Brandon Phillips has been a truly outstanding all-around player for the Reds since virtually the minute he took the field at Great American Ball Park in 2006 after being cast out by Cleveland. DatDudeBP has won four Gold Glove awards and deserved a couple more. Although he hasn’t had 20 home runs or 20 stolen bases since 2009, he did have a 30/30 season in 2007 and a couple 20/20 seasons right after that. According to FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference calculations, he’s been worth about 25 WAR in his eight seasons for the Reds.
Forget the stats for a moment. I’ve stood up to cheer more of Phillips’ plays than any other current Reds player.
In the final scene of the film The Big Lebowski, the main character played by Jeff Bridges famously shrugs his shoulders and says, “Yeah, well. The Dude abides.” Abides, meaning to be able to endure without yielding, to continue on and withstand change.
There were plenty of legitimate arguments last season about Brandon Phillips. But in 2014, there’s really no debate.
DatDude is failing to abide.
Swing and Miss BP’s strikeout rate in 2014 is around 24%, a huge increase from 14.7% last year and nearly 10% higher than any of his previous seasons with the Reds. Phillips now has the 13th highest swing-and-miss rate in the Major Leagues. His alarming whiff rate isn’t just due to him swinging at more pitches out of the strike zone, although that’s part of it; his contact rate on pitches inside the strike zone is also falling.
Power Phillips slugging percentage has also dropped steadily and precipitously the last four seasons (.457, .429, .396 and now .343). He has one home run and on pace to drive in about 30 runs. And it’s not because no one has been on base in front of him. Phillips has knocked in only 6% of the runners on base. That’s by far the lowest rate among Reds regulars, lagging behind the bench players and even most of the starting pitchers. (League average is 13%)
Plate discipline When a player realizes he’s losing bat speed, he tends to compensate by swinging earlier. As a result, he ends up swinging at more pitches outside of the strike zone and taking fewer walks. We saw that vividly with Scott Rolen. Phillips has never been particularly disciplined when it comes to swinging at balls, but this season the percentage of pitches out of the zone that he swings at has spiked from 39% to 44%. That’s now the second highest rate in the Major Leagues. (The only player who swings at more balls is Nolan Arenado of the Rockies, but his contact rate for those pitches is 74% compared to Phillips, whose seen his contact rate on balls drop suddenly from 66% to 59%.) Phillips’ walk-rate is less than half of what it was last year. He’s walked only three times.
Speed Stolen bases used to be one of Brandon Phillips’ strengths. But his stolen base numbers have become those of a slow-footed slugger. After averaging over 20 SB from 2006-2012, in 2013 he attempted only eight, and successfully swiped just five. BP (or his managers) are aware of his slowing down, as his attempted stolen bases have fallen, nearly in lockstep, the past few years (40, 33, 34, 28, 23, 17, 8). In 2014, he’s 0-for-2.
Batting average Phillips’ batting average, a somewhat respectable .262, is propped up by a BABIP of .338, more than 40 percent above his career rate. At this rate, when BP’s BABIP normalizes, he’ll be hitting around .230. Likewise, his OBP would be about .250.
Contribution to runs scored If you’re looking for fancier metrics, Phillips’ wRC+ has fallen the past four years (122, 101, 91 to now 69). Remember a league average player is 100.
To make a brief, but obvious point, he sure as heck shouldn’t be batting third in the Reds’ order.
When the advanced defensive metrics for 2014 become reliable with larger sample sizes, they’ll show a player with a smaller range and less sure hands. It’s early, to be sure, but there have already been wrong turns, dropped balls and missed plays that the old Brandon Phillips would have made as a matter of routine.
This relatively sudden change in BP’s performance isn’t anything that’s his fault. He’s just getting older.
The decline of our aging favorite players isn’t blame-worthy or shame-worthy. Nor should it be a surprise. We’d love for them to go on forever. But even Pete Rose reached a point where he was just another player, or worse. At some point, they all fail to abide.
Age and talent are mysteries in sports. Just as certain players break into our consciousness like a thunderclap at various ages, others fade away almost as suddenly. The tricky part for fans is realizing that players, for the most part, don’t have much control over the rate of their decline. There are examples of graceful, long exits. And others of shockingly abrupt collapse. The largest category, however, being those cases that aren’t so clear cut.
The Reds’ second baseman will turn 33 just before this year’s All-Star break. Convincing research shows that’s an age where Major League players begin to decline rapidly. The general notion of an aging curve and deterioration after the age 27 or 28 is well established. Decline rates accelerate around ages 32 and 33.
BP is in his decline phase and has been for a while. Again, no judgement to pass there.
Well, BP was hurt last year, his defenders point out. Here’s an important point: Injuries don’t exonerate decline, they are an integral and tell-tale part of it. Second base is a tough position physically, with injuries a greater risk than for any position other than catcher.
Two of Phillips’ strongest qualities over the years, speed and defense, are ones that peak early. Combine that with the research on steep aging curves associated with second basemen generally, and Brandon Phillips is a likely candidate for predictable backsliding at just this age.
About that research: Nate Silver (2005) found that second basemen decline faster than other players in their thirties. Dave Cameron (2012) learned that the drop off for second basemen for ages 31-35 is severe and even some of the best second basemen have just stopped being productive in their early thirties. John Shepherd (2010) found that fielding ability for second basemen peaks at ages 27-29 and falls completely apart in their early to mid thirties. He concludes “your typical second baseman and shortstop will be quite useful at their natural positions until they reach about age 32.”
Phillips wouldn’t be the first elite second baseman to fall off a cliff. In fact, there’s a substantial track record. [Seriously, google ‘second basemen’ and ‘fell off a cliff.’] Carlos Baerga, Chuck Knoblauch and Robbie Alomar are examples of great second basemen who became unproductive in the blink of a batter’s eye. Chase Utley, a few years older than Phillips, has battled debilitating injuries. And holy cow, Rickie Weeks.
On the other hand, Joe Morgan, Jeff Kent, Craig Biggio and Sweet Lou Whitaker stayed relatively productive in their mid-30s. But those players were more elite (measured by WAR) in their prime than BP. They each had multiple 6 WAR seasons and Phillips has had none. So they had farther and longer to fall before reaching mediocrity.
All this research must surely have been in the minds of teams when they resisted trade overtures for Phillips this off-season. The Yankees passed on extending Robinson Cano for fear of signing on for his decline phase. Cano is 31 years old.
The good news is even if Brandon Phillips has begun a sudden decline, he’ll still have good at bats, good series, good weeks, maybe even good months. Every time he hits a homer, drives in a key run or makes a Gold Glove play, we’ll hear “told you so” from his many fans. No matter what, Phillips will still have his days. The cliff is an imperfect metaphor.
And it needs to be said that BP might just be in an early season slump and that he’ll abide. This year. Not forever. No one does.
But all this evidence. The collapse in plate discipline. The swings and misses. The rising strikeouts. The plummeting walk rate. The fall off in slugging, RBI and stolen bases. Whether you prefer old school stats or fancy new metrics, the conclusion is the same.
If Brandon Phillips has fallen off the cliff, this unfortunately, is exactly what it would look like.
It’s possible I’m completely wrong about DatDudeBP and he’ll beat the odds and put up a few more outstanding seasons. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d been mistaken about his fate. Given he has a contract that runs through 2017 and the difficulty the Reds apparently will have moving him, I hope DatDude does find a way to cheat Father Time.
And I sure hope he makes it to the finals.