Fridays Above Replacement

BP’s Batting Order Versatility

Every Reds fan who has watched local television broadcasts or listened to local radio broadcasts over the last several seasons has likely heard a statement similar to the following: “Brandon Phillips can hit anywhere in the lineup.”  Of course we know he can hit anywhere in the lineup, because the lineup is controlled by a man with a writing instrument.  However, I believe this statement means so much more.

Hidden in this statement is another implication, I believe. The implication is that Phillips can be an ideal leadoff hitter when he bats 1st, an ideal 2-hole hitter when he bats 2nd, an ideal 3-hole hitter when he bats 3rd, and an ideal clean-up hitter when he bats 4th.  Admittedly, the notion of “ideal” isn’t the most scientific identifier since it means different things to different people, but I like the word.  Perhaps I’m overselling it and what is really meant by the statement is he’s a passable hitter at each spot in the lineup.  Regardless, the interpretation of the statement doesn’t change our methodology to follow.

Somewhere over the years by watching him play, our local announcers (and the fans, to an extent) got the idea that Phillips changes what he does based on his spot in the lineup.  Bat him 1st and he’ll be more likely to work a walk, because leadoff hitters should get on base.   Bat him 2nd and he’ll hit behind runners and lay bunts, because that’s what a good 2-hole hitter does.  Bat him 3rd, and he’ll just rake in general, because that’s what a good 3-hole hitter does.  Bat him 4th, and he’ll drive in runs, because that’s what a clean-up hitter does!

Since we have so much data at our fingertips, we can attempt to prove or disprove Phillips’ ability to change his approach and/or results.

What kinds of things will we look for?  Well, in some cases it will be easy.  Batting leadoff for example, we’ll look at things like walk rate (BB%), swing rate (Swing%), and outside-the-zone swing rate (O-Swing%).  After all, if a player is attempting to morph his game to the leadoff position, he should be working counts and trying to get on base in the leadoff spot. If this is the case we’ll likely be able to identify it.

For the case of batting 2nd, attempting to identify any shifts in a player’s approach is a bit more tricky. Generally, you hear things like “your 2-hole guy should be able to handle the bat and hit behind the runner or drop a sacrifice bunt.”  Based on that, all we can really look at is how often a player goes to the opposite field (Oppo%) and how many sac bunts they lay.

When looking at Phillips batting 3rd, we’ll mostly just look for overall production.  The old school thought is that your best hitter should hit 3rd.  If Phillips is able to change his game and his approach based on lineups, we’d expect to see increased overall run production (wRC+, perhaps) out of his 3-hole at-bats.

The case for the clean-up spot will be simple compared to the others.  In some minds, the only role of the clean-up hitter is to drive in runs. We can identify that easily, but teasing out the effect of increased opportunities might be a tad bit onerous.

So, let’s begin!  The following chart shows all the plate appearances (PA) amassed by Phillips as a Cincinnati Red through Wednesday’s game:

chart1

As you’d expect, Phillips has seen the most PA in the clean-up role.  For his career, over 46% of his PA have come from the 4-hole.  Thankfully, he has also received a significant number of PA in each of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd slots in the lineup.  This will allow us to analyze these 4 slots without worrying too much about sample size.

Let’s check out Phillip’s basic offensive stats over his years with the Reds:

chart2

From this initial look we can see a few things.  First, Phillips has been fairly consistent with production across all four slots, with 4th being his best position and 3rd being his worst.  His K% is remarkably consistent, differing from max to min by only one-half of one percent.  His BB% is also very consistent.  Looking at his Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP), we can see there really isn’t a great amount of “luck” or “bad luck” playing into these stats.  Perhaps most interesting is the fact that Phillips slugging (SLG) is 30, 20, and 45 points higher in the 4-hole than in the 1-, 2-, and 3-hole.  We’ll look at this more later.

Now we’ll examine the data to see if we can find any evidence of Phillip’s changing his approach batting leadoff, since we’ve seen there really isn’t much difference in his production.

Earlier, I said we’d look at BB%, Swing% and O-Swing% as evidence of an approach change batting 1st.  From the above chart, we can clearly see his BB% batting 1st is right in line with career averages, and actually lower than his BB% batting 4th.  Odd.  Let’s dig deeper.

chart3

Well, it looks like no matter where Phillips hits, he sees a very similar amount of balls per PA, as well as pitches per PA.  Now let’s check out the discipline stats.

chart4

Here, we see Phillips swings at balls out-of-the-zone (O-Swing%) and balls in-the-zone (Z-Swing%) around the same rate no matter where he hits.  Interesting, though, is that the out-of-the-zone contact rate (O-Contact%) and in-the-zone contact rate (Z-Contact%) are higher batting 1st than anywhere else, with O-Contact% being significantly higher.  Notice the STDEV line at the bottom, where I calculated the standard deviation of these small samples.  Almost all the measures have a standard deviation from the mean of less than 1%, while O-Contact% is over 2%.  This might be significant.  How could we explain this?  Perhaps Phillips isn’t swinging as hard.  This would fit with the leadoff hitter mantra.  His swinging strike rate (SwStr%) is also lower batting 1st, which further supports the idea of Phillips holding back for more contact.

If our theory about BP taking something off his swing is true, we’d expect his rate of hard hit balls (Hard%) to be less batting 1st than in other spots right?  Maybe?  Maybe not.

chart5

Phillips basically hits the ball just as hard from the leadoff spot as he does from the clean-up spot.  So much for our theory of BP taking something off his swing when batting 1st.

From the data we’ve seen here, there really doesn’t appear to be any evidence that BP changes his approach from the norm while batting 1st.

Next we’ll check out the 2-hole.  In order to check this, we’ll see if he hits the other way more often, which would represent him attempting to hit behind runners, and we’ll see if he gets more sacrifices.  Let’s check out the chart!

chart6

Alright!  Here’s some easy to see evidence.  Batting 2nd, Phillips has both the highest Oppo% and the most sacrifices.  Although sacrifices are generally ordered by the manager, every once in a while we see a player deciding to give up his out of his own accord. Maybe BP does this, maybe he doesnt, but hitting the other way is likely all BP’s doing.

Based on this data and the narrow definition of what a 2-hitter “should be,” I think it’s safe to say Phillips does indeed change his approach when batting 2nd, even if it might not be the best thing to be doing.

Since we don’t have a specific skill we’re attempting to discern from the 3-hole, we’ll just talk again about his overall production.  “Common knowledge” would say when batting 3rd, a player should attempt to drive pitches that are driveable, and take pitches that are not.  He should attempt to drive in runners when there are ducks on the pond, and attempt to get on base when leading off a inning.  The hitter should try to be the best overall.

Based on everything we’ve already presented above, I don’t think BP changes his approach in the 3-hole.  He’s not able to magically make himself a better overall hitter, as evidenced by his weighted-adjusted runs created (wRC+) being lowest from the 3-hole at 87.   No evidence here of anything.

Now, the big one… the mystical clean-up spot!  It will be a bit harder to determine if anything is going on here.   So, let’s just jump right in.

One thing we seem to always hear is that a hitter should expand his strike zone when runners are in scoring position to try and drive the run in.  If you buy into that notice, then nowhere is this more important than in the 4-hole.  Again, we look at the plate discipline stats:

chart7

Phillips swings a remarkably consistent amount of the time regardless of where he hits in the lineup.  The standard deviation of his Swing% is two-tenth of one percent.  That’s nothing.  That’s not even noise.  His swing rates are statistically identical.  So if people think expanding the zone is a good thing, Phillips has not been doing it.  Perhaps it has something to do with his strike zone being expanded at all times, rather than just with runners in scoring position.

Next, let’s do some RBI analysis!  (Put that sentence under the heading of “things I never thought I’d say.”)  The following chart shows how often Phillips drives in a run in each lineup position:

chart8

Well, that’s interesting at first look.  BP drives in a run about every six-and-a-half PA for his Reds career when batting 4th.  I don’t know if that’s good, but it seems good.

Many of you will likely already be thinking, and perhaps yelling, “Hey! Of course he drives in more runs from the 4-hole! There are more runners on base for him!”  You’d be correct.  But can we see how much of an effect his has?  Perhaps.

chart9

I’ve added some important columns to the previous chart.  Here we have the total amount of base runners while at-bat, as well as the average amount of base runners per PA (BR/PA) at each lineup position, and how many base runners Phillips sees on average before knocking a runner in (BR/RBI). Another way to think of BR/RBI is “BP drives in 1 out of every 4.28 base runners he sees while batting 4th.”

As expected, moving down in the lineup generally means you’ll see more base runners.  Recall that BP’s best RBI season occurred in 2013 when he batted behind Joey Votto and Shin-Soo Choo, who finished 1st and 2nd in the National League in OBP.

Due to more base runners being on the lower you hit in general, I adjusted the BR/RBI figure by weighting it with the amount of base runners occurring in each lineup position.  When you look at Adjusted BR/RBI, we still see a pronounced slant towards the 4-hole.  This data is suggesting BP has been more efficient at driving in runner from the 4-hole than while batting 1st, 2nd, or 3rd.  What could be causing this?  I have an idea.

All base runner aren’t created equal.  Driving in a runner from 1st is much harder than driving in a runner from 2nd.  It stands to reason that if BP is more likely to have a runner on base batting 4th, he’s also more likely to have two runners on base batting 4th.  This assures that at least one runner will be in scoring position.  The data at my disposal is not granular enough and my database skills are not developed enough (they are at zero development) to even attempt to tease out that effect, just know that the effect is real and exists.   Based on what I’ve seen, I don’t think there is any way to conclude that BP changes his approach in order to drive in more runners.

To recap, it is my opinion that the only thing BP changes while moving around the order is how often he hits the other way and how often he sacrifices while batting 2nd.  Other than that, BP seems to be an identical hitter no matter where he hits in the order.

That’s definitely not a bad thing.  It just means the narrative we’ve been hearing for years is false.  No harm, no foul.  If someone else can find data suggesting he does drastically change his approach based on lineup position I’d love to see it.  Until then, I’ll be saying “you’re wrong” every time I see or hear it.

During Phillip’s time with the Reds, he’s been about a league-average hitter while playing fantastic, and at times miraculous, defense while being a player many fans relate to.  Rolling all that together, Phillips has been the 6th most valuable 2nd baseman in all of baseball over the last decade, trailing only Chase Utley, Robinson Cano, Dustin Pedroia, Ian Kinsler, and Ben Zobrist in fWAR.  Even if Phillips isn’t everything he’s said to be, we should still appreciate him.

38 thoughts on “BP’s Batting Order Versatility

  1. I think this is evidence that we should not “hate the player” but “hate the GM”. BP is an ideal cog in the wheel as he literally is a league average hitter and can bat anywhere. He is basically a poor mans Barry Larkin (by about 15-20%). The problem is that he SHOULD NOT BE ASKED to bat 4th or 1st. He is an ideal 6 hole hitter for a championship team and a 2 hole hitter for a playoff team. But there is simply no one else to bat 4th, which is on the GM.

    • You mean there is simply no other right handed hitter to bat fourth since Votto must bat third and the RLRL order shall be maintained at all costs.

      It’s in The Book™.

      • I am not sure that the order is all that relevant if the same 4 people bat in the top 4 in the lineup. So you want BP to bat 3rd, Votto 4th? Or, you want Bruce to bat 4th? Stats say that is wrong (not just the book). Batting Hamilton leadoff is a bigger crime than anything with BP.

        • I’m simply not opposed to doubling up left-handed batters in the three/four slots. He’s not ideal, but Bruce would be my clean-up hitter behind Votto. I want power at clean up. I agree that Hamilton leading off is a crime.

        • I think the hardest part about optimizing a lineup for this team is that the Reds have so many players who seem to be unpredicatable at this point in their career.

          All of BP, Bruce, Cozart, and Suarez have been recently good, recently average, and/or recently bad. Based on his career stats, Cozart should never sniff the top of the order, but here he is being the Reds best hitter. Bruce would be the optimal 4 hitter, but his 2014 and 2015 were horrendous at the plate. So hard to zero in on stuff.

          Really tough to dial it in. One this we all agree on… Hamilton leading off and BP 4th seem to make almost no sense.

  2. Where he bats doesn’t matter. Only spot that matters is the pitcher batting ninth because they spend very little time practicing the art of hitting a baseball. If the Reds are serious about developing Bham as a batter and that this is a throw away season for development then Billy should be batting leadoff so he gets more at bats regardless of his performance. On that same logic any player that the Reds do not feel like will be a part of the solution in 2017 onwards should be batting lower in the order from the simple standpoint of allowing the pieces we are going to invest on in the future get more plate appearances and thereby more live action experience to help in their growth.

  3. I assume it’s nearly impossible to calculate how many times batting in the 1st position in the line-up Phillips has actually led off an inning. The best I could come up with was an article that claims the nos. 1, 2, and 3 hitters will actually bat in the spot you assume they might in an inning about 40% of the time. The no. 4 hitter will only bat 4th in an inning 27% of the time. Not sure what this does to your theory, but it needs to be taken into account how often the clean-up hitter is actually batting clean-up versus leading off an inning. The same article said 37% of all innings are 3 up and 3 down.

    • It doesn’t do anything to the analysis. It doesn’t matter that he’s batting 4th, what matters is that (presumably) 3 good hitters are hitting in front of him when he’s batting 4th.

  4. If you can’t appreciate BP by now, you never will. We all have players we don’t care for, for some people, that player is BP. For me, that player is Drew Stu–errrr, Billy Hamilton.

  5. Fascinating analysis. I wouldn’t have thought that BP would have shown such consistency from all 4 spots. I also wouldn’t have thought that the #4 hole was his strongest. The one thing I did see, and was nicely illustrated with actual numbers, is BP is not greedy for pitches per PA. He isn’t going to work a count if he doesn’t have to. A by-product of Dusty Baker. I saw BP being interviewed after the game last night by Jim Day. Make no mistake, BP is all about the RBI. BP would be a very unhappy player batting 7th in this, or any, Reds lineup.
    If they want to force a trade for BP, then in July, they should move him to 7th and tell him that is where he’ll bat for the rest of this season and next. That might be an impetus to get him to accept a trade. That may have been why he didn’t approve the trades he was reported to be involved in. He knew with the Reds and Bryan Price, he is entrenched somewhere in the 1-4 spots. Where would have Washington and Dusty batted him? Where would have he fit in Arizona’s batting order? Dusty may have eventually accommodated BP, but I doubt Arizona would have batted him higher than 5th, if that.

  6. I’ve always looked at the statement that “BP can hit anywhere in the lineup” as that he is a well-rounded enough hitter to be successful anywhere. Not that he is able or willing to necessarily change his approach.

    The idea being that he has enough on-base skills and speed to be a lead-off hitter, the requisite “bat skills” to be a 2-hitter, and enough power to be a 3 or 4 hole hitter.

    Now whether all of those statements are still true or not is a different question.

    • That’s what I’ve always thought that statement to mean. That said, I’ve also seen people actually say that he changes his approach based on lineup position.

    • Good point, in general, here.

      But I think a big part of the statement is that BP fits this mold but other people don’t.

      After all, any “good” hitter can hit 1-2-3-4 and be just fine. So unless BP is doing something different or special, why even make the statement?

      • If you think that speed is important at the top of the lineup (I don’t necessarily, at least not the most important) than not any good hitter can hit leadoff. Votto is easily the Reds best hitter, but not ideal for leadoff if you want speed at that spot.

        • Right, “if you want speed,” which there’s no real reason to want other than old-schooliness. 🙂

          Votto is the optimal leadoff hitter for this team, IMO. But I didn’t get many (if any) to agree with me when I wrote that.

        • I agree with you, Patrick. I do wonder whether Joey’s batting first would result in pitchers trying to avoid walking him more than they do now (or the reverse, for that matter), but have no doubt that he’d make them pay in either case.

        • Right. Joey batting first presents an interesting dilemma. His main strength (his walk ability) is at its relative maximum effect when leading off an inning, which he would do more often as a leadoff hitter. Walking with 0 outs is much more valuable than walking with 2 out.

          What would need to be explored is if the decrease in base runners he sees would be outweighed by the relative increase in the value of his average base on balls.

  7. Thank you for an informative piece of information. The thing that I always talk about the “eye test” being proven by analytics in this case your numbers prove I have bad eye sight. I would have wagered he changed his approach dramatically from one spot to the next especially the last 2 years. Thanks again for great information. The numbers also tell me he is a better hitter than I would have thought and when you add his glove I still say he is out producing his contract.

  8. Phillips has a career wRC+ of 95 and one season above 104. He has a career negative offensive WAR. Yet, he has the most AB’s with the Reds in the top of the order, primarily in the 4 spot. Tells you a lot about the organization.

    • That is simply not true, he was a career 23 offensive WAR. 100 wRC+ is a measure of an average MLB hitter. 0.0 WAR is a “replacement” player. That is entirely different, as a replacement hitter is in more like the 10th percentile not 50th. If you had 9 players with 100 wRC+ you would have a very good offense.

      BTW he also has 10 WAR on defense so his 33 WAR career is about halfway to HOF. Rose and Larkin both had total WAR around 65.

    • Career negative WAR? Are you comparing him to LF’ers and everyone else? No way possible that he’s a below average offensive 2nd baseman? I guess on a great team he should’ve been batting 6th? He should def be betting 6th or 7th now but he’s always been a good producer for 2B.

      • wRC+ for 2B that have extending playing time. Phillips may not be as bad as most 2B, that does not mean he should be hitting 4th

        Neil Walker 114
        Pedroia 117
        Cano 125
        Kinsler 110
        Altuve 113
        Utley 123

        Phillips is a below average hitter that plays great defense. Nothing wrong with that, just an organization flaw that has allowed him to hit in the top of the lineup.

  9. Great post, Patrick. Really nice deep dive into the issue.

    It would be interesting to control for the effect of Phillips’ aging on this analysis. Over the course of his career, he’s changed a lot as a hitter. It’s been a remarkably straight-line decline in power (ISO) since 2007:

    2007: .197
    2008: .181
    2009: .171
    2010: .155
    2011: .157
    2012: .148
    2013: .135
    2014: .106
    2015: .100

    • I actually started the research from a similar angle, but the post was getting waaaay too long… a common theme I struggle with. 🙂

  10. Excellent post and analysis. Thank you.

    I am surprised Phillips has almost 3x the amount of at-bats in the #4 spot than any other particular spot. For someone with declining power that is surprising, but he apparently has also hit the best from that spot, so maybe there’s something to it.

    I am not surprised that the biggest RBI season came when Choo/Votto hit ahead of him. Getting on base leads directly to runs, which is why it’s so important.

    • The big RBI season was due to Phillips deciding to be an RBI guy that season. Pretty sure it had little to do with guys on base in front of him : )

      With his defense, Phillips would have been a great #7 or #8 hitter for his career.

      • In Phillips’ defense, in his prime he was a fine 2-3-5 sort of hitter. I just always thought there were better guys for 1 and 4 nearly every season. But, that would involve Joey hitting 1st this year…so… yeah… haha! 🙂

      • It HAD to have to do with guys getting on base in front of him. If they hadn’t, his rbi total would have been the same as his home run total.

  11. Loved the article. I don’t know if this is re-searchable, but he always seem to pride himself on getting the run in. Particularly, a runner from 3rd with less than 2 out. I’m sure there is a percentage stat out there somewhere. And how did it rank on the team?

    Also, I think the “he can hit anywhere” evolved from Dusty, who would say it all the time, so the press and announcers would start repeating it, thus, it became “fact”

    I’d also be curious, over the last 5 years only, his slugging pct from the 1 hole and 4 hole

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