So Brandon Phillips is playing pretty well, eh?
BP went 3-4 yesterday, and hit two home runs the night before. Two nights before that, he went 3-4 with two doubles. He’s collected at least two hits in five consecutive games. Since July 1, Phillips has hit .336/.360/.464, with a 17-game hitting streak tossed in for good measure.
Let me say right here at the outset that I’m really happy to see Phillips bounce back from a rough stretch at the plate. BP is a Reds legend, and no one is particularly eager to see our heroes age before our eyes. And I know that I’m inviting criticism by writing this just as BP has started to hit again.
Here at Redleg Nation, we have spilled some digital ink lately making the case that it’s time for the Reds to move on from BP at second base. Nick Carrington asked: “Should Brandon Phillips be a part-time player?” Later, I discussed Brandon Phillips and the March of Time:
Currently, Brandon Phillips is hitting .261/.299/.371. His wRC+ is a paltry 74. His wOBA is .293. His OPS+ is 78. He’s below replacement level according to both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference WAR, and that continues a downward trend that we’ve seen every year since 2011, with the exception of last year’s outlier. There’s no rational reason to believe that Phillips is going to improve…unless you believe that Brandon Phillips is going to age like Joe Morgan.
None of this is intended as a criticism of BP’s fine career as a Cincinnati Red. But this is what happens. Players age, and the club is forced to move on at some point.
As far as I can tell, since the turn of the twentieth century, the Reds have never had a 36-year-old starting second baseman. Brandon Phillips will be 36 next year.
The time for making difficult choices has arrived.
Despite trading Jay Bruce for a big-league-ready second baseman (Dilson Herrera) at the trade deadline, the Reds have declined to make that difficult choice. Phillips continues to be the starting second baseman for our favorite club.
But a strange thing has happened. As if to prove that we were all wrong, Phillips decided to go on a tear. He’s now hitting .278/.314/.400 with a 86 wRC+ and a wOBA of .306 (still not great numbers, but much improved anyway). In this piece from C. Trent in the Enquirer, we see that BP is blaming his previous struggles on a toe injury that he suffered back in May:
Phillips hit the wall at full speed to make a catch on a pop-up by Milwaukee’s Hernan Perez in the first inning of an eventual Reds loss. Phillips played the following day in Colorado, leaving that game early and then missing two games before returning.
“Honestly, I think I made a mistake, I should have taken more days off, but I’m hard-headed, it feels better,” Phillips said before Sunday’s game. “I feel the new orthotic that circles the toe really helps me a lot. I kept trying to figure out ways to get it done.”
Phillips said because he was in so much pain, it affected his swing, his first step in the field and running. The most glaring difference, though, was the power. Saturday night, Phillips hit his first home run since May 7, a career-long stretch of 72 games and 286 at-bats when he hit a second-inning home run off of the Pirates’ Ivan Nova. He then homered off of Nova again in the seventh.
So Phillips says that his toe is feeling better and he’s back to being a great player. Color me skeptical. Phillips injured the toe on May 29 in Milwaukee. Before that day, he was hitting just .254/.295/.426. With a healthy toe.
In the ten games after the toe injury, Phillips hit .325/.341/.425, and collected a hit in each of those ten games. With an injured toe. Make of that what you will.
Another RN writer is skeptical, as well:
There’s a guy on the Reds who is really hot right now. But he’s compensating for age by cheating on fastballs. Stay tuned.
— Chris Garber (@cgarber8) August 7, 2016
Here’s the question that interests me: were we wrong when we declared that it was time for the Reds to move on from Brandon Phillips?
Well…no, of course not. Yes, Phillips is hitting better lately, and he has helped the Reds play better baseball since the All-Star break. These are good things! I want to see the Reds win. I’m funny like that. But:
I love BP. But I don't see how BP's O stats work to advantage (despite the great week this week).
— Doug Dennis (@DougDennis41) August 8, 2016
Doug is exactly correct. This brief little stretch of good hitting is only going to complicate things for Reds management. If Reds fans think BP can still play, the team will take a bigger public relations hit when they inevitably decide to move on to Herrera, or whoever the next second baseman is. Perhaps that shouldn’t be a factor, but it is.
We’ve talked a lot about Phillips’ bat, and whether the Reds can justify penciling him into the lineup for the foreseeable future, but there’s a dirty little secret about Brandon Phillips: his defense is declining rapidly too. This part is difficult to accept. For years, Phillips’ defense was as good as anyone in the league, and better than almost everyone we’ve ever seen in Cincinnati. He has won four Gold Gloves, and we all remember spectacular play after spectacular play during his career.
Every defensive metric is showing this decline. Now, there are plenty of valid objections that can be made about these metrics; I report, you decide. But the numbers are unanimous: BP is making far fewer plays with the glove than he did just two years ago. For the first time since his first season with the Reds, Baseball-Reference.com says Phillips is below replacement level as a defender (by dWAR). Again, make of that what you will, but…
Father Time is undefeated.
Reds’ management has way more information about all this than I do, and I’m perfectly willing to believe that there is a good reason that the club appears to be afraid to make the decision that needs to be made here. Maybe it’s not just public relations. Maybe they’re just waiting until the off-season, out of respect for a future Reds Hall of Famer. But even after the recent hot streak, Phillips remains one of the least-productive second basemen in the majors, and he’ll be 36 next year.
I really hate to sound like I’m piling onto Brandon Phillips. I really do appreciate what Phillips has been able to achieve as a Red. He’s a future team Hall of Famer, and those don’t come around every day. When his Reds career is over, I’ll be leading the charge to celebrate his time as one of the best second basemen in this club’s long history.
I’m really conflicted here, but I’m allowed to be sentimental. Phillips has been a great Red for a long, long time. The Reds’ front office, however, can not — must not — be ruled by sentimentality when making this decision.
And really there’s only one decision that can be made here. If the Reds were willing to move on from Joe Morgan at age 35, and if they were willing to bench a future Hall of Famer in September of his final season in favor of Felipe Lopez, what’s the argument for allowing Brandon Phillips to keep taking up at-bats at the expense of Herrera? (Admittedly, that Hall of Famer was even older than BP at the time.)
I’m serious here: if you have an argument in favor of BP as the starting second baseman for the rest of this year — and 2017 — I’d love to hear it.
As a Reds fan, I really feel awful typing these words. Phillips has been so much fun to watch over the years! But this is a season to rebuild, and a season to discover what the Reds have, and I simply can not see any alternative to turning over the second base position to Dilson Herrera as soon as possible. September 1, perhaps? That’s when Barry Larkin was benched in favor of his replacement (despite Larkin’s insistence that he wanted to keep playing). Why should BP be any different?
What do I expect to happen? Well, Phillips is signed through next year. Until I see some evidence otherwise, I’m just going to assume that the Reds will continue to delay making the difficult decision that will inevitably be necessary.
I’ll say this: if Dilson Herrera isn’t Cincinnati’s starting second baseman on September 1, then the Reds will have deliberately chosen to delay the rebuilding process out of loyalty to a former star of the team. If Phillips is the starting second baseman next April, then you have my permission to lose faith in management’s seriousness about conducting an actual rebuild in the shortest amount of time possible.
I want to be optimistic, I really do. And I’m trying hard — harder than almost any Reds writer anywhere — to trust the process, and to believe in what Cincinnati’s front office is attempting here.
But I want to see the Reds competing for championships again, soon. Reds’ management says they can be competitive in 2018, and they have made plenty of difficult decisions over the last year, trading away some of the team’s biggest stars. I’m not quite sure why the Brandon Phillips situation is so much different than the others.
When Brandon Phillips refused a trade over the off-season, he put his own desires over the needs of the Cincinnati Reds. That’s fine, he had earned the right to do that, and I can’t say that I wouldn’t have done the same thing if I had been in his shoes.
Now it’s time for Walt Jocketty and Dick Williams to put the long-term needs of the Reds ahead of what Phillips wants. On September 1, pat Phillips on the back and thank him for everything he’s done for this team. Then tell him that Dilson Herrera is getting his tryout at second base for the foreseeable future.