The primary job of a bullpen catcher is to catch for pitchers while they warm up in the bullpen. They allow the manager to have flexibility and not force the manager to use one of the two or three catchers on the roster to catch pitchers in the bullpen. Bullpen catchers also catch and throw batting practice along with other assorted drills that players go through every day. However, a bullpen catcher isn't just a catcher. He is also a coach and can even be a psychologist for bullpen pitchers. A bullpen catcher has many other roles that go unnoticed. If you'd like to learn more about those, feel free to check this out.
Mariners' bullpen catcher Jason Phillips was drafted in the 24th round of the 1997 Major League draft (just one round after Major League outfielder Andres Torres) by the New York Mets out of San Diego State University. Phillips played parts of four seasons in the minor leagues with the Mets before making his Major League debut on September 17, 2001.
Phillips was a September call-up in both 2001 and 2002, producing 0.4 fWAR and a 149 wRC+ in just 22 plate appearances with the Mets in 2002. Phillips got his chance in 2003, cracking the Mets' roster out of spring training and primarily serving as a backup catcher to Mike Piazza while also getting some reps at first base. He hit .298/.373/.442 with 11 home runs, producing 1.6 fWAR in 453 plate appearances in 2003.
After a not-so-successful 2004 campaign that saw his offensive line drop to .218/.298/.326, Phillips was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers for some fellow (a pitcher) named Kazuhisa Ishii. He got another opportunity to play regularly with the Dodgers, batting .238/.287/.363 in 434 plate appearances and producing a negative fWAR for the second straight season.
The Dodgers decided not to hang on to him after the 2005 season, and he signed a minor league contract with the Toronto Blue Jays with an invite to Spring Training for the 2006 season. He would serve mostly as minor league depth that season, playing just 25 games with the big league club in 2006. On April 13, 2006, The Hardball Times author Craig Burley declared Phillips was the slowest player in Major League Baseball. Not exactly promising news for a catcher trying to latch onto a Major League organization.
Phillips started the 2007 season on the Blue Jays roster, once again serving primarily as backup catcher while spelling Lyle Overbay at first base occasionally as well. Phillips would stay in that role for most of the season, later being released on July 20th after hitting .208/.269/.278 in 158 plate appearances.
After that Phillips would sign many minor league contracts trying to latch onto a team, including ones with the Marlins, Braves, and an independent team known as the Camden Riversharks. He also spent some time in the Mexican Pacific Baseball League on the Yaquis de Obregón. In the spring of 2009, the Mariners found themselves in need of a backup catcher after it was announced Luis Oliveros would need surgery on a torn ACL. The Mariners ultimately decided not to bring Phillips up north for the regular season and instead offered him a coaching position, which he accepted. He has been the M's bullpen catcher ever since.
Phillips also happens to have one of the most unusual love stories in Major League Baseball. One day on the job, he spotted a fan in the stands and decided to act, writing his phone number on a baseball and tossing it to the woman. She texted him, they went on a date, and eventually got married -- in the bullpen. Jerry Brewer at the Seattle Times tells the story a little better than me, but it really is a crazy and cool tale.
Assorted fun facts about Jason Phillips:
- Phillips is the second Jason Phillips in MLB history, the first being a pitcher who played sparingly with the Pirates and Indians in 1999-2003.
- Phillips is the youngest coach on the Mariners' roster, exactly three months younger than infield coach Chris Woodward.
- Phillips is also the longest-tenured of the current Mariner coaches.
- Over the course of his career as a player, Phillips faced off against Jason Vargas, Cliff Lee, Aaron Harang, Carlos Silva, Kevin Millwood, Jarrod Washburn, Erik Bedard, Joe Saunders, Jeremy Bonderman, Joe Beimel, Chris Ray, and Jamey Wright, all players he would later go on to coach with the M's.
- Phillips' brother Kyle was also a Major League catcher. He played 41 total games in his career with the Blue Jays (2009) and the Padres (2011). He is currently a scout for the Cubs organization.
- Phillips lived in Australia in 1999-2000. He also played for the Hunter Eagles in the Australian Baseball League before the league disbanded in 1999.
- In the fall of 2009, Phillips teamed up with Dr. Rolando Toyos to help baseball players improve their vision to enhance their performance.