Brandon Phillips: An Acquired Appreciation

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Let’s get one thing clear right from the beginning: I’ve never been a fully paid member of the Brandon Phillips Fan Club. Since the day he joined the Reds more than 10 years ago, he has certainly been mostly a pretty good player, even if he isn’t as good as he seems to think he is. But he just never appealed to me as a player, for a number of reasons I’ll discuss in a moment.

But a strange thing has happened over the last couple of years. Phillips still isn’t my favorite player, but at the very least, I’ve become more appreciative of what he’s done for this organization, and where he fits in Reds history.

To use a movie reference that may be too old or obscure for two of the three readers of this column: This is the story of how I learned to stop worrying and love BP.

So, yes, Phillips has never been among my personal favorite Reds. Some of that isn’t Phillips’ fault, I will concede. Over the course of his career, his managers have placed him in the cleanup spot over three times more than any other spot in the lineup. Not your ideal cleanup hitter, I say.

Even worse, Reds managers keep putting Phillips in the leadoff spot. Over his Reds career, BP has collected nearly 1,000 plate appearances as the leadoff hitter, and that’s one of the reasons this Reds offense has sputtered at times during that span. You see, Phillips has little use for the concept of plate discipline or on-base percentage, and that’s a fatal flaw in a modern-day leadoff hitter.*

*Again, this isn’t entirely on Phillips. The Reds organization has very rarely demonstrated any appreciation for the concept either. Think Willie Taveras/Corey Patterson, or Walt Jocketty saying publicly that Joey Votto needed to change his approach at the plate.

That’s really at the heart of why Brandon Phillips never captured my heart as a Reds fan. He doesn’t have the skills that I most value in a player, and he seemingly could not care less about that. No, that’s not quite accurate; Phillips actually appears to be hostile to the idea that he may have any deficiencies as a player. As evidence of that, I call your attention to his profane tirade against Enquirer beat reporter C. Trent Rosecrans back in 2013.

That tirade was strictly about the fact that someone—someone who couldn’t/wouldn’t fight back, mind you—stated facts, as in actual statistics, about Phillips’ lack of on-base skills. He was a bully, it was a national embarrassment for the franchise, and that was the last straw for me. I was ready for the Reds to trade Phillips at the earliest opportunity.

But, of course, the Reds weren’t able to trade him, for two big reasons. First, the Reds had signed Phillips to an enormous contract* that became an albatross around their necks on the trade market. No one was willing to take on that contract and accept the production Phillips was giving.

*Yes, the same contract that Phillips complained about in this brilliant Cincinnati Magazine profile, written by Justin Williams.

Which led to the second reason the Reds couldn’t trade BP: he was declining as a player. There is conventional wisdom that second basemen don’t age well. (Think Chase Utley, Marcus Giles, Edgardo Alfonso, Carlos Baerga in recent times.) All available evidence indicated that time was catching up to Phillips.

At age 30 in 2011, Phillips put up what may have been the best offensive season of his career: .300/.353/.457, 118 OPS+, 122 wRC+, 5.4 bWAR. The best on-base percentage of his career! That was a legitimately good season for a second baseman, by any measure.

But as he traveled deeper into his thirties, the decline was obvious. Look at his numbers from 2012-2014. Phillips’ WAR declined from 5.4 to 3.4 to 2.5 to 1.6 in 2014. His OPS+: 118-99-94-90. That old bugaboo, on-base percentage? A similar decline: .353 to .321 to .310 to a career low .306 in 2014.

So, as we approached last spring, the Reds were saddled with a 34-year-old second baseman whose numbers had declined year over year for each of the three previous seasons. His defense was still good (if not great, like it once was), but there was no reason to believe Phillips would ever be a productive player again.

But then a funny thing happened. Last year, 34-year-old Brandon Phillips actually improved at the plate. He wasn’t great or quite back to his 2011 form, but he was a valuable player. Phillips hit .294/.328/.395, 97 OPS+, 2.6 bWAR. I’ll take that. (Unfortunately, through 22 games this season, the BP decline appears to be back in effect, but it’s early yet if you still want to be optimistic. I’m not going to bet the ranch that Phillips will repeat last year)

But a resurgent 2015 is not really the reason my opinion about Phillips has softened. It’s because I love Reds history, and BP is a really significant player in the history of this franchise.

Did you know that only seven players in club history have accumulated more plate appearances in a Reds uniform than Brandon Phillips? This team has been around forever, and BP is 8th on the list, behind guys like Rose, Concepcion, Larkin, and Bench. Similarly, Phillips is eighth all-time in games played for Cincinnati. There’s something to be said for that longevity.

He’s been fairly productive, too, depending on how you look at the numbers. Brandon is ninth on the Reds all-time hits list, with 1,635 (I bet you can guess who’s number one). He’s ninth all-time in doubles (282), 13th in home runs (181), 11th in RBI (794), eighth in stolen bases (183).* Yes, these are counting numbers, and I’m not trying to say that BP has been a better player than a bunch of names behind him on these lists. But Phillips actually did those things, on the field, for your Cincinnati Redlegs. It makes him a significant figure in the history of the club.

*And he’s 29th in bases on balls, behind Bobby Adams and Ron Oester.

It’s even starker when you compare Phillips to other second basemen in Reds history. He’s played 200-plus more games than any other Cincinnati second sacker, and tops the lists of hits, home runs, doubles, and RBI. And though we don’t have the metrics to prove it definitively, Phillips is as good defensively as any of the rest of them, or at least in the neighborhood.

Phillips is not the best second baseman in club history. That honor goes to Joe Morgan (a man with his own curious opinions on “numbers”), and no one is likely to catch him. But there’s a good argument to be made that BP is the second-best. He’ll likely catch Lonnie Frey for career WAR sometime this season. One of the top two or three players at his position in the history of the franchise? That’s something to be appreciated, right?

There are other reasons to appreciate Phillips, of course. Yes, the guy is a relentless self-promoter, and that can wear on you sometimes. But I once had a member of the Reds front office tell me that they love BP because any time they ask him to do something in the community, he agrees immediately.

Also, Phillips is always having fun on the baseball field. I agree with Bryce Harper: the players should express themselves more while playing. Have a little fun with the game, like athletes in other sports do. Forget these stupid “unwritten rules” and show a little enthusiasm for the fact that you’re playing a kid’s game for a living. Phillips has always done that, and I wish more Reds felt comfortable doing the dab on the field. (Although Votto seems to be getting the hint.)

One more thing. When Adam Dunn was in Cincinnati, I was constantly amazed that people focused so heavily on Dunn’s shortcomings (defense, strikeouts) that they couldn’t see all the things that he did amazingly well (.247/.380/.520, 130 OPS+, 270 homers, which is fourth in Reds history).

At some point, I decided that I needed to stop focusing on Phillips’ inadequacies (a tendency not to hustle early in his career, yelling at beat writers, and that lack of plate discipline we discussed earlier) and start enjoying his strengths. Brandon Phillips loves to play for the Cincinnati Reds. He’ll play hurt. His offensive numbers rival all but a couple of Reds 2Bs ever…and the guy can flat out play some defense, even today.

Yes, he’s probably been a little overrated in the minds of the average Reds fan over the last decade. If you can agree with that, I can admit that I may have underrated him. At least a little, anyway.

Chad Dotson is a contributor to Nuxhall Way, ESPN’s SweetSpot blog, and the founder of Redleg Nation. You can follow him on Twitter at @dotsonc.

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