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Monday, May 20, 2013
Brandon Phillips: RBI machine!

By David Schoenfield

I don't know where this post is going, but wherever it leads, it's not meant to rip on Brandon Phillips, if it does wind up sounding negative. Reds fans jumped on me a few weeks ago when I called Phillips overrated, and that's fine: Fans should defend their players, especially the good ones, and Phillips is an excellent player and has been since 2007. Just because I called him overrated doesn't mean I don't like Phillips as a player: I do.

Anyway, right now Phillips is second in the National League to Troy Tulowitzki with 36 RBIs. He's having a great season, right? RBIs are king! He sort of said as much to Eric Karabell in this post:
"My job now is to get RBI, it's my No. 1 thing," said Phillips, who is getting so many of them that he's one off the NL lead, and remains on pace for 133 of them. "That's my goal, to get 100. When I hit fourth that's my job. I don't really worry about my batting average or my on-base percentage, it's just getting the guy in [to score]. Having that approach has been working so far. I'm a free swinger. I like hitting fourth. It's fun. Your job is to do one job."

With seven home runs, Phillips is on pace for a few more home runs than last year, but his batting line remains relatively unchanged from 2011 and 2012, when he drove in 82 and 77 runs -- years when he did spend a lot of time batting cleanup (55 starts in 2011, 73 last year), but not regularly like he's done this year. His triple-slash lines:

2011: .300/.353/.457
2012: .281/.321/.429
2013: .281/.323/.468

Now, one reason Phillips has driven in 37 runs is he has Shin-Soo Choo hitting leadoff and Joey Votto hitting third in front of him, and they are first (Votto) and third (Choo) in the majors in on-base percentage. The Reds have received poor production from the No. 2 spot in the lineup -- their collective .265 OBP is 28th in the majors -- but Phillips has still hit with the second-most runners on base of any player in the majors. Here are the top five, according to Baseball Prospectus:

Prince Fielder, Tigers: 150
Brandon Phillips, Reds: 149
Miguel Cabrera, Tigers: 148
Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox: 147
Justin Morneau, Twins: 146

To drive in a lot of runs you need runners on base. Now, Phillips has hit exceptionally well when runners are on and deserves credit there -- .318 with men on and .432 with runners in scoring position. His RBI total is still somewhat a reflection of how often Choo and Votto have been on base, however: His percentage of "others driven in" (percentage of runners on base driven in) is 20.1 percent; among players with 75 plate appearances that ranks 29th (Ryan Zimmerman is first at 26.8 percent).

What's interesting is that it appears Phillips changes his approach a bit with runners in scoring position. He's hit just one run home run in 58 plate appearances, as he seems to focus more on getting the ball in play and getting base hits. With the bases empty he's hit five home runs in 87 plate appearances, but is hitting just .244. Here, the stat lines:

RISP: .432/.474/.591, 7 BB, 8 SO
Empty: .244/.253/.465, 1 BB, 15 SO

He strikes out slightly less (14 percent versus 17 percent) but the walk rate is much better (one of those seven was intentional) with runners on. Phillips says he's a free swinger; well, that's kind of true. With the bases empty, his chase percentage on pitches outside the strike zone is 41 percent; but with RISP it's just 27 percent. Phillips has been better with RISP because he limits his free-swinging habits.

This could just be small sample size results going on here. In 2011-12, for example, his chase percentage with RISP was 34 percent and with the bases empty 37 percent. But if he does manage to maintain this approach, and keep his free-swinging ways to a minimum, he'll continue to drive in a lot of runs.

Now, if only Dusty Baker could find a decent No. 2 hitter imagine how many runs Phillips may knock in.