Lately one of the biggest questions Reds fans have been asking is, "Why does Brandon Phillips continue to hit third in the lineup?" Yesterday, Bryan Price spoke to C.Trent Rosecrans about this decision. Here is what he had to say:
"For me, lineup construction is beyond just what you'd call your status quo - your home run hitter in the four hole," Price said. "I'm trying to stay aware to try and not bunch our left-handers and make it easier for our opponents. I think Brandon provides us someone who puts the ball in play. He's second on our team in hits for the season. And he breaks up my lefties."
Before we assess Phillips' production, maybe we need to stop and ask some questions about hitting third in the lineup. Most people assume that this is one of, if not the, most important spots in the lineup. In 2013 Sam Miller of Baseball Prospectus did a study on "The Batting Order Evolution." His research demonstrated that teams agreed with this sentiment. Throughout baseball history most teams have placed their best hitter third in the lineup.
However, some analysts have called this line of thinking in to question. In particular Sky Kalkman of Beyond the Box Score wrote an article in 2009 entitled, "Optimizing Your Lineup By the Book." Here are a few of his conclusions about the third spot:
"The Book says the #3 hitter comes to the plate with, on average, fewer runners on base than the #4 or #5 hitters. So why focus on putting a guy who can knock in runs in the #3 spot, when the two spots after him can benefit from it more? Surprisingly, because he comes to bat so often with two outs and no runners on base, the #3 hitter isn't nearly as important as we think. This is a spot to fill after more important spots are taken care of."
In fact in "The Book," Tom Tango, Michael Litchman, and Andrew Dolphin suggest a team should bat their best hitters (in order of quality): first, second, fourth, third, and fifth.
It's clear that some in the sabermetrics community have questioned the importance attached to hitting third in the order. However, even if it's not as important as once thought, it's still more important than a number of places in the order. Whoever hits third is going to have more opportunities at the plate than every other hitter not batting first or second. Also, if you have high OBP hitters at the top of your order, then the #3 hitter is going to have numerous opportunities with runners on base (For example, for 2006 John Dewan found that the third hitter came to the plate with men on base second most in the lineup).
Herein lies the issue that Reds fans have with Price batting Phillips third. The Reds currently have six hitters who register as "qualified." Of those six, Phillips is having the worst offensive season by wRC+ (74). Cozart and Votto have been the first and second hitters most often this year, and those spots have been defensible (although Cozart has slumped his way to a league average season). Based on production and importance in the lineup it would make much more sense to have Bruce, Duvall, or even Suarez hitting third. This probably don't need to spend much time trying to convince you of this.
It's obvious that Phillips should be hitting further down in the Reds lineup. How does he stack up against other hitters around the league at that spot in the order?
As of last night, thirty-eight hitters have had at least 100 PA in the three spot this season. So how does Phillips rank? Phillips' .604 OPS is the second worst at that spot in the order in all of baseball. The only batter who has struggled more is Prince Fielder (.601). Manny Machado currently leads #3 hitters with a .995 OPS.
By batting average (26 out of 38) he's been a little better, but his OPB ranks 35 out of 38. However, where Phillips lack of production really shows is in slugging. He's easily at the bottom of this category at .299. No other hitter who regularly bats third has a SLG% south of .300. Matt Duffy has the next lowest percentage at .331. This low percentage is due in part to the fact that Phillips is the only player who's had at least 100 PA in the third spot and hasn't homered.
At the end of the day Phillips continuing to hit third probably won't matter much. It's argued that using the most optimal batting order can give a team five to fifteen extra runs over the course of a season. Moving him in the order won't change the Reds place in the division, and there are clearly other issues that need to be addressed as well. So why has this been such a big issue for Reds fans?
The most troubling part is the mixed signals it sends regarding the rebuild. This is clearly a team that needs to get younger and think about the future. Phillips has had a lot of good (sometimes great) seasons in Cincinnati, and he should be celebrated for that. However, Phillips is in the midst of his worst offensive season as a member of the Reds, and at 35 years old it's hard to expect much of a rebound.
He's still been around league average as a second baseman by DRS and UZR, but those numbers are also falling off from recent seasons. The nine errors he's made in the field are already the most he's made in a season since 2006. Again, Phillips has been a fun and exciting player to watch, but it's clear that his best days are behind him.
For a team that should be looking toward the future, they appear to be stuck in the past on this issue. This past offseason they potentially acquired their second baseman of the future in Jose Peraza. Why not give him more opportunities to get comfortable? Why not use a lost season as a chance to let him figure some things out at the big league level? Some might cite Phillips intangibles or leadership as a reason to keep him in the lineup, but at this point what good are those things going to be for Cincinnati in 2017, 2018, and beyond?
Yes, Phillips hitting third in the order has been as bad as many have noted when compared with the rest of the league. However, for the time being Bryan Price appears to be unwilling to budge on this issue. For now Reds fans will be left to wonder when the team will decide to fully set their sights on the future.