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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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!
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:
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:
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.
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.