After one of the worst seasons of his career, the tide of baseball analysts has turned decidedly against Cincinnati second baseman Brandon Phillips. On the surface, it looks bad. Phillips’s WAR (2.6), wRC+ (91), Batting Average (.261), Runs (80), K% (14.7), Home Runs (18), Slugging% (.396) and ISO (.135) were all five year lows in 2013. Once a dynamic base runner, Phillips stole only 5 bases last season, by far a career low since becoming an everyday starter. His 4-component speed score (3.7) was 1.7 less than his career average and his Ultimate Base Runner rate was a pathetic 0.2.
There have been a plethora of trade rumors involving the Reds selling low on Phillips. Since Robinson Cano signed away the remainder of his career to the Mariners, the Yankees have emerged as top suitors with Kansas City, Atlanta and Los Angeles (Angels) also being mentioned as possible landing spots.
While it is difficult to deny the declining value of the 32-year old second basemen, the Reds would be wise to hold onto Phillips and expect a bounce-back in 2014.
The most obvious reason to take 2013 with a grain of salt is that Phillips had likely played the last four months of the season significantly injured. On June 1st, Phillips took an ugly pitch on his elbow. He avoided the DL and only missed four games, but was not the same hitter for quite some time. Entering that game, Phillips had a .291 batting average, .819 OPS and already had half of his season total Home Runs (9). In the two months after his injury, Phillips offense was pitiful. In June, he averaged .209 and had an OPS of .548. In July, those numbers improved slightly to .240 and .651.
It wasn’t until August that that things started to pick up again for Phillips. In that month, he had a .304 average and .801 OPS. In September, Phillips fouled a ball off his leg that led to another streak of poor hitting to round out the season, ending with the aforementioned paltry numbers.
Phillips is a perfect example of why season total statistics are often misleading. While most advanced metrics require a significant sample size (typically more than a single season) to provide accurate reflections, offensive statistics vary so significantly with injuries that it is difficult to interpret them without breaking down to smaller units of time. Ultimately, Phillips is still capable of being a high-end offensive producer; he just needs to stay healthy.
Sure, one could argue that his lack of health and consistency are related to his age. Injuries are inevitable and seem to be increasing in frequency are baseball. While Phillips is far from immune from those concerns, he has averaged 151 games per season since 2008 (in 2013, he played in 151). As a rarity, a good defensive second baseman with power, Phillips has a significant value in terms of position scarcity. Even with his low Home Run count, he was still the fourth best second basemen in the league in that category. Ahead of him on that list is the pitifully strikeout-prone Dan Uggla (.179 BA and 171 Ks) and Jedd Gyorko (.242 with 123 Ks).
Even with injury and age, Phillips still proved his athleticism in the field. Phillips took home his third Gold Glove in six seasons, holding the second best Ultimate Zone Rating (8.6) in the NL at his position. A strong argument could be made that Darwin Barney deserved the Gold Glove instead. However, Phillips regular web gems should at least show that he has the physical capacity to play at a high level when healthy.
Many have dismissed Phillips career high in RBI (102) as simply being a product of his surroundings. The stealer OBPs of Joey Votto and Shin Soo Choo gave Phillips ample opportunity to drive in runs. But this should not be a condemnation. As his raw athletic ability (particularly in base running) begins to fade, it would seem the cleanup spot is actually the best place for Phillips. Phillips has never been known for his walk rate which was on par with his career average (5.9 in 2013, 5.8 career) and has always exceeded the league average in %Oswing, making him not particularly ideal at the top of the order. Phillips is much more of a clutch hitter. Before his injury in June, Phillips hit a spectacular .423 with runners in scoring position. At that same point, his batting average with two strikes was .326. Despite his poor ISO and Home Run totals, he still achieved that impressive career high in RBI. Even with Choo likely departing, the Reds best hitter (Votto) needs an RBI threat behind him more than he needs OBP/speed threat in front of him because of his own astronomical walk rate.
Put simply, Phillips is coming off an inarguably bad season and he is a different player now than he was a few years ago. However, he is still a rare find at his position and offers more than fans and analysts are giving him credit for. Trading him for a top-of-the-order type like Brett Gardner would be a mistake that would harm the Reds run production in a season where they once again have a legitimate shot to be a top offensive team.