July 19, 2007
Following a string of poor performances after promising low-minors work, Brandon Phillips was handed a chance to be the Reds' full-time second baseman in 2006. In a Cincinnati offense that often has troubles with scoring runs, Phillips has provided power and speed at a low cost. He's also one of the few successful acquisitions from the Wayne Krivsky era in Cincy--but that's a topic for another day. What slowed down Phillips' development, and why did he return to productive baseball upon his move to the Senior Circuit?
Brandon Emil Phillips was drafted by the Montreal Expos in the second round of the 1999 amateur draft out of Redan High School in Stone Mountain, Georgia. The Expos placed him in Rookie ball at age 18 for the rest of the 1999 season, and he hit .290/.348/.408 in 169 at-bats for the Gulf Coast Expos. His statistics were impressive for an 18-year-old, with a walk rate of 8.2 percent, plus 12 steals in 15 attempts. His first year of full-season ball did not go as well, as he only hit .242/.306/.378 at Single-A Cape Fear:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2000 Cape Fear(A) 125 .242/.306/.378 31% .136 25 7.1% 18.1%
His Isolated Power increased while his walk and strikeout rates were essentially static, but on the whole it was an ugly campaign offensively. You can blame Phillips' .282 BABIP for the low averages, since Single-A has much higher BABIP averages than the major leagues. Whatever caused the low BABIP was not present in 2001 at High-A Jupiter, where Phillips started to come into his own offensively.
Phillips comes from a family of athletes. His mother was a basketball star at Shaw University in North Carolina, where she met his father, a running back on the football team. Brandon's older brother Jamil played in the Rangers system and his sister Porsha is a nationally ranked junior sprinter. Brandon has been compared to a very young Barry Larkin. He is a high-ceiling middle infielder with a live, athletic body; an above-average shortstop with soft hands, solid range, plus arm strength and superior lateral movement. He's a line-drive hitter with plenty of bat speed and projects above-average power for his position. Phillips is an average runner with good baserunning skills. The Expos speak highly of his intelligence. For all his tools, Phillips still needs to refine his skills. His youth sometimes shows up in the field and he loses concentration.
Baseball Prospectus 2001 spoke up on Phillips' very raw game prior to the season:
A tools guy who generates power through great bat speed, Phillips spent most of the year hitting third in the lineup. That says a lot about the state of Expo prospectdom. Afield, he's got decent range, good hands, and a lot of work to do. Phillips gives me a Hubie Brooks vibe for reasons I don't understand. It must be the hitting third thing, because it isn't something I'd trust.
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2001 Jupiter(A+) 194 .284/.414/.428 33% .144 14 15.9% 18.8% 2001 Harrisburg(2A) 265 .298/.337/.449 33% .151 19 4.2% 14.8%
Phillips jumped his BABIP to .352 and .333 at the two respective levels, but he inched his ISO up at the same time his batting average increased. Throw in the bump in patience at Jupiter-quickly lost at Harrisburg, although he did continue to hit-and you have yourself a solid campaign from a 20-year-old who spent time at Double-A. Baseball Prospectus 2002 was excited about Phillips' potential:
This is the reason teams continue to draft raw athletes. If, like Phillips, they can translate their tools into skills, it makes for a potentially dominating player. When the organization challenged Phillips to walk more than he struck out, he made the intelligent choice--he decided to be more patient at the plate rather than cut down on his swing. Though he found Eastern League competition tougher, he followed up with a dynamite stint in the Arizona Fall League…
Baseball America was equally impressed, moving Phillips to the first slot in their organizational rankings. His second stint at Harrisburg made his first look poor in comparison, as he hit .327/.380/.506 while bringing his walk rate up a smidge, and further cutting his strikeouts down while posting an even more impressive ISO:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2002 Harrisburg(2A) 245 .327/.380/.506 30% .179 15 6.0% 12.4% 2002 Buffalo(3A) 223 .283/.321/.453 35% .170 14 5.7% 15.8%
Stan Kasten, if you're reading, you might want to turn off the monitor right about now. During the year, Phillips became the centerpiece of a five-player swap between the Expos and Indians. Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore, and Lee Stevens all headed to Cleveland, while Bartolo Colon and Tim Drew headed north of the border. This deal was made at the time when the Expos were supposedly going to fold in the near future, so GM Omar Minaya dealt away a future that Nationals fans probably wish was still intact.
Meanwhile, Phillips managed to keep his power intact despite hopping to Triple-A as a 21-year-old. His plate patience-although not as developed as you would like-was roughly the same, and thanks to his line-drive tendencies, his BABIP and batting average both remained in tasty spots.
Baseball Prospectus 2003 details Phillips' switch to second base for the Indians:
The Indians sent Phillips to the Arizona Fall League to keep working on becoming a second baseman because Omar [Vizquel]'s under contract for another two years. There's no reason to believe Phillips can't make the switch. It may even be for the best, since he's never been an outstanding defensive shortstop, although he has the arm for the position. However, because of his stick he's rightly regarded as one of the top infield prospects in baseball. If he doesn't stick at short, his value will go down a little, but the difference between a decent shortstop with a great stick and a good defensive second baseman with a good stick isn't that huge.
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2003 Buffalo(3A) 154 .175/.247/.279 37% .104 7 7.0% 12.8% 2003 Cleveland(MLB) 370 .208/.242/.311 32% .103 19 3.6% 20.8% 2004 Buffalo(3A) 551 .296/.353/.416 28% .120 38 7.1% 9.1% 2005 Buffalo(3A) 465 .256/.326/.409 34% .153 25 7.5% 17.4%
Phillips spent 112 games of the 2003 season with the big league club, but he did not show any of the star potential suggested by his minor league numbers. He hit just .208/.242/.311 to go along with the lowest walk rate and the highest strikeout rate of his career. His short stint in Buffalo did not go much better, as he hit only .175/.247/.279, although with improved control of the strike zone.
He spent all but 24 of his 2004 plate appearances in Buffalo, where he worked on recovering his top prospect status. He managed to hit .296/.353/.416, keeping his walk rate consistent with his 2003 minor league numbers. The most encouraging stat was his strikeout rate, but the .120 ISO just wasn't cutting it when compared to his earlier potential in the Expos system, or even his 2002 half-season at Buffalo.
Jhonny Peralta took over at shortstop when Omar Vizquel skipped town to join the San Francisco Giants. Since Peralta hit .296/.366/.520, and Ronnie Belliard surprised with another valuable season at second, Phillips never received the call to the majors after his initial demotion. Instead, he hit .256/.326/.409 in his least impressive full-season minor league season. His BABIP was about 20 points below where it should have been though, so allotting him the extra, and crediting him for .276/.346/.429 to get a sense of where he still was as a prospect isn't a bad idea.
Baseball Prospectus 2006 was pretty direct about what Phillips needed to accomplish in order to crack a major league roster:
Everything that was said about Peralta... could be said about Phillips, except the part about the extra consonants. Phillips has clearly improved his understanding of the strike zone from where it was two years ago, making far better contact and taking a few more walks. He's still going to have to do a disproportionate amount of hitting 'em where they ain't to make an impact.
With Peralta supposedly firmly entrenched at shortstop, the newly-acquired Andy Marte set to take over at third when Boone faltered, and Ronnie Belliard still the second baseman, Phillips had nowhere to go except Buffalo. His PECOTA projection was nothing close to inspiring, forecasting a .251/.306/.371 line along with a .247 EqA and league-average defense at short.
It was at this point that just coming into the 2006, Wayne Krivsky, the newly-minted GM of the Reds, made a move for Phillips to help shore up the infield. Phillips hit a torrid .349/.382/.587 in April that helped secure him the second base job for the season, but many forgot about this nifty early-season pickup once Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez were shipped out of town for Washington's spare bullpen parts.
Phillips has continued to shine in 2007, belting out 19 homers after 17 last year while stealing 42 bases at an 82 percent success rate during his time as Red:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2006 Cincinnati(MLB) 536 .276/.324/.427 31% .151 29 6.1% 16.4% 2007 Cincinnati(MLB) 378 .283/.328/.492 35% .209 18 4.8% 16.9%
Phillips doesn't walk much, but he doesn't strike out much either. He puts the ball in play often, and as a line-drive power hitter, that's a good thing. He doesn't get on base very often any way beyond hitting safely, but he is a high-percentage base stealer who is capable of 30 thefts over a full season. Let's not forget about his home run power, either; if he keeps it up in the second half, he may even become a 30/30 second baseman who also plays above-average defense.
Year P/PA FB% LINEDR% GB% IF/F% HR/F% BABIP eBABIP Diff. 2005* N/A 36.7% 18.6% 44.7% 12.7% 11.2% .289 .306 +.017 2006 3.7 34.7% 19.2% 46.1% 5.8% 11.0% .304 .312 +.008 2007 3.5 34.8% 16.9% 48.2% 9.2% 17.4% .298 .289 -.009 * 2005 batted-ball data from Minor League Splits)
Somewhere along the line, Phillips changed from an extreme line-drive hitter to more of a flyball guy. His liner numbers are below the league average all of the past three seasons, but his groundball rates are high, and he makes the most of his flyballs, as you can see in his HR/F%. Cutting down on his pop-ups has also made him more effective. He's not a patient hitter who waits on his pitch, but is instead an aggressive one who attacks the first pitch he can tattoo.
If Phillips puts the ball in the air, you might as well just prepare for the next guy at the plate. He's hitting .667 on balls to left, .389 on balls to right, and .471 with 11 homers to center, as this hit chart from First Inning shows:
Phillips finds most of his success pulling the ball, although increasing the rate at which he puts the ball in the air would make him a more effective hitter. He's not much of an infield hit generator-Phillips' steals come more from being an effective and intelligent baserunner than from blazing speed-so hitting 36 percent of your balls in play to shortstop isn't going to work all that well. You would like to see him bump his line drive rate back towards 18-19 percent without decreasing his flyball output-that's where the homers come from, after all-as it would also negate the eBABIP deduction from the chart above.
Exactly why Phillips scuffled in Cleveland's organization so badly is still somewhat of a mystery. His poor performance at the major league level more than likely contributed to the uninspiring follow-up campaigns, and he had his share of bad luck and weak BABIP figures for a hitter with his skill set. Changing his approach and becoming more of a flyball-oriented, power-hitting second baseman gave him new life and a major league career.
Phillips was known for his raw tools and high ceiling, as well as his intelligence as a young ballplayer. He now finds himself heading into his peak years after adjusting for the problems in his game with some of the better numbers you will find at second base in either league. Expecting him to do more of the same-maybe with a little less homer power-would make sense, as Phillips always had the potential to become a star in the majors. Maybe he doesn't get on base that often, something we stress as important here at Baseball Prospectus, but he does everything else somewhere between 'very well' and 'simply great.'