Going Down Swinging

 

 

You’re well aware that the Reds are in the midst of a terrible, terrible season. Brandon Phillips, however, is in the midst of a particularly strange season. Aside from his brazen affinity for Dairy Queen’s cotton candy blizzard, the club’s second basemen has seen his batting average and on-base percentage take considerable hikes from last year in spite of his unyielding resolution to swing at just about everything.

Phillips—along with Votto, Bruce, and seemingly the entire Reds roster—struggled with injuries last season, missing significant time with a thumb ailment. The 2014 season was the first time he played less than 141 games in a Reds uniform (logging 121), but it was also a tough stretch while on the field, a sharp dropoff from his steady but reasonable decline since 2011, when he slashed .300/.353/.457 with a wRC+ of 122 and a WAR of 5.4. (His 2014 numbers: .266/.306/.372, 88 wRC+, 1.7 WAR.)

Yet through all of that, Phillips has always been an impatient hitter: His career BB% average for the Reds (through last season) was 5.8% (bad), with an O-Swing% of 34.7% and a Z-Swing% of 74.4 over the same time period (both higher than the standard 30% and 65%, respectively). But he’s also been a good contact hitter, with a K% of only 13.8% (really good), an O-Contact% of 61.8%, and a Z-Contact% of 89% (both higher than the standard 60% and 87%, respectively). In other words, he has a reputation. It’s an approach that has rarely been kind to his on-base percentage—something Phillips has also been rather, uh, clear about his disregard for—culminating with last year’s .306 OBP.

This season, however, has been different. Phillips has been even more committed to taking his hacks than his usual free-swinging self, posting a BB% of 4.8% and K% of only 11.3% through 46 games; in his 186 plate appearances, he’s recorded an astounding 175 official at-bats, with nine walks, one sacrifice, one HBP, and only 21 strikeouts. His contact and swing percentages are all a few bumps above his career averages. The most significant changes, though, are in his batting average (.303) and on-base percentage (.339), both of which owe their leaps to Phillips hitting a buttload of singles. Out of his 53 total hits for the season, 45 of them are one-baggers.

So why is all of this noteworthy? While Phillips making it rain singles has clearly bolstered his stats in a few prominent categories, it hasn’t helped much across the board. His ISO and SLG numbers are way down at .080 and .383, respectively. His wOBA (.317) and wRC+ (98) are both respectable, but still below-average. And because he’s relying so much on those singles (and continuing to liberally swing the bat), there’s reason to believe he won’t be able to sustain that average or on-base percentage. His .329 BABIP is nothing insane, but it’s also seven points above his 2011 career high, and more than 30 higher than last season’s perfectly normal .298. Any slump that brings a slight uptick in K% or downtick in BABIP, and those batting average and OBP numbers could drop in a hurry—and when you aren’t hitting for hardly any power, things start to get ugly.

Granted, this is all a small sample size, but history and nature suggest that any deviation moving forward will be the aforementioned dip in BABIP and spike in K%, as opposed to a return to his days of hitting 20 homers and 30 doubles. (His LD% is up, but his hard-hit percentage has dropped.) There’s also the fact that if Phillips’ current numbers hold through the season, it would be a nearly unprecedented performance in relation to team history. Only once has a Reds player recorded at least 500 at-bats while posting a batting average above .300, an ISO below .100, and an OPS below .730—that was the immortal Babe Pinelli way back in 1924.

It will be interesting to watch how Phillips progresses the rest of this year. But at least for the time being, let’s appreciate what an oddly fascinating performance we’re watching (in a season with little else to get excited about). You can’t accuse Phillips of a slow start, though you can’t exactly praise it as an impressive one, either. It’s simply…weird.

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Justin Williams is an associate editor at Cincinnati Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @Williams_Justin.

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