COMMENTARY| The lineup that the Cincinnati Reds were planning to use at the outset of this season had second baseman Brandon Phillips slotted in the two-hole, where his ability to make contact and advance runners would help the Reds feast on scoring opportunities for the meat of the order. That plan changed in a hurry after Reds' cleanup hitter Ryan Ludwick sustained a shoulder injury on opening day that still has him out of action.
For Phillips, the move back to cleanup was nothing new. He had excelled as the cleanup hitter in 2012 before Ludwick claimed the spot in the order last summer. In 73 games as the cleanup hitter in 2012, Phillips drove in 50 runs in 287 at-bats and hit at a .303 clip. This year, it's been more of the same success. Phillips has hit cleanup in all but two of his starts for the Reds and has driven in a total of 56 runs in his first 64 games, which is good enough to tie him for second-most RBIs in the National League with just one month left before the All-Star break. Phillips' RBI pace would have him producing 130 RBIs this year if he continues to excel like he has.
Here's what needs to happen for Phillips to power his way to an unforgettable year of run production:
A month before the All-Star game, Phillips is also tied for second in the NL for most RBIs (45) with runners in scoring position. His RISP average is a spectacular .423, which is a testament to Phillips' ability for clutch hitting (his overall batting average is much lower at .278). If Phillips is to continue his robust RBI pace, not only will he have to clutch hit but the rest of the order in front of him will have to continue to reach base as frequently as they have. Reds' three-hole hitter Joey Votto leads the league in on-base percentage and leadoff hitter Shin-Soo Choo is second in the league in OBP.
Phillips' knack this year for getting hits with two strikes is another testament to his clutch hitting. One month prior to the All-Star game, Phillips easily tops the list of full-time Major League starters in batting average with two strikes (.326). He is also the best in all of baseball one month prior to the All-Star game with 27 RBIs while batting with two strikes. This has not been the case over Phillips' career: he is a lifetime .214 hitter when hitting with two strikes. Phillips has never posted a two-strike batting average higher than .241 in any one season. To his credit, Phillips has improved his two-strike hitting this year with a contact-first approach when he has to protect the plate. So far, that approach has paid dividends, but Phillips will have to remain plate disciplined with two strikes and resist the urge to recklessly cut loose.
Factors beyond Phillips' ability to control would obviously impact his RBI production. The eventual return of Ludwick for the final month or so of the season may force Phillips to move out of the cleanup spot, but that will be unlikely if Phillips is continuing to produce then like he has thus far. If the Reds do pull the trigger and trade for a right-handed power hitting cleanup hitter prior to Ludwick's return, that too would derail Phillips from his current 130-RBI pace.
Also, Phillips' unparalleled defense puts him at risk. His range, willingness to lay out and blind-side positioning as the point man for double plays to the left side of the infield put him at risk for every game. He is as relentless of a fielder as he is a spectacular one, and that exposes him to injury.
Lastly, Phillips is a marked man at the plate. He has been the target of retaliations twice this year, and that has to be stopped. Reds' pitchers will have to be advised to make opponents think twice about plunking Phillips if teams continue to target him the rest of the year.
Capping a Special Year
Phillips has already enjoyed some milestones for his career this year that puts him in a class by himself. He has passed Hall of Famer Joe Morgan for most RBIs (618) and doubles (222) by a second baseman during their career with the Reds. His next home run will put Phillips ahead of Morgan with a total of 153. If Phillips can continue his run-producing ways, he'll also break Morgan's season record of 111 RBIs for a second baseman set during Morgan's second of his back-to-back NL MVP years in 1976.
Robb Hoff has worked as a freelance researcher for ESPN's production and news departments for the past five years. You can read his articles about the 2012 Reds season here.
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