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Tuesday, April 10, 2012
Reds go all in with Brandon Phillips deal

By David Schoenfield

Brandon Phillips' contract for six years, $72.5 million creates an obvious and interesting comparison to fellow second baseman Ian Kinsler, who earlier in the day agreed to a five-year, $75 million deal with a sixth option year that would make the deal worth $80 million. Phillips' deal begins this season and runs through 2017. Kinsler's deal begins in 2013 and would run through 2018 if the option is exercised. Phillips is a year older, so that means the contracts cover the age range 30 through 35.

Both players became regulars in 2006. (Phillips had some time earlier with Cleveland that we'll ignore.) Their seasonal averages since then:

Kinsler: 129 games, .275/.355/.469, 21 HR, 23 SB, 4.1 WAR
Phillips: 151 games, .280/.331/.449, 21 HR, 22 SB, 1.8 WAR

They appear to be similar players, second basemen who put up good all-around numbers in good hitters' parks, pop some home runs, steal some bases, have good defensive reputations ... until you get to the final number, which is Baseball-Reference's wins above replacement figure. Suddenly Kinsler appears to be a far more valuable player despite Phillips' durability edge.

Is Kinsler really that much better than Phillips? Let's see how the two break down between offense and defense:

Kinsler: 21.7 oWAR, 3.2 dWAR, 527 runs created, 2338 outs, 6.0 runs per 27 outs
Phillips: 13.6 oWAR, -2.9 dWAR, 542 runs created, 3158 outs, 4.6 runs per 27 outs

First, the offense. Why the edge for Kinsler? Although both have averaged around .275 with 20 home runs per season, note that Kinsler does have a 24-point edge in on-base percentage and a 20-point edge in slugging percentage. I included each player's career runs created totals. Kinsler has created only 15 fewer runs while using up 820 fewer outs. The difference between a .355 OBP and .331 OBP is 14 times on base over 600 plate appearances, which is a little thing, but the little things start adding up. Kinsler has grounded into 75 double plays since 2006 versus 108 for Phillips. Kinsler has 23 caught stealings versus 50 for Phillips. Kinsler is one of the best baserunners in baseball, with 32 runs above average since 2006 versus 14 for Philips. (Baseball-Reference rates Kinsler and Michael Bourn as the best baserunners in that span.)

The defensive evaluations are a little more controversial. Phillips is a three-time Gold Glover, known for his acrobatic plays, yet he rates as below replacement-level on defense? Other systems don't agree with that assessment. We prefer to use defensive runs saved here at Totals since 2006:

Kinsler: 43 runs above average
Phillips: 21 runs above average

So Phillips fares much better here, while Kinsler rates as outstanding. FanGraphs uses yet a third defensive system in determining its version of WAR. UZR grades Phillips as plus-51.7 and Kinsler as plus-5.1 (although he rates at plus-30.3 over the past three seasons). Because of this, FanGraphs evaluates the two players fairly similarly: Kinsler at 24.6 WAR, Phillips at 23.9 WAR. Certainly, the Reds' analysis puts Phillips on equal footing with Kinsler, although even by FanGraphs' WAR, Kinsler has a 15.8-to-13.7 advantage over the past three seasons.

The unknowns in all this: How will they age? Is a .350 OBP hitter likely to age better than a .330 OBP guy? Phillips is coming off his best season, with a .300 average and .353 OBP, fueled by a .322 average on balls in play that was 30 points above his .292 mark from 2006 to 2010. Phillips' line-drive percentage was higher last year, so it's possible it was a real skill improvement, although you don't usually see that at age 29.

The problem is if Phillips regresses to a .310 OBP guy at the end of the contract and presumably loses a step on defense, his value becomes minimal. I like Kinsler a little better as a player, and unlike the Rangers, the Reds are a small-market franchise that can't afford to absorb a big contract without big contributions, especially considering the money Joey Votto will be making. As John from Cincinnati said in my chat today, "Reds season ticket holder here: Unless the people disguised as empty seats change, I see big problems for the Reds."

I don't think it's a terrible deal for the Reds. Phillips is a good player who's durable and a fan favorite with a big personality, although as John points out, it's not like Reds fans have been packing the ballpark to watch him play. It does create an impetus to win now, before the Votto and Phillips deals potentially become a financial albatross. Hey, if they win now or next year, they can worry about 2016 in 2016.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.