Brandon Phillips has a complex
Those of you who work with one of those ultra-incompetent people who somehow find themselves consistently employed in a period of high unemployment have probably had an experience similar to the one I'm about to relate. It is the mark of a highly incompetent person that, when a problem is pointed out to him in civil fashion, he will respond with invective. That is, you say, "Gee, this project hasn't been handled right. We should fix it," and the other guy says, "Oh, yeah? Well, you're an a-hole."
The intention is clear: deflect a question which the incompetent person has no idea how to handle. It's not just that he views the criticism of his work as a personal attack, but that as a cornered rat would rather fight you than admit he mishandled something and has no idea how to make it right.
That's Brandon Phillips, Reds second baseman. Last night, he got personal with Cincinnati Enquirer reporter C. Trent Rosecrans, apparently because Rosecrans had the temerity to question Phillips' on-base percentage. Phillips had been bumped up to the second spot after spending most of the season batting cleanup, and pointing out that he isn't exactly the Walking Man at the plate was a fair thing to do. It's not an insult, it's just a fact. Phillips responded by calling Rosecrans a "fat [obscene epithet involving one's mother]" and calling out to manager Dusty Baker that he should, "Have me bat eighth with my on-base percentage." He also seemed to threaten some kind of retaliation on Twitter, an action which is rapidly replacing violence as the proverbial last refuge of the incompetent.
Phillips does a lot of things well, but getting on base isn't one of them. Perhaps his sensitivity in this regard can be traced back to the beginnings of his career. Traded from the Expos to the Indians in Omar Minaya's infamous Bartolo Colon deal (the Indians also netted Grady Sizemore and Cliff Lee), Phillips bombed in his first major-league trial and was flat-out given up on by Cleveland. It took three years and a trade for him to emerge as a quality regular with the Reds. He got close enough to seeing his dream (and the dollars that go with it) slip away that it's understandable he would be defensive when some points out what he can't do. Still, the exchange can be boiled down to:
Reporter: You have a low on-base percentage.
Player: You are overweight.
Reporter: Perhaps your low on-base percentage should disqualify you from a place high in the batting order.
Player: You have sex with your parents. You are overweight and you have sex with your parents, which, you know, is worse than being skinny and having sex with your parents.
Reporter: I have no idea how we got here.
Player: I will call you names on Twitter and so will my many sycophantic followers, all of whom despise fat people who have sex with their parents.
Oedipus at Colonus, by Jean-Antoine-Théodore Giroust. (Wikimedia Commons)
Someone in this picture has wandered off topic. Now, let's not get sidetracked into Phillips' lack of couth. People lose their cool sometimes and say things that (you would hope) they regret later. The real issue isn't even that Phillips shouldn't be batting second, because this is Dusty Baker and the Reds we're talking about -- he had Zack Cozart and his .280 OBP up there for most of the season. Given that, putting Phillips there is progress. What really matters here is that because Phillips has protested too much, he's underscored his weaknesses rather than obliterating them. Although he's going to get some MVP mentions at the end of the year, he's having a bad year, and impatience -- not to mention a general lack of hitting with the bases empty -- is a big part of that.
As I wrote in a column looking at the NL MVP race a couple of weeks back, ballplayers have two jobs on offense: starting trouble and finishing it. Phillips has excelled in the latter department, hitting .318/.369/.460 with runners on base and .355/.411/.504 with runners in scoring position. Thanks to Shin-Soo Choo and Joey Votto, Phillips has had the most plate appearances with runners on base in the National League and has seen more baserunners than any player except Prince Fielder, so this has worked out very nicely for the Reds. However, nearly half (46 percent for you sticklers) of Phillips' plate appearances have come with the bases empty, and he has been miserable in such situations, hitting .207/.242/.344. When leading off an inning (which he's done 119 times) he's hit .216/.235/.388. That's significant: this season, a teams that have begun an inning with a man on first and no outs have averaged .83 runs, whereas starting an inning with one out and nobody on the average drops to .25. In other words, getting a baserunner on to start an inning makes scoring as near to a certainty as you can get in baseball, while failing to do so has the opposite effect.
Phillips' runners on/bases empty dichotomy has ruined his overall numbers. Although he's going to cruise past 100 RBIs, he's having his worst offensive season since 2006. He's 32, and we may one day look back at 2013 and say that this was the year that Phillips confirmed he was suffering from Second Base Syndrome, the tendency of second basemen to suffer a sharp decline in their early 30s.
Ducks, you know, on the pond (Wikimedia Commons)
That's for the future. For now, Phillips' attack at Rosecrans (related to the Ohio Civil War General Rosecrans?) has brought up a number of questions that he probably would have preferred to avoid. Namely, "Do you think you have had a good year overall?" "Do you disagree that your on-base percentage, particularly with the bases empty, is low for a top-of-the-order hitter?" "Do you think of reaching base is part of your job?" "What the heck happens to your approach that it's so good when you have ducks on the pond, but what happens to you when the ducks aren't there?" "You know those ducks in that lagoon right near Central Park South? That little lake? By any chance, do you happen to know where they go, the ducks, when its gets all frozen over? Do you happen to know, by any chance?" "What is your problem with the sexual practices of the overweight? Don't they deserve love like anybody else without having their moms dragged into things? In what way does name-calling answer criticisms of your performance this year?"
Chances are we'll never get the answer to any of these questions, with the possible exception of the one about the ducks in Central Park (sharpen your pencils, high school lit students). The only thing that we know for sure is that (a) the Reds batting order still isn't optimized; (b) beat writers have one of the hardest job in sports -- long hours and you have to be a diplomat; and (c) Phillips would rather attack someone than deal with legitimate criticisms of his work, which is weak. His season has been a mixed bag at best, and all the name-calling in the world won't change that.
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