At the end of April, Brandon Phillips appeared to be the steal of all steals for the Atlanta Braves. The veteran second baseman closed his first month with the club with a .355/.388/.500 slash line that included two home runs and five doubles, and Phillips was a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy set-up for Atlanta.
Since then, however, Phillips has fallen back to Earth and it has created several questions. He bounced back on May 16 to the tune of a 2-for-5 day but, including that performance, Phillips boasts an unsightly .140/.178/.186 slash line in the month. That, of course, represents a wildly small sample (much like April’s collection of plate appearances was) but it does serve as a reminder that Phillips shouldn’t be expected to light it up at the plate.
The soon-to-be 36-year-old infielder has not posted a wRC+ above 100 since 2012 and, in the four years from 2013 through 2016, Phillips owns a .712 OPS accompanied by a shrinking walk rate and uninspiring on-base production. For much of that time, he was able to sustain playability based on top-flight defense but, beginning in 2016, cracks began to surface for a player that is clearly in the twilight of his career.
Both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference evaluated Phillips as a negative defensive player in 2016 and that appears to be anything but a statistical hiccup thus far in 2017. He looks fantastic at times and there is certainly evidence of the high-end glove that previously existed. With that said, Phillips posted a -7 DRS in 2016 and already sits with -2 DRS and negative advanced metrics to this point.
Again, it must be noted that every sample remains small at this point and that is the nature of doing analysis prior to Memorial Day, even for a full-time player. The combination, though, does provide a window into what expectations should be for Phillips moving forward.
By nature of his scalding hot start, parts of “Braves Country” seemingly bought into something of a renaissance in Phillips’ homecoming. Now, though, Phillips sports a .277/.312/.387 slash line (85 wRC+) with below-average defense in mid-May and that overflowing optimism has vanished. In terms of more “advanced” numbers at the dish, Phillips displays a slightly below-average exit velocity (85.05 MPH), a declining line drive rate (19 percent) and increasing groundball rate (51 percent) that also don’t paint the most glowing picture.
Is he a disastrous player at this stage? Absolutely not. The possibility that his current swoon (with Tuesday as the exception) continues does exist but there will likely be positive periods as well in the way that April displayed. The defense, however, formally provided a higher baseline for Phillips and that no longer appears to be the case.
The Braves made a (very) minimal investment in Brandon Phillips when acquiring him from the Cincinnati Reds and that was certainly a defensible move. What that small cost does bring, though, is the flexibility to pull the plug on Phillips when necessary and, if he approximates the type of production we’ve seen on the whole from the first six weeks, that could happen when and if Ozzie Albies is ready to go later in the summer. For now, it is too early to make sweeping judgments about a veteran player that has been through it all but the red-hot bat and buzz about a throwback showing over a full season might be gone.