I can’t say I was expecting much of an exciting game when I tuned into yesterdays game in Washington. The Nationals were sending Stephen Strasburg to the mound to face a Reds lineup minus both Jay Bruce and Joey Votto, batting Skip Schumaker in the two hole, and playing Brayan Pena at first base. Cincinnati meanwhile, had their hopes pinned to the perennially underrated Mike Leake, who would be looking to shut down a Washington lineup without Bryce Harper, Adam LaRoche, and Ryan Zimmerman. A high run total was not to be expected then, though a nice pitcher’s duel was in play.
Alas! Though they both pitched plenty well enough, combining for 13.2 innings and just 3 runs allowed, neither Strasburg nor Leake really had their best stuff working – Strasburg for example, only had 4 strikeouts against a team which employs both Billy Hamilton and Zack Cozart.
Still, on a night during which there were only four other games being played (bad job by the folks at MLB, especially considering there wasn’t a single day game), the game turned out more than alright as a spectacle for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it went 15 innings (though unfortunately, no position player pitched – shout out to Drew Butera!). Secondly, minus one embarrassing drop by Jayson Werth, some of the defensive plays made were spectacular.
From the very first pitch of the evening, the standard was set; echoing Tyler Moore‘s play to rob Eric Young Jr. the night before, Wilson Ramos laid out, catcher’s equipment and all, to snag a pop-up bunt off the bat of Billy Hamilton.
Cincinnati would be up by two by the time the next highlight defensive stop occurred, a diving stop made by who else but Brandon Phillips. Now I’ve got on Phillips’ attitude before as an angry Reds fan, and his production at the dish has certainly dropped off the last couple of years despite his huge 2013 RBI(zzzzzz) total indicating otherwise, but boy can he still play the deuce effectively. He makes robbing Danny Espinosa‘s hard-hit groundball look easy. Of course (after the Nats had got on the board), in the very next frame – the top of the eighth – Espinosa would get some measure of revenge, making arguably an even better play at the keystone to deny Todd Frazier, and keep Washington’s deficit at one.
Neither highlight however, would ultimately be the crowning fielding moment of the night. Because first, in the bottom of the twelfth with runners on first and third and two outs, Phillips would top his earlier effort with an incredible pounce on a Wilson Ramos liner behind the bag at second, preserving the game for the Reds.
Poor Anthony Rendon must have thought he’d won it with a runner on third ready to stroll home. Hamilton however, quickly put an end to those dreams, ending the inning in the process.
Frazier would finally provide the breakthrough in the fifteenth, blasting a two-run homer over the right field wall off Ross Detwiler, and after Washington only managed one in response in the bottom of the inning, after nearly five hours (4.58 if you’re picky), the game was concluded – the Reds eking it out 4-3.
Having gone to the gym and back in the meanwhile, by then I didn’t care much about the result. I’d gone into the game not expecting much after all, just hoping that the Reds could pull it out, inch back closer to .500, and make up some ground in the NL Central. What I got then, was a pleasant surprise. With the big-names out, and the pitching merely above-average, I’d been treated to a thriller.
All because of some defense.
Seeing as I didn’t exactly do my team full justice in my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series – which finally concluded yesterday with a parting glance at Jose Reyes’ and Toronto’s injury woes – I figured today I would spend some further time scrutinizing a player close to my heart. Or at least, he was. Then again, he could yet climb back in. Brandon Phillips is a contentious subject for Cincinnati fans heading into 2014.
Since arriving in the Queen City in 2006, the dynamic play and happy-go-lucky personality of Brandon Phillips had secured the second baseman a long leash with Reds fans. Combining consistently Gold Glove worthy defense with above average offensive production, DatDudeBP was a perennial All-Star with a smile, more loved than even the Cincinnati’s best player, Joey Votto. So when his offensive output dropped off significantly in 2013 (If anyone brings up RBIs as a measure of production – GTFO), we ignored the five year trend of decline and found excuses for him. When his behavior followed suit however, well that ticked off more than just the fans.
Questionably inked to a six-year, $72.5 million contract in 2011 as a 30 year old coming off a career year (.300/.353/.457, 122 wRC+, 5.6 WAR), Phillips last year publicly called out the man responsible for prioritizing his signing, Reds CEO Bob Castellini. Despite his leveraging of Cincinnati management and overlooking of the fact that second basemen don’t tend to age gracefully, Castellini had apparently done Phillips wrong by signing other key teammates to (larger) contracts too. In a July interview with the Cincinnati Magazine, the unhappy player sounded off regarding the man who signs his checks:
“To this day, I’m still hurt. Well, I don’t wanna say hurt. I’ll say scarred. I’m still scarred. It just sucks that it happened. For him to do something like that and tell me they didn’t have any more money, that’s a lie.
All of a sudden, $72.5 million was, according to Phillips, “a slap in my face.” Not long after too, cameras caught Phillips berating beat reporter C. Trent Rosecrans over a tweet which rubbed him the wrong way; simply stating Phillips’ less than stellar career offensive statistics when hitting in the No. 2 hole earning the Cincinnati Enquirer writer the distasteful threat “I’m tired of you talking that negative sh*t on our team, dog. I found out your Twitter name now motherf***er. It’s a wrap.” Top athletes get away with such behavior routinely though; it’s when they stop producing that we have an issue with it. And unfortunately for Phillips in 2013, he fell off the wagon on the field too.
After three consecutive seasons of above-average offense, the increasingly unpopular Phillips hit just .261/.310/.396 (91 wRC+) in 2013, his OPS ranking seventh among second basemen on the Senior Circuit. As Fangraphs’ Eno Sarris noted too, it marked another year of decline:
Here’s the list of statistics in which Phillips showed a five-year worsts in 2013: Batting average, home runs, runs, stolen bases, strikeout rate, swinging strikeout rate, slugging percentage, isolated slugging percentage, batting average on balls in play, batted ball distance on homers and flies, ultimate base running, and four-component speed score.
That’s a heck of a lot of offensive categories. Yes, he had a career high 103 RBIs (…urgh, I’m disgusted to even acknowledge so), as most competent major leaguers could hitting behind the NL’s two best on-base men; hitting savant Joey Votto was on base 101 times when Phillips came to the plate, whereas the recently departed Shin-Soo Choo was there 56 times himself. His 69 weighted runs created , and .257 true average spoke more volume of his struggles however, which in combination with the disappearance of his running game, public missteps, and remaining $50 million owed in salary over the next four seasons, landed Phillips on the trading block this winter.
The Braves were reportedly in on the now-32 year old, but insisted on Dan Uggla’s albatross contract being a part of any return package. The Reds blanched. The Dodgers made overtures before landing Cuban infielder Alexander Guerrero. The Kansas City Royals had interest before signing Omar Infante. Talks progressed beyond mere rumor with the Yankees about a Brett Gardner/Phillips swap, only for New York to nix a potential deal (they have of course since signed Gardner to a 4 year $52 million extension). With trade scenarios cropping up every other it seems then, that barring a sudden rejuvenation, Phillips will be playing elsewhere as soon as Cincinnati can find a taker for his contract.
It will be interesting to see if the former favorite can rebound in 2014 however, whether it be with the Reds or elsewhere. Though his strikeout and contact rates both went in the wrong direction last season, his decline was far greater than expected. At least some of his down year can be pinned on a more than ordinary HBP which occurred in Pittsburgh on June 1st; prior to Tony Watson hitting his left forearm in the eight inning of a game against the rival Pirates – Brandon later acknowledging “He got me good… I thought it was broke for sure.” – Phillips was hitting .291/.340/.476. The keystoner played through the pain however, avoiding the DL and surely in no coincidence, posted his lowest isolated power mark since 2006 (.135). Whether his being nicked up last year can really be viewed as the sole reason for his below-par performance rather than a sign of attrition, will certainly play a part in deciding Phillips’ future with the Reds organization. But as he recently stated in an interview with Jon Danneman of FOX19 – breaking his offseason media silence in the process – “If they feel like they can do better without me than good luck with that”.