Fans, Tony LaRussa left Phillips in a place he’s left many batters this season –unexpectedly out.
In recent years, there have been few certainties in Cincinnati. Seasons of low expectations transform into seasons of promise. Years of high expectations turn into years of shattered dreams. The team has been both close and distant in the chase. The roster has been reworked. Votto’s bat often stands alone.
But when a ball hits the ground anywhere near second base, one thing is for certain to the fans of Redleg nation. There’s a good chance that Brandon Phillips is about to do something amazing.
On Sunday afternoon, when the National League roster was announced, fans of baseball were robbed of the chance to see Phillips’ defensive mastery in the midsummer classic. While much ink was spilled on the snub of Reds’ ace and teammate Johnny Cueto, few voices spoke up to defend a case for Brandon Phillips. The fans vote had placed Dan Uggla in the starting role. The Astros’ lone representative Jose Altuve took the reserve. And when Tony LaRussa named the players that would take the final slots and be included in the final fan vote-off, Phillips’ name was nowhere to be seen. It was a feeling he’d given many hitters over the years. He was out.
And he shouldn’t have been.
Before any grudges by Tony LaRussa stripped Phillips of the opportunity to play in MLB’s greatest show, his demise came at the hands of the fan and player voting. As often happens, he succumbed to the sad tradition of voters ignoring aspects of the game that don’t show up on the offensive stat sheet. It’s the same reason a player like Miguel Cabrera beats out Adrian Beltre. Offensive production is easily measured, easily compared. The rest requires a closer look. Who has time for that?
Offensively, the decision seems justified. Among NL second baseman, Phillips doesn’t fall within the top two in any of the major offensive categories. He’s fourth in batting average (at .285), third in runs (at 42), and third in home-runs (at 10). Uggla or Altuve, or both, stand above him in each of the categories.
But the value of Brandon Phillips doesn’t end in the batter’s box. There is a reason that, even statistically, Uggla and Altuve aren’t seen as more valuable to their teams than Phillips. In fact, the three second baseman, interestingly, have an identical WAR (Wins above Replacement) of 2.2 for this season.
Uggla and Altuve are the better offensive players. But Phillips is the better second baseman. There’s a reason he has three gold gloves shining on his shelf, and it’s continuing this season. You can see it in the stats that don’t always make the newspaper box scores. He ranks third in fielding percentage among NL second baseman at .994. Uggla and Altuve rank ninth and tenth respectively. Phillips’ defensive WAR is 1.2 (fourth among all National Leaguers), while Uggla’s is merely 0.8 and Altuve’s is a ghastly -0.5. Phillips has committed only two errors this season; Dan Uggla and Jose Altuve each have eight. And lastly, Brandon Phillips has been credited with nine defensive-runs saved this season –a stat that determines how many runs his defense has solely held at bay over the semi-season. Uggla’s defense has only saved 5. Altuve once again finds himself in the negative, costing his team seven runs.
The stardom of Phillips and his glove is largely immeasurable. It seems that countless innings, rallies, and runs have been ended by his diving body or an ingenious flip to the oncoming shortstop. Those are the types of plays that make a difference, that energize the base –that change a ballgame. And that’s what Brandon Phillips is all about, on both sides of the plate. There’s a reason he’s currently in the top five of the National League for go-ahead RBIs. When it matters, Brandon Phillips delivers. Perhaps his raw offensive numbers don’t match Uggla and Altuve, but his overall contribution and his value has to at worst be equal, and at best is probably more significant.
But the voters have spoken. The first mistake was theirs. It’s hard to draw ire at fans for selecting Dan Uggla as the starter, though. Atlanta is one of the most popular teams in the country, and as shown above, he isn’t a senseless choice for the All-Star team. His offense over the past two seasons has been a rare source of firepower for the Braves’ roster.
LaRussa’s decision, on the other hand, shouldn’t be so easily excused. The choice of Altuve as a reserve, and the subsequent dismissal of Phillips from even being a part of the fan-vote seemed less like a baseball decision, and more like a personal vendetta. While Altuve has been a bright spot for the Astros, does his offense so outweigh Phillips’ that the defensive discrepancy is rendered moot? How is there a place for Altuve, but not a place for Phillips? LaRussa should know more than anyone how valuable Phillips is on defense and to his team. After all, they’ve faced of a few times.
Many voices will point to the fact that Altuve got in because he was the only logical choice to represent the Houston Astros –a team that can think the Cubs for taking up the cellar of the NL Central. But that’s not necessarily true. Astros’ shortstop Jed Lowrie, an offseason pickup, may actually be the most valuable Astro of the year. His WAR is marginally higher (at 2.3), and he rates much higher defensively. He also leads all National League shortstops in home-runs, and is third among them in on-base percentage. If the excuse is that Altuve was the only legitimate Astros choice, then Houston, we have a problem. That isn’t true.
But let’s say that Altuve deserves to make the team, because deep down, I truly believe that. I think this team was big enough for three second-baseman, especially once the fans didn’t vote Phillips or Altuve to the starting position. LaRussa’s most puzzling decision in his omission of Phillips wasn’t in choosing Altuve –it was in the Cincinnati Red that he did choose.
To offer full disclosure, I’m a Reds fan –a huge one. I’m happy that Jay Bruce made the team, and a little biased in believing that Cueto and Phillips were snubbed. So let’s be fair. There’s no rhyme or reason to LaRussa naming Bruce as a reserve while simultaneously leaving Phillips off the list entirely. The more deserving All-Star, by far, is the one that will be staying at home over the summer break.
Bruce joins a bench that includes five reserve outfielders, a number that could easily grow to six if Bryce Harper or Michael Bourn win the fan vote. It’s an unnecessary amount of substitutes, so Bruce can’t be described as a pick of need. And his overall baseball value just doesn’t measure up to Phillips. His power numbers are solid, yes, but beyond that, he’s failed to be one of the best outfielders this year at the plate. Among National League right-fielders, he’s tenth in batting average, seventh in runs, and eleventh in on-base percentage. Compare that to Phillips’ among his own peers, and you’ll see the discrepancy. The discrepancy in their value also plainly displays itself in their WAR. Bruce is at 1.3. Phillips’ WAR is, as mentioned, 2.2.
Bruce plays a great right field, and he’s obviously one of Cincinnati’s rising stars on this team of promise. But one has to question why LaRussa would select him to the All-Star team and leave Brandon Phillips in the dust. One can’t help but wonder if a bat-tap on Yadier Molina’s shin still rings in the ears of Tony LaRussa.
In the end, there’s no pleasing everyone. No matter how many roster spots we open up in the All-Star game, the hours after selection Sunday will be spent deciding who was snubbed. That’s how baseball operates. There’s an obsession with injustice, from bad calls to pine tar to steroids and so on.
But Brandon Phillips is more than a good player who deserves praise and honorable mention as we head toward the midsummer classic. Brandon Phillips is an All-Star. And this choice by Tony LaRussa, until better explained, is simply egregious.
In a world where the All-Star game counts for something, every decision counts for something. Perhaps Altuve deserved his spot on the team. Perhaps Phillips more truly has fallen victim to fan-voting and a plethora of second-baseman than a LaRussa vendetta. But this slight feels like a mistake. And it feels personal.
For teams in the hunt that hope to still be playing in late October, this game now matters. And when it matters most, Phillips delivers. Perhaps it is an exercise in futility to gripe over which players get to take the trip to Kansas City. Perhaps my Cincinnati bias is fueling my research. Perhaps Brandon Phillips will be happy to have a few days away from the diamond.
But perhaps this decision will come back to haunt Tony LaRussa. If it’s late in the game, all is on the line, and one of the many American League sluggers hits a screamer toward second base, where will trust be placed? Will a hit filter through or a go-ahead run scored?
Perhaps an American Leaguer will stand safe, and everyone with National League on their jersey will be thinking, too bad Brandon Phillips is out.