Brandon Phillips is reportedly on the trading block, with the Reds second baseman being mentioned as a possible replacement for the Yankees should free agent Robinson Cano cash in elsewhere. Phillips is coming off a 2013 campaign in which he drove in a career-high 103 runs, ranking second to Cano among all players at the keystone spot and trailing only Joe Morgan (111 RBI in 1976) on the single-season list for a Reds second baseman.
That's where the comparisons to Cano and Morgan stop, though. Batting behind on-base machines Shin-Shoo-Choo and Joey Votto, Phillips tallied all of those ribbies despite posting a park-and-league adjusted OPS that was eight percent below average (92 OPS+). In fact, Phillips OPS+ last year was his worst since his first season in Cincinnati (88 OPS+ in 2006) and by far the lowest ever for a second baseman driving in 100 runs (Jeff Kent's 1997 season is second, at a comparatively robust 105 OPS+).
Phillips, owed $50 million over the next four years, remains a slick fielder. But any club thinking about trading for him has to consider whether he can reverse a three-year decline at the plate that has seen his adjusted OPS dip from excellent (118 OPS+ in 2011) to average (99 OPS+) to subpar. To do that, the 32-year-old will have to start turning on fastballs once again.
Check out Phillips' slugging percentage against the heat over the past three seasons:
Phillips' slugging percentage vs. fastballs by pitch location, 2011
Phillips' slugging percentage vs. fastballs by pitch location, 2012
Phillips' slugging percentage vs. fastballs by pitch location, 2013
Phillips slugged .528 versus fastballs in 2011, topping the major league average by nearly 100 points. That figure dipped a bit in 2012 (.482) and then plummeted to .393 in 2013. You might think his power outage against the heat is the product of his hitting more ground balls, but Phillips actually hit more fly balls and line drives in 2013 than in the previous few seasons. It's just that the fastballs he lofted didn't travel as far: Phillips' fly balls and liners carried an average of 257 feet this past year, compared to 271 feet in 2011.
While Phillips might not be a terrible pick-up for club seeking airtight D at second base, he has Choo and Votto to thank for that RBI total more than his own offensive prowess. To truly make a difference at the plate, Phillips has to re-discover his power strike when pitchers bring the heat.