JAWS and the 2024 Hall of Fame Ballot: Brandon Phillips

JAWS and the 2024 Hall of Fame Ballot: Brandon Phillips


Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2024 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. For a tentative schedule, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

2024 BBWAA Candidate: Brandon Phillips

Player
Pos
Career WAR
Peak WAR
JAWS
H
HR
SB
AVG/OBP/SLG
OPS+

Brandon Phillips
2B
28.4
24.8
26.6
2,029
211
209
.275/.320/.420
95

SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Though he carried himself with a decidedly modern swagger, Brandon Phillips styled himself as a throwback, so much so that he wound up at the center of a battle over old school/new school thinking within baseball’s culture war, pitted against teammate Joey Votto. If the flashy, free-swinging Phillips wasn’t everybody’s idea of the ideal second baseman of the post-Moneyball era, his combination of power and above-average baserunning and defense made him a valuable and entertaining player. In a 17-year major league career that took a while to get off the ground, Phillips won four Gold Gloves, made three All-Star teams and — along with Votto and Hall of Famer Scott Rolen — helped the Reds to three playoff appearances in a four-season span.

Brandon Emil Phillips was born on June 28, 1981 in Raleigh, North Carolina, into a very competitive family. His parents, James and Lue Phillips, were both athletes at Shaw University, a Raleigh-based historically Black university. James played football and baseball before going on to work as a sales representative for the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, while his mother played basketball. Jamil Phillips (b. 1975), the oldest of James and Lue’s four children, played collegiate baseball at Johnson County (Kansas) Community College and Southern University before being drafted by the Rangers as an outfielder in the 34th round in 1993. P.J. Phillips (b. 1986) was a second-round pick by the Angels out of Redan High School in 2005 and spent five seasons in the Angels’ organization, one in the Reds’ organization, and four in independent leagues before becoming an indy-league manager. Porsha Phillips (b. 1988) played basketball at Louisiana State and the University of Georgia before spending the 2011 season with the WNBA’s San Antonio Stars.

The Phillips children were raised in Stone Mountain, Georgia. Growing up, Brandon rooted for the Braves, served as a batboy during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, and starred in baseball, football, and basketball at Redan High School. He signed a letter of intent to pursue the diamond/gridiron combo at the University of Georgia, but when the Expos picked him in the second round of the 1999 draft, he chose to sign for a $607,00 bonus. He began his professional career with the team’s Gulf Coast League affiliate that summer, playing shortstop and hitting .290/.358/.408 with one homer and 12 steals in 47 games. Moving up to A-level Cape Fear in 2000, he hit a modest .242/.306/.378 with 11 homers and 23 steals; Baseball America called him, “A superior athlete who makes dazzling plays… the most dynamic infield prospect in the league by a wide margin.” The publication noted his pop and his being named the circuit’s best defensive shortstop in a midseason poll of managers, but also expressed concern about his propensity to strike out (97 times, an 18.1% rate).

Phillips split his 2001 season between High-A Jupiter and Double-A Harrisburg, hitting a combined .292/.372/.440 with 11 homer and 30 steals. He drew raves from Baseball America for his improved strike zone judgment, arm strength, and drive to improve, and cracked the publication’s Top 100 Prospects list at no. 20 the following spring. He had just moved up from Harrisburg to Triple-A Ottawa when on June 27, 2002, he was traded to Cleveland in the Bartolo Colon blockbuster, along with lefty Cliff Lee, outfielder Grady Sizemore, and first baseman Lee Stevens. He finished his minor league season at Triple-A Buffalo, hitting a combined .302/.348/.479 with 18 homers and 14 steals at his three stops. He played 11 games at second base in Buffalo in deference to Omar Vizquel’s presence at shortstop.

Cleveland called up the 21-year-old Phillips once the minor league season ended. On September 13, he made his major league debut, entering a game against the Twins in the sixth inning to replace Vizquel, with second baseman John McDonald moving to shortstop. He struck out against Tony Fiore in his lone plate appearance that night. Three days later, in his third game, he collected his first hit, a single off the Red Sox’s Frank Castillo. In all, he batted .258/.343/.419 in 36 plate appearances.

Moving up to no. 7 on BA’s Top 100 for 2003, Phillips drew comparisons to a trio of future Hall of Famers:

“Phillips is a premier athlete who projects as an all-star at either middle-infield position. As a shortstop, Phillips has drawn comparisons to a young Barry Larkin or Derek Jeter. Hitting out of a Jeff Bagwell-style crouch, Phillips has the bat speed and athletic skill to be a top-of-the-order hitter… Phillips also has a charisma that stamps him as a special player. His confidence and flair sometimes annoy opponents. But he enjoys playing the game and doesn’t hide it.”

He opened the 2003 season as Cleveland’s second baseman, but while he connected for his first major league homer off the White Sox’s Jon Garland on April 9, he struggled mightily. He was sent back to Buffalo at the All-Star break, didn’t return until late August, and finished the season batting an abysmal .208/.242/.311 (48 OPS+) with six homers in 393 PA. “He went from can’t miss to did, and nobody knows if the spatula has yet been made that can scrape him up from last season’s epic tumble from the heights of prospectdom,” wrote Baseball Prospectus in its 2004 annual. “His failures were worsened by Phillips’s reputation as a showboat; there’s a thin line between being charismatic and being a nuisance.” Ouch.

Phillips spent nearly all of the 2004 and ’05 seasons in Buffalo, playing mainly shortstop while Ronnie Belliard earned All-Star honors as Cleveland’s second baseman alongside Vizquel. Phillips played just 12 major league games in those two seasons, during which he went just 4-for-31. His second stint was in July 2005, as Cleveland showcased him as a potential trade candidate, but nobody was willing to meet general manager Mark Shapiro’s high asking price. Out of options in the spring of 2006, he was traded to the Reds for a player to be named later (righty reliever Jeff Stevens, a 2005 draftee) on April 7. The Reds already had Rich Aurilia, Ryan Freel, and Tony Womack vying for time at second base, but to GM Wayne Krivsky, the 25-year-old Phillips was too big a talent to pass up. “My scouting instincts kicked in a little bit… we didn’t have this kind of athletic guy,” Krivsky told MLB.com’s Mark Sheldon in 2020. “[Phillips] was more defensive-oriented at the time, and they weren’t sure how much he was going to hit. But he had Gold Glove potential at second base.”

In Cincinnati, Phillips got to play every day. His .276/.324/.427 line equated to just an 88 OPS+, and with -8 DRS, he finished with just 0.5 WAR, but his 17 homers and 25 steals in 27 attempts hinted at the level of excitement he could provide. In 2007, he broke out, not only hitting .288/.331/.485 (105 OPS+) but becoming just the second second baseman to reach 30 homers and 30 steals in the same season (he had 32 of the latter) after Alfonso Soriano, who had done it three times. He finished with 4.0 WAR, tops among the team’s position players. That same year, his father opened the Phillips Baseball Center in Pine Lake, Georgia.

Just before the 2008 season began, Phillips signed a four-year, $27 million extension. That year, Dusty Baker took over as the manager, inheriting a 72-90 team. The Reds didn’t do much better in either 2008 (74-88) or ’09 (78-84), and Phillips backslid a bit from his breakout, with 21 homers, 23 steals, a 94 OPS+ and 3.0 WAR in the former year and 20 homers, 25 steals, a 103 OPS+ and 2.8 WAR in the latter. He did win his first Gold Glove in 2008, though his 13 DRS and 12.2 UZR both trailed Chase Utley (30 DRS, 18.3 UZR). His season ended on September 10 when in the 11th inning of a game against the Brewers, he fractured his right index finger while attempting to bunt, just before driving in what would prove to be the winning run.

Bolstered by an MVP-winning season from Votto, a full season from 2009 deadline acquisition Rolen, and the emergence of starters Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake, the Reds jumped to 91-71 and won the NL Central. Phillips parlayed strong defense (10 DRS) and solid offense (18 HR 16 SB, 102 OPS+) into 3.9 WAR as well as his first All-Star campaign and his second Gold Glove, though again his metrics were a beat or two behind Utley’s. In the Division Series against the Phillies, Phillips went 4-for-12, with three of his hits (a single, double and homer) coming off Roy Oswalt, but the Reds were swept.

Though he totaled just 18 homers and 14 steals, the 30-year-old Phillips had the best offensive season of his career in 2011, hitting .300/.353/.457 for a 118 OPS+. All but the slugging percentage would endure as career highs, as would his 4.9 WAR. He made his second All-Star team and won his third Gold Glove, this time with metrics as good or better than Utley’s. The Reds, however, sank to 79-83.

The Reds picked up Phillips’ $12 million option for 2012, then in April reworked it into the first year of a six-year, $72.5 million extension with some of the money deferred. With the rotation’s front five — Cueto, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, Bronson Arroyo, and Leake — accounting for all but one of the team’s starts, the Reds rebounded to 97-75 with another NL Central title in 2012. Phillips turned in a 4.0 WAR season despite slipping to .281/.321/.429 (99 OPS+) and missing out on both the All-Star team and the Gold Glove. In the Division Series opener against the Giants, he drove in three of the Reds’ five runs via a two-run homer off Matt Cain and a ninth-inning single off Santiago Casilla, and he collected two doubles and drove in one run in the team’s 9-0 rout in Game 2. But while he collected hits in each of the next three games while driving in three of the Reds’ eight runs, they dropped all three and were eliminated.

Phillips won his final Gold Glove and was elected to start the All-Star Game for the only time in his career in 2013. He hit .261/.310/.396 (94 OPS+) with 18 homers (his fourth straight season with exactly that many) and a career-high 103 RBI. In doing so, he became the rare post-1960 expansion era player to finish with a sub-100 OPS+ while driving in 100 runs and was just the fourth within that timeframe to drive in 100 runs while slugging below .400; only one player has done it since:

Lowest Slugging Percentage in 100-RBI Season Since 1961

Player
Team
Season
AVG
OBP
SLG
OPS+
RBI

Joe Carter
SDP
1990
.232
.290
.391
85
115

Ruben Sierra
OAK
1993
.233
.288
.390
86
101

Joe Carter
TOR
1997
.234
.284
.399
77
102

Brandon Phillips
CIN
2013
.261
.310
.396
94
103

Albert Pujols
LAA
2017
.241
.286
.386
80
101

SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Regularly batting cleanup, Phillips’s total was helped immensely by leadoff hitter Shin-Soo Choo walking 112 times and posting a .423 OPB, and third hitter Votto walking a league-high 135 times with a .435 OBP; to his credit, Phillips did hit a career-best .338/.404/.469 (133 wRC+) with runners in scoring position. That Votto was so selective but was so much less prolific in driving in runs than Phillips opened the first baseman up for criticism in some quarters, and not for the last time. As for Phillips, with his defense descending to about average, he finished with 1.7 WAR, his lowest total since his first season as a Red. Even so, he helped the Reds win 90 games and claim a Wild Card berth, but he went 0-for-4 as the team lost the NL Wild Card Game to the Pirates.

Phillips spent three more seasons in Cincinnati, with generally diminishing returns, hitting a combined .285/.319/.396 (94 OPS+) while averaging 10 homers, 13 steals, -7 DRS, and 1.1 WAR. After avoiding the injured list from 2009–13, he missed 39 days in ’14 due to surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left thumb, suffered while diving for a ball. As his production waned, the contrasts between his approach and that of Votto (who was on his way to a 143-walk, 174 OPS+ season) resurfaced in a reactionary 2015 USA Today piece by Bob Nightengale:

“I don’t do that MLB Network on-base percentage (stuff),” Phillips told USA TODAY Sports. “I think that’s messing up baseball. I think people now are just worried about getting paid and worrying about on-base percentage instead of just winning the game.

“That’s the new thing now. I feel like all of these stats and all of these geeks upstairs, they’re messing up baseball, they’re just changing the game. It’s all about on-base percentage. If you don’t get on base, then you suck. That’s basically what they’re saying. People don’t care about RBI or scoring runs, it’s all about getting on base.”

All that was missing from Phillips’ extended rant was a GIF of Abe Simpson yelling at a cloud.

After the 2015 season — at 2.2 WAR and a 97 OPS+, the best of those three — the Reds and Nationals agreed on a trade that would reunite Phillips with Baker in Washington. Phillips used the leverage of his 10-and-5 rights to request an extension beyond the two years and $27 million remaining on his contract, but the Nationals wouldn’t bite, so he blocked the trade. With Phillips coming off a much less productive 2016 (94 OPS+, -15 DRS, 0.1 WAR) and the Reds pushing into rebuilding mode, the team attempted to deal him to Atlanta — where Phillips owned a home — in November of that year. Again he used his 10-and-5 rights to block a deal, but in February, he relented and accepted a trade to the rebuilding Braves, who felt greater urgency after free agent acquisition Sean Rodríguez was injured in a car crash. The Reds sent $13 million of Phillips’ $14 million remaining salary to Atlanta while the Braves parted with pitching prospects Andrew McKirahan and Carlos Portuondo and (as a player to be named later) infielder Kevin Franklin. The Braves facilitated the trade by agreeing to honor Phillips’ 12-team limited no-trade clause that had been superseded by his 10-and-5 rights, and by adding a $500,000 assignment bonus if he was traded again.

Phillips hit a solid .291/.329/.423 (96 OPS) with 1.0 WAR for the Braves, who coincidentally had signed Colon as a free agent. Phillips reached a couple of key milestones while suiting up for Atlanta. On April 11 against the Marlins, he stole the 200th base of his career, and on May 22 against the Pirates, he hit his 200th career homer, a solo shot off Gerrit Cole.

At the start of August, Phillips moved to third base, a position he’d never played in the majors, when the team recalled 20-year-old prospect Ozzie Albies to play second. In a waiver deal at the end of the month, Phillips was traded to the Angels in exchange for catcher Tony Sanchez. He hit for just a 74 OPS+ in September while the Angels, who had been just one game out of a Wild Card spot when he was acquired, went just 11-17 the rest of the way and missed the playoffs.

A free agent for the first time after the 2017 season, the 36-year-old Phillips did not find a deal to his liking in time for the season to start, but on June 27, 2018, he signed with the Red Sox. He played 44 games for the team’s minor league affiliates and hit well, but didn’t get recalled until September 5. He homered off the Braves’ A.J. Minter in his first game back, and while he went just 3-for-23 in nine games, he did get a World Series ring for his trouble.

That was Phillips’ last major league stint, but he kept the candle burning. He played four games for the Vallejo Admirals of the independent Pacific Association, managed by younger brother P.J. Phillips, then signed with the Diablos Rojos del Mexico of the Mexican League, for whom he played 36 games. During the 2020 season, he played eight games for the Baseball Brilliance of the Yinzer Baseball Confederacy, one of the pop-up independent leagues that proliferated when the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the minor league season, then joined the Lexington Legends for their Battle of the Bourbon Trail exhibition series. That winter, the 40-year-old Phillips became a co-owner of the Legends as they joined the Atlantic League, and in 2021 he made history as “the first ever Atlantic League player to be on the roster for a team that he co-owns.” He played 54 games for the Legends in 2021 and another 40 in ’22.

The press release touting Phillips’ player/owner role also referred to him as a “future MLB Hall of Famer,” but he won’t be going to Cooperstown in that capacity; at this writing he has yet to receive a single vote from among the 160 published in the Ballot Tracker. He has left his mark on the game, however, as one of nine players to record 2,000 hits, 200 homers, and 200 steals:

Middle Infielders with 2,000 Hits,200 Homers, and 200 Steals

Player
Yrs
H
HR
SB
OPS+
WAR

Joe Morgan*
1963–1984
2517
268
689
132
100.4

Robin Yount*
1974–1993
3142
251
271
115
77.4

Derek Jeter*
1995–2014
3465
260
358
115
71.3

Ryne Sandberg*
1981–1997
2386
282
344
114
67.9

Roberto Alomar*
1988–2004
2724
210
474
116
67.0

Craig Biggio*
1988–2007
3060
291
414
112
65.4

Jose Altuve+
2011–2023
2047
209
293
129
49.3

Jimmy Rollins
2000–2016
2455
231
470
95
47.6

Brandon Phillips
2002–2018
2029
211
209
95
28.4

SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

* = Hall of Famer. + = active player.

Six of those players are in the Hall of Fame, and a seventh, Rollins, is on the ballot. Even as the low man of the bunch in terms of OPS+ and WAR, Phillips is in impressive company, testifying to the skills and flair that he brought to the game.



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