On August 25th the Cincinnati Reds promoted outfielder Phillip Ervin to the major league roster. This is his fourth stint on the MLB roster this year: he was promoted from Triple-A on April 21st, sent back on April 28th, promoted again on August 1st, sent back on August 6th, moved up again on August 15th, sent back on the 23rd, then moved up again yesterday.
Ervin collected 10 MLB at-bats during those brief stints, whacking five hits including a double and two home runs while walking twice. What might he do in a larger sample?
From 2011 through 2013, Phillip Ervin was a starting outfielder for Samford University in Alabama. He had an impressive track record in regular spring NCAA play (.344/.433/.541 over 669 at-bats). He also destroyed pitching on the wooden bat college summer circuit, hitting .305/.392/.523 in the Northwoods League in 2011 and .323/.429/.631 in the Cape Cod League in 2012. This eased worries about the level of competition he faced with Samford and helped him earn a spot in the first round of the 2013 draft, 27th overall.
Ervin massacred low-level minor league pitching as well, hitting .331/.425/.564 between the Pioneer and Midwest Leagues after signing, showing power, speed (14 steals in 15 attempts) and sound strike zone judgment. Everything looked great entering 2014.
It didn’t turn out great though. Ervin struggled to duplicate his previous performances in the Midwest League in 2014 (.237/.305/.376), in the Florida State League in 2015 (.242/.338/.375), and in Double-A in 2016 (.239/.362/.399). His 2017 numbers in Triple-A are similar (.256/.328/.380).
The explosive offense he showed in college, in summer ball, and in the low minors has been absent for three seasons now.
Tool-wise, there is still a lot to like. The right-handed hitter is well-built at 5-10, 207. He’s a plus runner, uses his speed well, and has at least average raw power in his bat. He has the physical tools to play all three outfield positions.
Unlike many raw tools players who don’t pan out, Ervin is far from skill-less: he’s a fine baserunner, averaging more than 30 steals per season. He’s reasonably selective and has drawn enough walks to keep his on-base percentages respectable despite the low batting averages. If you watch him play, he looks like a baseball player, not just an instinct-less athlete trying to feel his way around the game.
So what’s going on?
It comes down to the outside pitch. The first time I saw Ervin play in person was in the Midwest League back in ‘14. He seemed very pull-conscious, and pitchers were working him on the outer half with good success, getting him to chase junk pitches for strikeouts or soft contact.
His selectivity has improved a bit since then, but scouting reports from other observers still mention his propensity to get himself out by trying to pull everything. MLB.com’s scouting report describes this, as does Baseball America’s summary in their 2017 book.
I haven’t seen Ervin in person except on TV this year but it does appear he’s made some adjustments. He’s certainly performed well in MLB so far, although pitchers will make their own adjustments soon. We’ll have to see if he can adapt back.
At age 25, Ervin doesn’t have a lot of classic development time left on the clock, but it is easy to see why the Reds didn’t give up on him. He’s fast, strong, and there’s some real sock in the bat. Can he get to that sock often enough to live up to his total potential?
I think it’s possible. No, he’s not going to hit .300 or be the star the Reds originally envisioned, but if he can hit .240-.250, his speed and power should still give him a career.