In defense of OBP hater Brandon Phillips

"If you don’t get on base, then you suck. That’s basically what they’re saying." So said Brandon Phillips to USA Today Sports on Tuesday, in a vehement defense of the way that he plays baseball. And to be sure, there are plenty of people who have said this (more or less). I cut my sabermetric teeth on Gary Huckabay and Joe Sheehan proclaiming that "OBP is life. Life is OBP." But there are plenty of ways to skin a cat, and not focusing on on-base percentage has worked out just fine for Phillips. In fact, it’s worked out better for him than most players in baseball history.

In the FanGraphs glossary entry for on-base percentage, the rule of thumb for an average OBP is listed as .320. With a .319 career OBP, Phillips is basically right at that average mark. And that is a touch unfair to him. During his time in Cleveland, before he put it all together, he logged a paltry .246 OBP in 462 plate appearances. In his time in Cincy, his OBP has been .325, just a shade over average. He has had an OBP above league average in three of his nine seasons in Cincy. Last season, when he posted a paltry .306 OBP — his worst in his nine years in Cincy — it was still better than the average National League second baseman. Of the 11 NL second basemen who compiled at least 400 PA last season, Emilio Bonifacio, Kolten Wong, Aaron Hill and Jedd Gyorko all posted worse OBP’s than did Phillips. In other words, while Phillips isn’t the OBP messiah, he’s far from a pariah.

In fact, among his average or worse OBP peer group, Phillips is a top-20 player all time:

Most Valuable Players by WAR, .319 Career OBP or less
Player PA OBP WAR
Matt Williams 7,595 0.317 44.8
Willie Davis 9,822 0.311 43.5
Lance Parrish 7,797 0.313 43.4
Devon White 8,080 0.319 41.8
Alfonso Soriano 8,395 0.319 39.7
Hal Chase 7,939 0.319 39.1
Gary Gaetti 9,817 0.308 39.0
Tim Wallach 8,908 0.316 37.6
Lee May 8,219 0.313 35.7
Bert Campaneris 9,625 0.311 32.5
Frank White 8,468 0.293 31.0
Bob Boone 8,148 0.315 30.4
Benito Santiago 7,516 0.307 28.7
Ezra Sutton 5,536 0.316 28.2
Terry Pendleton 7,637 0.316 28.2
John Ward 8,084 0.314 28.1
Rick Dempsey 5,407 0.319 27.8
Brandon Phillips 6,154 0.319 27.1
J.J. Hardy 5,166 0.312 26.7
Marquis Grissom 8,959 0.318 26.4

Pretty decent list of players in that table. There is an MVP, a Rookie of the Year, and plenty of All-Stars, Gold Glovers and Silver Sluggers represented here (even a Manager of the Year Award winner, though that isn’t really material to the point). There are players on this list who have garnered Hall of Fame votes. Pretty decent list indeed. It shows that you can have a pretty great major-league career without being willing or able to realize an above-average OBP.

There are a few other things that stick out when we examine it. The first thing one notices is that Phillips is on the low end in terms of plate appearances. Only three of the 20 — Ezra Sutton, Rick Dempsey and J.J. Hardy — have fewer, and Hardy is still active. But above Phillips, there’s a pretty big gap — from 6,154 for Phillips immediately up to 7,516 for Benito Santiago. A full 11 of the 20 here have more than 8,000 PA — roughly three to four seasons more than Phillips. And yet if Phillips realizes his 2015 projection of 2 WAR, he’ll move up another five spots, and might crack the top 10 on this list by the time his current contract is up at the end of the 2017 season.

Scanning the list, we find that most of these players aren’t second basemen. Just three — Alfonso Soriano, Frank White and John Ward — logged significant time at second base. And Ward, who played before 1900 and was primarily a shortstop in addition to being a pitcher, hardly counts as a contemporary. Soriano really isn’t either. The Dominican slugger finished his career with more than 2,400 innings played in the outfield than at second base. That basically leaves White as the only real contemporary for Phillips on this list, positionally. And Phillips’ OBP bests White’s by 26 points.

Going back to Phillips’ time frame, he’s been one of the best second basemen in the game since coming of age with Cincy. Since he arrived in the Queen City in 2006, he’s been the sixth-best second baseman in the game, and second-best in the NL. Unfortunately for him, the five players ahead of him on the list — Chase Utley, Robinson Cano, Dustin Pedroia, Ben Zobrist and Ian Kinsler — are either sabermetric darlings or just out and out loved by everyone. And all of them have a much higher OBP. Phillips makes his mark with the leather. Only Utley, Pedroia and Nick Punto have been more valuable defensively at the keystone in that span than has Phillips.

Brandon Phillips OBP Comparison, 2006-2014
Season Phillips OBP Avg NL OBP Avg NL 2B OBP
2006 0.324 0.334 0.333
2007 0.331 0.334 0.334
2008 0.312 0.331 0.334
2009 0.329 0.331 0.331
2010 0.332 0.324 0.332
2011 0.353 0.319 0.315
2012 0.321 0.318 0.320
2013 0.310 0.315 0.313
2014 0.306 0.312 0.304

If you filter your appreciation of baseball solely through the lens of OBP, you probably don’t like Brandon Phillips all that much. But there are a lot of different ways to be a successful baseball player, and Phillips’ formula of great defense (13th all-time for a second baseman) and home run pop (20th all-time for a second baseman) has been pretty successful. If he were to change and try to look to emphasize his walk rate, he probably wouldn’t be as successful (we’ve seen batters fail monstrously when they try to change their approach so deep into their career). And really, do we want him to change? If everyone played the game the same way, it would get boring fast. "I play the game the best way I know how," Phillips told USA Today Sports. Nothing wrong with that.