The "Brandon Phillips is great, because RBI" chorus reached its shrill crescendo last year, when the Reds' second baseman drove in 103 runs despite having a .261/.310/.396 slash line. There were people who said that Phillips, and not Votto, was the Reds MVP. There were smart people debating the same topic on MLB.com, as if there was actually a debate to be had. Harold Reynolds said this with a straight face on MLB Network. It wasn't our best collective moment in the evolution of baseball analysis, but it did provide us with a question for our 2014 Burning Question series. Thanks to his RBI, Phillips was the No. 79 overall player and No. 6 second baseman. Is there any chance he can come close to those heights this year?
At this point, we should all understand the very simple truism that RBI derive largely from opportunity, not from possessing supposed run-producing abilities, and Phillips enjoyed plenty of opportunity last year. He had 160 at-bats with runners in scoring position, the 12th-most in baseball. To his credit, he did quite well in those situations, hitting .338/.404/.469 with four homers. In Phillips' 666 plate appearances there were 492 runners on base, the third-most in the league. Only Prince Fielder and teammate Jay Bruce, who also drove in six more runs than Phillips, had more. Thanks to all those chances, as well as his production, he had the sixth-most RBI in the league while hitting with runners in scoring position.
Phillips racked up so many at-bats with RISP thanks in large part to Shin-Soo Choo and Joey Votto. The duo had the two best OBPs in the National League, and two of the four best in the entire majors. Phillips came to the plate 101 times with Votto on base and 56 times with Choo on the pond. He drove in the pair a combined 48 times, accounting for nearly half of his RBI total. Needless to say, things will be different this year.
With Choo and his .423 OBP decamped for Texas, Billy Hamilton will assume his role atop the Reds' lineup. For all his game-breaking speed, Hamilton has yet to prove he can be a consistent on-base threat. In 547 plate appearances with Triple-A Louisville last year, Hamilton hit just .256 with a .308 OBP. As it stands, new manager Bryan Price is expected to hit Votto second and Phillips third. While Price will likely be tempted to push each down a slot in the order, that would force him to put another OBP black hole like Zach Cozart in the 2-hole. Price, we assume, is not Dusty Baker. He probably won't be okay with two sub-standard on-base guys at the top of his order, an outcome that would result in Votto coming to the plate with the bases empty far too often. While that may also be the case if he hits second behind Hamilton, at least the Reds would get the benefit of their best hitter getting extra plate appearances over the course of the season.
Phillips will still get the benefit of hitting behind Joey Votto, but losing Choo will take a huge chunk out of his RBI chances. Remember, Choo hit three spots in front of Phillips last year. That means he was often on third when Phillips came to the plate. Indeed, Phillips was sixth in the majors with nine sacrifice flies, and tied for first with 16 RBI groundouts. Those opportunities just won't be there this season.
Since hitting 30 homers in 2007, Phillips' home-run totals in the last six seasons have been 21, 20, 18, 18, 18 and 18. He swiped a career-high 32 bases in 2007. That was all the way down to five last year. That makes him a player with average-at-best rates, 16-18 home runs and somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 RBI. Still, he's ranked 95th in the consensus rankings on FantasyPros. Do you really want to use an eighth-round pick on a player with that profile?
MORE BURNING QUESTIONS:
• Part I: Can Starlin Castro bounce back in 2014?
• Part II: Is Masahiro Tanaka a worthwhile risk for owners?
• Part III: Should Doug Fister be considered a top pitcher?
• Part IV: Is Eric Hosmer a top-10 first baseman?
• Part V: How will Chris Davis follow up his successful 2013?
• Part VI: Will Brandon Phillips rack up 100+ RBI again?
• Part VII: What can owners expect from Josh Donaldson?
• Part VIII: Is Hanley Ramirez worth the risk of injury?
• Part IX: Can Josh Hamilton rediscover his power stroke?
• Part X: How should owners value Javier Baez, George Springer?