we can maintain whatever deficit there is or we can maintain the lead we can know that the hitters can expand and do more for us on the offensive side. Our general approach down there is to get every single out and try to treat them as equally as we can.

Stacie: The Dodgers and the Braves have been the best two teams in the NL, and obviously they have major firepower. Their lineup 1-9 is dangerous. After dropping the first three games of the series, what is your mindset as a team going in the series finale?

Evan: Fortunately it’s just the regular season. We took two out of three from those guys in Atlanta. They’re a really competitive team. Like you said, that lineup 1-9 is playing pretty well there. They’re a stacked lineup. We have quite a bit of experience against those guys too. We know each game against them is a tough matchup. I think they expect the same from us.

So for us we played three pretty good games so far this weekend. But to walk out without a win obviously doesn’t make us feel good in the clubhouse on Sunday. So we’re going to come out here and do our best to come away with one victory. They’re a team we expect to see in the postseason at this point. I think getting these reps against them in the regular season is going to help us in the long run.

Stacie: Who was your favorite player growing up?

Evan: Cal Ripken Jr. I was a big Baltimore Orioles fan growing up. There in the late 90s, early 2000s, when Cal was going on his games played streak, I used to think I could play shortstop growing up. He was the guy I looked up to.

I actually got to play with his son when I was in the minor leagues. When I was with the minor leagues, in Baltimore, I got to play with Ryan, and we made that connection. It was really special to me.


Perhaps Evan’s calm demeanor adds to his effectiveness on the mound. He may seem like a cool cucumber on the outside, but he can hurl a wicked unhittable slider at any moment with precision. He may not be as imposing as Kenley Jansen or a rock star like Eric Gagne, but Phillips has proved himself to be one of the most dominant relievers in the game.

About Stacie Wheeler

Stacie Wheeler, born and raised in So Cal, has been writing about the Dodgers since 2010. She wrote daily as the co-editor of Lasorda's Lair for five long years, and she has also written for Dodgers Nation, Dodger Blue 1958 and The Hardball Times. She currently contributes to True Blue LA. Stacie graduated from the University Of Southern California with a bachelor's degree in Cinema-Television. You can also watch her videos on her YouTube channel, DishingUpTheDodgers.