AnalysisNL Central

The Brandon Phillips Retrospective Machine

The Brandon Phillips Retrospective Machine is about to take you back to a time where Y2K shelters were common, low-cut jeans were all the rage, Britney Spears was on top of the world, and I was 7 years away from being born. That’s right, 1999. More importantly than all that, however, was that there was a kid in Stone Mountain, Georgia that caught the attention of Jim Beattie, then-GM of the Montreal Expos, a team that I’m sure will exist as long as baseball is around. In any event, Phillips was drafted in the 2nd round of the 1999 draft, a strange choice considering the world was going to end in 6 months time. Phillips was okay in the low minors, posting OPS numbers around .750 and stealing a few bases, but nothing earth shattering. 

By 2002, the Expos had a new GM, Omar Minaya, and he decided that he wanted Portly Provocative Bartolo Colon on his team. As such, he traded Phillips, along with a couple of guys who I’m sure won’t be impactful big leaguers in Grady Sizemore and Cliff Lee, to Cleveland to get him. In the four years following this trade, Phillips was the definition of a Quadruple-A player with Cleveland, as he would routinely get promoted, perform poorly, and then casually steal 50 bases in Triple-A. Needless to say, Cleveland had trouble figuring out what to do with him, so they shipped him off to the only city where chili is a personality trait – Cincinnati – in exchange for a player to be named later. Brandon Phillips at this point may have just been happy to hold down a roster spot, but little did anyone know, he would become something special with the Reds.

By now, the year was 2006. Borat had become a personality trait, Shakira was affirming the truthfulness of hips, low-cut jeans were inexplicably still a thing, and I was officially doing that whole living thing. Brandon Phillips also started to do his thing in 2006, as he became the Reds’ starting second baseman in a relentlessly mediocre 80-82 Cincinnati season. In this 2006 season, Phillips, much like his team, below average with an 88 OPS+ and 0.5 rWAR, which is only around as good as Harry Niles in 1909, not exactly who you want to be compared to. In 2007, the Reds got worse, but Phillips got way better, as his OPS+ went up to 105 and he even had a 30/30 season, and with the advent of Joey Votto and top prospect Jay Bruce, the Reds looked to have a bright future with Phillips as a key component. In 2008 and 2009, Phillips was still league-average at the plate, but his outstanding defense kept him as a valuable asset to a burgeoning young Reds core, even winning a gold glove in 2008. Needless to say, Brandon Phillips’s first four seasons in Cincinnati were successful, and at 30 years old, he was only getting started.

On August 10, 2010 at Great American Ballpark, the Reds and Cardinals were separated in the standings by just one game, and met for an evening contest. The Cardinals would win this game 8-4, but that’s not why this game matters. No, this game matters because of what transpired in the first inning: a benches-clearing brawl. Phillips had gone on record the previous day saying he disliked the Cardinals, and the second he stepped up to bat, Yadier Molina had some choice words for him. The result was a brawl that marked the peak of Phillips’s relevancy outside the Queen City, and the event that made me a wholehearted fan of Brandon Phillips. The rest of 2010 was solid for Phillips; he was once again a league-average hitter with great defense. However, this brawl was the legacy of his 2010, a brawl that made Phillips a Reds icon.

Phillips would follow up this brawl with his best season in 2011 where, in addition to gold glove caliber defense, he also had a 118 OPS+ with an all-star bid and silver slugger award to boot. For his efforts, Phillips received a six-year, $72 million extension that locked him up until his age 36 season in 2017 . In 2012, the Reds, backed by a spectacular young core, exploded onto the scene with a 97-65 record, among the best in all of baseball. As far as Phillips was concerned however, he wasn’t quite as good in 2012, and he regressed to league average offense. Despite this, another spectacular defensive season once again made him a worthwhile player, even placing 13th in that year’s MVP voting. Things were once again looking up for Phillips and the Reds going into 2013, though Cincinnati’s greatness of the early 2010s would not go out with a bang, but with a whimper, and their record steadily declined as the decade progressed. Like his team, Brandon Phillips’s career in Cincinnati wouldn’t go out with a bang, but a whimper. In 2012 he was a 4 rWAR player, but by the time he was with the 68-win, 2016 Reds, he had regressed all the way down to a measly 0.1 rWAR. However, it is worth noting that this decline wasn’t on offense. His defense, which had once been his best asset, had now become a liability, as his UZR, which had exceeded 15 in his early Reds career, had gone down to -1.3. At this point, the Reds were essentially forced to trade their former star, and he was shipped to the Braves that offseason for two players who wouldn’t make an appearance for the Reds.

Phillips’s 2017 was an improvement, as he split time between the Braves and Angels and was able to improve his defense to the point where he was worth 1.0 rWAR – not exactly great, but a better way to end a career than his 2016 season. It was now late 2017, Logan Paul still had a little bit of respect, Despacito had become the most overplayed song since Thrift Shop, and I was officially a middle school degenerate. At this point, you might expect Phillips to retire. After all, his deal was over and he was on the decline with nothing left to prove to anyone. Phillips didn’t retire, and much like the early days of his career in Cleveland, he kept trying to get a roster spot despite long odds, his age, and his declining ability. In June 2018, Phillips got a minor-league deal with Boston, and impressed enough in Pawtucket to get a September callup. However, much like his time in Cleveland, he couldn’t impress in his big-league playing time, posting an OPS+ of 42 in just 9 games. 

This stint in Boston got Phillips something though: a World Series ring. After 17 years, this provided closure to one of the faces of early 2010s Cincinnati baseball. Phillips hasn’t played in MLB or even the minors since, bouncing around in Independent Leagues and even the Mexican League. He still hasn’t retired from the game of baseball, and said in 2020 that he wanted to retire as a Cincinnati Red, but he hasn’t gotten that opportunity and, until he does, Brandon Phillips might just keep playing baseball no matter how small the stage is. 

Sam Hicks-Jirkans

I'm a writer focusing mainly on the Cincinnati Reds and any player or set of players I find interesting. You can find me on Twitter at @sam_hicksj

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