Brandon Phillips & Running Away

Occasionally, the collective fantasy baseball community reflects on a productive single-season performance and sees a top-10 value that doesn’t really fit the underlying skills. The title of this column belies the vagueness of that opening line, but the upshot is something many people said last year and repeated ad nauseum over the winter. While Brandon Phillips was the sixth-ranked fantasy second baseman in 2013, many people were concerned with the declined skill set that lurked below the surface — a surface that was largely buoyed by his 103 RBI.

In 2013, his ISO dropped to .135, which was a career low. He only stole single-digit bases for the first time since 2005, when he only had nine plate appearances with the Cleveland Indians. He continued swinging at more pitches outside the strike zone, and his swinging-strike rate eclipsed 10.0% for the first time since the 2008 season.

Phillips essentially experienced a drop-off in many major peripheral statistics, and he people suddenly became concerned that he was on the wrong side of 30 and about to experience a precipitous decline. I ranked him as a fourth-tier second baseman coming into the season and noted significant concerns throughout the offseason.

Of course, the overarching point of this article is to illustrate that those concerns were fully justified. Brandon Phillips has been brutal throughout the month of April, and if we pull back the veil and peak at the underlying numbers, the picture becomes even more bleak and troublesome. Things aren’t getting better. They’re getting much worse, and as the title suggests, I’m turning my back and sprinting away from him as much as possible.

(Side note: I was tardy to an auction draft this spring — as apparently I struggle to understand the difference between the eastern and central time zones — and was lucky enough for the friendly auto-draft machine to grab me Phillips. Thanks to ESPN’s asinine “no-drop list,” though, I’m fundamentally stuck with him on my team. Seriously, whoever placed Brandon Phillips on the damn no-drop list should be slapped. I can’t even give him away via trade, and I’ve tried.)

Before diving into the peripheral numbers, though, let’s establish a baseline and assess how he’s performing in standard rotisserie categories.

Category Raw # Rank
Home Runs 1 17
Runs Scored 7 24
Runs Batted In 4 28
Stolen Bases 0 28
Batting Average .262 19

As one would expect from the 35th-ranked second baseman in ESPN leagues, he’s been an utter disaster. I was even charitable in those rankings, as I limited the scope to second basemen who have accumulated at least 50 plate appearances. He fares even worse if those playing-time limitations are lifted. I only did that to ensure the batting average rankings would be somewhat useful.

But, yes. Trainwreck.

Things are unfortunately getting worse, as we dig deeper. On a basic level, his 24.2% infield-fly rate is one of the most-concerning numbers because it highlights how poorly he’s making contact on a consistent basis. It’s the fourth-highest in all of baseball among qualified hitters.

However, I’m more concerned about the fact that he’s swinging more than ever before (59.0% swing-rate), chasing more pitches than ever before (43.7% O-Swing), swinging and missing more than he’s ever done (15.3% swinging-strike rate), and making less contact than ever before (73.6% contact rate). Those numbers explain precisely why his strikeout rate has ballooned to 23.4% and his walk rate has tumbled to 2.8%. Thus, not only are the core rotisserie statistics worrisome, but his overall approach has become downright appalling.

His poor approach becomes more concerning from a fantasy baseball perspective because his other skills are becoming non-existent. He only stole five bases last year, and he doesn’t have a single stolen base in 2014. The 32-year-old has never been a particularly good basestealer, either. As he ages, that’s starting to show itself. He’s attempted two stolen bases this year and has been successful zero times. He was only 5-for-8 a year ago.

A couple other things to note:

  • He’s no longer the beneficiary of having Shin-Soo Choo bat in front of him. The speed of Billy Hamilton is certainly intriguing, but as of now, he doesn’t get on base enough for Phillips to benefit. Joey Votto is now ahead of Phillips in the batting order; however, he’s not a speedster and doesn’t project to offer too many RBI opportunities to the guy immediately behind him in the batting order.
  • The overall Reds offense is worse than it was a year ago. Zack Cozart has been a black hole at the bottom of the order, and relying on guys like Todd Frazier and Ryan Ludwick to consistently knock him home on the rare occasions he’s actually on base isn’t a recipe for success. Thus, one shouldn’t expect his run totals to suddenly explode and become elite.

Overall, Brandon Phillips appears to be a prime example of underlying numbers telling an accurate story. Many analysts pointed at the declining approach and the fewer stolen bases in 2013, but they were masked by a potent Reds offense and high RBI numbers. Now, the approach has gotten worse, and the Reds offense cannot compensate for his overall deficiencies. He’s currently not a top-30 second baseman. He’ll likely squeeze into the top-20, as I believe he still has power in his swing and will turn it around a bit. Overall, though, this is not a stock you want to be buying in hopes of a rebound. The possibility certainly exists, but I strongly suggest running in the opposite direction.

Unless, of course, you’re participating in an ESPN league, in which you cannot drop Brandon Phillips and cannot pay an opposing owner to take him off your hands. In that case, keep him on the bench and lament your fate. Hopefully, you had a contingency plan on draft day, as I quickly scooped up Anthony Rendon after I finished swearing a few times about being stuck with Phillips. Scour the waiver wire to see if someone like Marcus Semien, Alberto Callaspo, or Scooter Gennett is available — because it’s legitimately gotten to the point that I may prefer any of those three to Brandon Phillips. I certainly do in the short-term.

J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).

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10 years ago

I’m in the same boat. I was lucky enough that Kendrick was available on waivers and currently have him in my 2B slot. I’ve been playing Phillips in the Util spot against extremely favorable matchups with some success. Is Phillips worth a bench spot to backup Kendrick in a 12 team league?