“I don’t believe that on-base percentage stuff. That’s overrated to me. If you get hits, you’ll be on base. That’s what it’s about.”
– Brandon Phillips, 3/1/2009 to John Fay of the Cincinnati Enquirer
In some respects, the above quote perfectly crystallized Brandon Phillips‘ early major league career. It may be hard to remember now, given that Cliff Lee has a Cy Young award on his mantle and Grady Sizemore has established himself as one of the most valuable center fielders in the game, but Phillips was the principal prospect acquired by the Indians in the June 2002 Bartolo Colon swap. The North Carolina prep product received his first extended look with Cleveland in 2002, at the age of 22. Walking just 3.6 percent of the time and whiffing 20.8%, Phillips struggled to keep his head above water while batting .208/.242/.311 in 393 plate appearances.
The Indians decided to take a step back with the club’s prized youngster, letting him spend the better part of the next two seasons at AAA Buffalo. Phillips wasn’t bad by any means, but he didn’t make much progress in terms of controlling the strike zone:
2004: .303/.358/.430, 8.4 BB%, 10.7 K%
2005: .256/.326/.409, 8.4 BB%, 19.4 K%
Since being shipped to Cincinnati in April of 2006 (Phillips was out of options, and the Indians were out of patience), Phillips has posted wOBA’s of .331 in ’06, .354 in 2007 and .324 in 2008. His walk rates over those three seasons were 6.1, 4.8 and 6.5, respectively. Phillips’ strikeout rates hovered right around 16 percent.
In 2009, Phillips is turning in his best season yet, with a .360 wOBA and a powerful .279/.350/.502 line in 264 PA. While Cincy’s second baseman might have shown disdain for On-Base Percentage this spring, you sure wouldn’t know it from examining his plate approach this season.
Phillips has upped his walk rate considerably this year, drawing a free pass 10.2% of the time. The soon-to-be 28 year-old chased about 34 percent of pitches thrown outside of the strike zone over the 2007-2008 seasons, well above the MLB average that hovers around 25 percent. This season, Phillips has ventured out of the zone only 27.5 percent of the time. After taking a hack at nearly 55 percent of pitches seen over the ’07 and ’08 seasons (the MLB average is about 45 percent), Phillips has cut that number down to 49.2% in 2009.
This newfound discipline is a great sign for Phillips, as opposing pitchers have increasingly given him fewer pitches within the zone:
Phillips’ percentage of pitches seen within the strike zone:
(the MLB avg. in 2009 is 49.1 percent)
As Phillips garnered a reputation as a free-swinger, pitchers became increasingly hesitant to toss him a pitch in the zone. And why not take that approach? If the guy is likely to lunge at a fastball off the plate or a curve in the dirt, then why take the risk of giving him a meatball?
Phillips’ enlightened plate approach has also helped him in the contact department. His strikeout rate is down to a career-low 10.9%, which ranks as the 20th-lowest mark among qualified hitters. The 6-0, 195 pounder boasts a career-best .223 ISO, fourth among qualified second basemen.
Couple Phillips’ power and slick leather with less cuts taken at pitcher’s pitches, and you have one of the most valuable up-the-middle players in the majors: with 2.3 Wins Above Replacement, Phillips trails only part-time 2B Ben Zobrist, Chase Utley and Ian Kinsler among those who man the keystone position. Phillips might not believe in all this…OBP stuff. But, he has really honed his strike zone control in 2009, making him a truly dangerous hitter.