Anatomy of Brandon Phillips, RBI Machine

As Jeff Sullivan just pointed out, Shin-Soo Choo leads the majors in on base percentage, thanks to his willingness to endure pain for his team’s gain. #2 in the majors in OBP is teammate Joey Votto, Cincinnati’s star first baseman. The Reds acquired Choo to boost the top of their batting order, and in the first three weeks of the season, he has teamed with Votto to create havoc. Even with Zack Cozart and his .243 OBP in the #2 spot, the Reds lead the Majors in runs scored because of the sheer quantity of opportunities those two have created for their teammates.

And yet, because of how Major League Baseball has historically been covered and the numbers that are often used to tell the stories of the game, Brandon Phillips is the guy putting up numbers at an historic pace, as his 21 RBIs in 18 games put him on a trajectory to make a run at Hack Wilson‘s all time RBI record. And now, his own manager is propagating the myth of who is really responsible for the Reds early success.

“On-base percentage is good. But RBIs are better,” (Dusty) Baker said.

You’re reading FanGraphs, so you’re probably predisposed to dislike that quote. Just for fun, though, let’s go through the numbers.

Brandon Phillips has 21 RBIs, second in the majors to only John Buck. Phillips is having an excellent start to the season, hitting .307/.357/.533, good for a .376 wOBA. Nine of his 23 hits have gone for extra bases, and nearly all of his production has come in run producing situations. Here’s Phillips situational splits for the season:

Bases Empty 3% 18% 0.212 0.235 0.455 0.690 0.242 0.200 0.295 82
Men on Base 12% 18% 0.381 0.440 0.595 1.035 0.214 0.424 0.432 175
Men In Scoring 16% 13% 0.458 0.516 0.667 1.183 0.208 0.476 0.482 209

Phillips has been a monster with men on base, and even better when they’re in scoring position, so it’s not incorrect to note that Phillips has been a great run producer this season. The data supports the notion that Phillips — through the tiny sample of three weeks — has been great in “clutch” situations.

But, not surprisingly, Phillips also leads the Major Leagues in inherited baserunners. According to Baseball Reference, he has been given 78 baserunners this year, so he’s averaged more than one runner on base for every plate appearance. Once you adjust for the number of opportunities given, Phillips’ pace of driving in runners stops looking so special.

B-R calculates percentage of runners scored relative to total baserunners inherited, which is different from RBI/RBI opportunity because it counts all plate appearances and gives a hitter credit for driving in a run when he might not get an RBI, such as when he hits into a double play or reaches on an error. The Major League average is 14%, so essentially an average “run producer” would drive in one of every seven runners he inherited. Brandon Phillips is currently at 23%, so he’s driving in nearly one of four runners he inherits. That’s good. Brandon Phillips has been very good at clearing the bases this year.

But, you know, 23% isn’t exactly special. John Buck has driven in 33.3% of the runners he’s inherited, the MLB leader for players with at least 50 plate appearances. Matt Holliday is second at 31.4%, and Marlon Byrd is third at 31.0%. At 23.1%, Brandon Phillips is currently tied with Nelson Cruz for 30th in run production efficiency. Among the players driving in a greater percentage of their baserunners than Phillips are proven sluggers like Chris Denorfia, Starling Marte, and Franklin Gutierrez.

Now, again, 23% is very good, well above the league average, because Phillips has been very good with men on base. But there’s no denying the simple fact that Brandon Phillips is second in the league in RBIs because Shin-Soo Choo and Joey Votto have been on base so often. The glorification of the RBI, at the expense of the run scored, has simply shifted credit from Choo and Votto to Phillips, when without them, he wouldn’t have had anyone to drive in to begin with.

To get back to Baker’s quote specifically, RBIs are essentially a function of on base percentage. It’s like saying cake is better than flour, butter, and sugar, or a building’s penthouse is better than it’s foundation. The latter is only made possible by the former. RBIs follow on base percentage. It is hard to act superior to something you rely on for your existence.

Kudos to Brandon Phillips for his excellent start to the season. Kudos to Brandon Phillips for hitting better in more important situations, and helping his team lead the league in runs scored. He’s been terrific. There is nothing wrong with lauding Phillips for his 2013 performance.

But let’s not pretend that Phillips is not standing on the shoulders of giants. Brandon Phillips, RBI Machine only exists because of how good Shin-Soo Choo and Joey Votto have been at getting on base.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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