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2015 in Review: Brandon Phillips Bounces Back

A surprisingly positive review of the 34-year-old second baseman's season.

David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

We continue Red Reporter's player by player look at the 2015 Cincinnati Reds. We'll profile every player who got time for the Reds this year, and will imagine their tenure with the Reds going forward.

By The Numbers

623 PA, .294/.328/.395, 12 HR, 70 RBI, 97 OPS+

To say that there were questions about 34-year-old Brandon Phillips is an understatement. Well on the wrong side of 30, the bright smiling second baseman had seen all of his offensive numbers dip in consecutive years after his 2011 breakout (or, more accurately outlier) season, bottoming out during a 2014 campaign that could certainly be described as his worst as a Red. Lasting, nagging injuries became a concern, as various dings and knicks kept the former All Star out of the lineup or, in some cases, in the lineup with severe decreases in ability. Given his age, even the usual confidence about Phillips's gold glove defense could be described as shaky.

And, despite all of that, Brandon Phillips turned in a surprisingly good year.

How'd He Do?

In a word? Good. Considering where some expectations were about both the declining offense and the age showing in his defense, Brandon Phillips had a particularly notable season and (mostly) quieted the noise about his contract status. BP missed only 14 games this year and while a few times in the year he did suffer from various maladies, they did not seem to slow him down or linger over the season.

April featured a slow start that did very little to ease the minds of critics (.618 OPS in the month of April), but he would pick it up the rest of the way and only fail to break .700 in on-base-plus-slugging one other calendar month of the season (July, .656). More encouraging was that even as the scheduled lingered on and the Reds fell further and further behind, BP managed to get stronger. From August 1st through the end of the year, Phillips slashed .317/.348/.426, good for a .774 OPS.

BP basically stopped hitting for much power all together, posting his lowest full-season home run total as a Red (he hit a meager 8 in 2014, but missed 40+ games and dealt with an injured thumb that required surgery). He posted his lowest double total as a Red, period, falling 6 short of even his shortened 2014 season. His ISO total was the lowest since his rookie year.

The thing is, though, is it doesn't matter all that much. The Reds (especially the 2015 version of the team) doesn't need the swing-out-of-his-shoes, but-look-at-his-RBI-total! Brandon Phillips. Even with Phillips showing very little light tower power, and Billy Hamilton struggling to out hit his weight, the Reds still finished top six in the National League in home runs bopped, mashing 15 more home runs than league average. The team, as a whole, doesn't have a power problem.

Even with all of those dingers, the team finished in the bottom 4 for RBIs. The best thing that Brandon Phillips could do for this team was to accept his declining power potential and focus on contact and on base skills and, whether or not it was intentional, he seemed to do just that.

Looking at batted ball statistics, it's probably no surprise that BP had the least hard hit rate in his Reds career, but, interestingly, the balls classified as "medium speed" were up 8 percentage points over last season and he decreased his sotfly hit stuff back toward his career average. Moreover, his line drive percentage (24.9%) was downright Vottonian, while also decreasing his fly ball percentage 2% lower than it's ever been. Considering he's not hitting the ball as hard as often, and weak fly balls are the recipe for outs while well hit line drives result in serious AVG dividends, continuing this batted ball profile seems to be for the best. On top of all that, he hit the ball to the opposite field more often than he had since 2011 which was, of course, his best offensive year. Sum it all up with a career low strikeout percentage, and you've conducted yourself a decent year at the plate.

Of course, these are all just nerdy numbers that try and find out where something changed and not necessarily what caused it. We have no idea if Brandon actually altered something in his game to deal with his physical liabilities elsewhere. In fact, it was just this March when BP was... well being BP.

"I don't do that MLB Network on-base percentage [stuff]," Phillips told USA Today Sports. "I think that's messing up baseball. I think people now are just worried getting paid and worrying about on-base percentage instead of just winning the game."

Indeed, when it comes to swinging, it's not immediately obvious that Phillips did anything differently. He swung at pitches outside the zone just as much as he has since his career year 2011, and swung the most, period, than he has since 2008. The difference being is that he posted the highest Contact% since, you guessed it: 2011. Couple that with a BABIP (.315) several points higher than his career average (.294), and there's a little reason for concern that BP simply ran into some luck at the plate this year, rather than bucking his recent declining trend.

2016 Outlook

Most of the same questions that applied to Brandon Phillips coming into 2015 still apply in 2016 because he's still a mid-thirties middle infielder. Perhaps after batting nearly .300 in 2015, pitchers challenge him with less stuff in the zone (as they did after 2011), and he continues to swing and "don't do that MLB Network on-base percentage stuff." Less contact and more strikeouts, along with a normalized BABIP, and we'll end up with the same old Phillips. Couple that with the lowest UZR rating and defensive value since 2006 (however much stock you want to put into those, at least), along with the flip to the 35th year next season, and all of the old criticisms (including contract) step back into the spotlight.

Speaking of that contract; there are 2 years, $27 million left which, after a promising 2015 season doesn't seem all that bad. Then again, even under the best circumstances, the Reds won't be competitive again until we're talking about a *36* year-old starting second baseman, and even that timeline seems naively optimistic. Obviously, it'd be hard to do anything with his contract if he's playing like 2014 BP, but if he comes back in 2016 and is batting .280 at the deadline, you've got to think the Reds would listen to some offers.

BP has 5/10 rights and would have to sign off on any trade. But, does Brandon Phillips really want to toil around on a team that may only hopefully have a chance to compete the year before he goes into free agency in his age 37 season? Or would he cash the chips in now to go play for a contender and chase the elusive ring? As with the Frazier situation, the everyday-fan would be outraged; Cincinnati loves Brandon Phillips. But, if he continues to turn back the clock, the Reds may get an offer they can't refuse.

Chance of making the 2016 Reds roster: 90%
Chance of STAYING on the 2016 Reds roster: 75%