It wasn't the fifty degree temperature drop and sore back that made me feel old this morning, it was realizing that 2015 will be the tenth season that Brandon Phillips has spent with the Cincinnati Reds. That'll be a longer Cincinnati tenure than franchise icons Eric Davis, Paul O'Neill, or Joe Morgan, and one that will equal the great Frank Robinson's Hall of Fame run with the Redlegs.
Phillips will turn 34 this summer, is coming off back to back seasons with a slugging percentage under .400, and spent the 2014 season getting thrown out attempting to steal (3 times) more often than being successful (2 times). Hard as it is to believe, he's a full five years removed from his last 20/20 season. His dinger total dropped to single digits for the first time since he was plucked from the Cleveland Indians, he played in the fewest games of his Reds tenure in 2014, and while he remains one of baseball's absolute elite defensive middle infielders, it's clear that his overall decline is predicated more on Father Time than just the game's shrinking offensive environment.
I was wearing those BP goggles when I ran across this interesting tidbit:
Brandon Phillips vs. RHP (career): .261/.313/.408
Brandon Phillips vs. RHP (2014): .278/.310/.394
I took off those "BP is over the hill" goggles, double checked, and then checked again. Sure enough, how he's hit against right-handed pitching - the thing he's done more often in his career than anything else - didn't really slip much at all last year from how he's faced them over his career. In fact, given the preponderance of quality pitching in the game today, you could make a very compelling argument that he hit RHP in 2014 better than he had during most other points in his career. Considering that he has consistently hit northpaws slightly worse than their voodoo-spewing crafty counterparts, seeing that he managed to maintain his level of competence in a part of his game that hasn't been a strength over his career gave me at least a glimmer of hope that something he'll be asked to do some 400+ times in 2015 isn't in as steep of a decline as I'd first imagined.
Of course, if his overall 2014 PAs feature a large subset that doesn't show much, if any, overall decline, the only way it'd be possible for his 2014 OPS (.678) to come in woefully below his career mark (.743) would be if something he historically has been very good at somehow fell off a cliff.
Well, that's exactly what happened:
Brandon Phillips vs. LHP (career): .284/.336/.469
Brandon Phillips vs. LHP (2014): .229/.292/.303
Phillips - who has hit cleanup more in his career than in any other spot in the order in large part to be the lefty masher that separated LH hitters Joey Votto and Jay Bruce - managed just a single dinger and a meager 6 XBH in 120 PA against southpaws in 2014, numbers completely out of whack with what he's done throughout his career. A quick glance at the variety of pitches that he saw during the course of 2014 shows that he wasn't seeing things in percentages starkly different from what he's seen in the years running up to 2014, either (though it should be noted that these are pitch ratios from righties and lefties combined).
That means we're probably looking at one of two possible explanations. Either Phillips' offensive game is in an overall sharp decline and he happened to luck into better performance vs. RHP in a near 400 PA sample in 2014 than we should have expected given his steep dive against LHP, or he struggled through injury and small sample size noise for a bit over 100 PA against a kind of pitcher he has historically walloped while the rest of his hitting profile held to a solid post-peak norm.
Both the optimist and realist in me want to believe that how Phillips performed against LHP in 2014 is the outlier in this, and while he'll be a year older and removed from those stats when he first steps into a big league batter's box in six weeks, improving upon those awful numbers seems to be a distinct possibility. If he can even manage to return to his 2013 lefty-hitting form (.254/.328/.418), that's still the kind of improvement that will go a long way towards digging the Reds offense out of the cellar of the National League. It's certainly not 30/30 or 20/20, but coupled with his traditional performance against righties, it would make for a slightly above-average offensive 2B who's still among the best of the best defensively.
Stated another way, it would make for a 33 year old Brandon Phillips that is leaps and bounds better than the 32 year old Brandon Phillips we watched last year, and it wouldn't take him doing anything out of what's ordinary. Believe it or not, it would even make him a bargain for the $12 million he'll make this year.