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Updating the Top 100 - Brandon Phillips

On the heels of a maddeningly incomplete season.

That's levitation, homes.
That's levitation, homes.

28. Brandon Phillips

Played as Red Primary Position Career Rank Peak Rank Prime Rank
2006-2013 2B 27 48 31
Percent Breakdown of Value Best Season Best player on Reds
Hit Field Pitch 2011 Never
68% 32% 0%
Awards/Honors as a Red Leading the League On the Reds Leaderboard
Gold Glove – 2008, 2010, 2011, 2013
All Star – 2010, 2011, 2013
Silver Slugger - 2011

-13th in career home runs
-14th in career hits
-14th in career doubles
-15th in career runs
-17th in career RBI

What you believe about Brandon Phillips is likely very closely linked to what you believe about the pair of Pittsburgh pitches that plunked Phillips right around the first of June. BP was riding high at the time; batting average just under .300, OBP at .340, and 44 RBI in just two months. Combined with his flashy defense, it was no wonder that Phillips was lauded by some as the team MVP. Relative to expectations, perhaps no player was having a better season to that point. And so: did the pitch ruin his season?

The errant (?) pitch provides a useful narrative, and I have no doubts that the cumulative bumps and bruises play a key role in each player's walk through the season, vis-à-vis his annual statistics. HOWEVA: a person can pick any Brandon Phillips season at random and pick out a two-month stretch in which the numbers pop considerably. He's maybe the slowest-burn streaky I've ever seen.

My suspicion on the impact of the hit-by-pitch? The effect was significantly overrated. Phillips's games played and plate appearance totals for 2013 fit right in line with all previous seasons in a Reds uniform, meaning that the injuries weren't significant enough to derail the year from a raw totals standpoint. More importantly, Phillips revealed a changed approach that not only didn't work holistically, it failed to produce any gains at all.

Consider: Brandon Phillips was informed early on that he would be the cleanup hitter for the team, as a consequence to Ludwick's shoulder injury. And this held true for the most part; 500 of his 600 at-bats this year were in the #4 slot. Cleanup hitters, of course, are supposed to drive the ball far, and knock in runners. Solid checkmark on the latter initiative, buster: you've probably heard tell of BP's triple-digit RBI campaign. It's credit-worthy, to be sure. Phillips only drove himself in 18 times, so the other 85 times meant the right guy on base at the right time followed by the right hit by Mr. Phillips, himself. The RBI angst in these parts is probably a bit passé, so let's leave this one alone for now.

No, what I'm more concerned about is why Phillips didn't drive in more runs. This is less of a theoretical exercise (how many RBI would an average hitter collected with Choo and Votto in front of him), and more of a discussion on approach. A player (usually aging, but not quite aged) can typically get away, for a season or two, with cheating at the plate: becoming more of a free swinger to compensate for a minute loss in bat speed. We might expect this to have offsetting impacts, such as increasing power numbers and decreasing on-base percentages. In the case of Phillips, 2013 brought his lowest on-base percentage during his Reds' tenure and the lowest number of extra base hits over the same timeframe. And this is where I think the conversation on approach matters. You could choose to chalk the poor numbers to the sore forearm (and to be clear, I think the injuries had some effect), but at the same time there are some underlying notes that don't quite add up. For example, Phillips's strikeout rate took a sharp turn upwards (from 12.7% of PA to 14.7%, or, if you prefer...from once every 7.3 AB to 6.2). Additionally, of the balls he did make contact with, the percentage that he pulled to the left side of the yard also fell (from 26% to 21%).

I don't want to overreact or to sound sensational. This was not a season in which BP fell off the cliff. His OPS+ went from 99 to 92, and he's still in the upper tier of National League second basemen. Nonetheless, I'm curious how and why the numbers add up the way they do. Why didn't Phillips's looser swing result in 5-10 more dingers? Was he intentionally not hitting the ball to left, or are the numbers a function of a slower bat? If the former, was the decision to pull the ball less frequently dictated by more runners being on base? Did Phillips see more fastballs?

And, to kick off a new paragraph so as to introduce a new point wholly separate from the previous line of questions, is the substantially reduced number of stolen base an outflow of the edict that Cleanup Hitters Don't Steal Bases, or an indication that the legs are a shell of the former wheels? And what does this portend for Phillips's defensive range?

I think I've lost count of the times I've predicted Phillips to enter his decline phase, but now that we're seemingly here I'm hesitant to predict further decay. I think he can hold on at this level for another 2-3 years. Being wrong would be nothing new, and with Phillips nothing would surprise me, including being wrong up or down. An enigmatic career, wrapped in the guise of being consistent.

Brandon Phillips has contributed Gold Glove defense at a key position, while hitting .277/.327/.440 over 8 seasons with the Reds (100 OPS+). He has amassed over 1300 hits, has hit 160 home runs, and scored and driven in 690 & 666 runs, respectively. Phillips rises from #34 to #28 on the all-time Reds list, while holding steady as the 4th best 2nd baseman in team history.

The Top 15 Second Basemen in Reds history

1 Joe Morgan
2 Bid McPhee
3 Lonny Frey
4 Brandon Phillips*

5 Miller Huggins
6 Johnny Temple
7 Ron Oester
8 Hughie Critz
9 Bret Boone
10 Dick Egan
11 Sam Bohne
12 Tommy Helms
13 Pokey Reese
14 Morrie Rath
15 Tony Cuccinello