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March 12, 2014

Pebble Hunting

The Complicated Decline of Brandon Phillips

by Sam Miller

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Brandon Phillips is declining. Around 13 years ago, his lung capacity began decreasing, and in another couple decades it will be half what it was when he was 20. He's losing neurons in his brain—up to 10,000 per day. Around the age of 30, his major organs began to lose function, and his muscles began to lose mass. His maximum attainable heart rate is dropping by a beat per year, and his capacity to pump blood is shrinking, too. The first symptoms of mild-moderate cognitive impairment often start around this time, slowing his brain's processing speed and affecting memory and attention.

Also, his slugging and on-base percentages last year were each career-lows (for a full season). He dipped from 3.8 wins in 2012 to 1.6 last year. And so, here’s Brandon Phillips, declining, and now declining to speak to the media who have pointed out his decline. “How the [expletive] am I declining?” he asked. At first blush, this is a pretty good example of what Joe Sheehan identified about baseball players in 2008:

The skills required to be one of the very best baseball players in the world have very little to do with the skills required to evaluate the performance and the value of baseball players.... Baseball players are not selected for their ability to understand the game at a macro level, but their ability to play it on a micro level.

So when Phillips appears to badly misunderstand the trajectory of his career, it’s easy to mock him, especially because he’s come off as so unlikeable lately. But he doesn’t deserve to be mocked. Two relevant issues here:

1. Decline is more complicated than a line from last year to this.
Here’s a graph showing the growth of the U.S. economy over the past century:

If you draw a line from 1900 to 1925 to 1950 to 1975 to today, it’s essentially a straight line. So, in 1931, when there’s a huge dip, was the economy growing? In a sense, obviously not. But in another sense, it was; the fundamentals of population growth, resource development, education, the industrial machine, etc., still supported the growth that was to come, and when the country came out of the Great Depression it didn’t just pick up the same pace of growth; it actually found the same line it had been on before 1929. It might not have grown that specific year, or the years after it, but the economy was clearly not, in a big-picture sort of view, shrinking, or declining, or dying.

So “decline” is a little bit of a semantic tangle. When a projection system sees a player do this:

Year 1: Five units of measurement

Year 2: Four units of measurement

Year 3: Three units of measurement

it doesn’t conclude that he’ll produce two units of measurement in year four. Rather, it thinks he’ll produce something like, oh, 3.7 units of measurement. If he does produce 3.7 units in year four, is he… declining? He has declined, from his peak. But is he declining? Can you be declining when you go from three units to 3.7?

So here’s Phillips’ case: He had a down year. Players have down years all the time, even at 32, and many of those down years are fluctuation, not decline. Or they are decline, but in the same way that a 32-year-old can have a career year and still be in decline in the bigger picture. In Joe Morgan’s final three years as a Red, at ages 33 to 35, he produced 5.2, 1.6, and 1.5 WARP. Clearly declining. Then he produced 3.0 WARP the next year in Houston, and 4.2 WARP at age 38 in San Francisco, and 3.3 WARP at age 39 in Philadelphia.

Now, Morgan was declining. He was declining at 34, and at 38. It just wasn’t a clean decline where you could point from one year to the next and say “all downhill from there.” When you see a decline, don’t automatically think slope.

Further, Phillips’ own decline from 2012 to 2013 wasn’t necessarily a decline. His slash stats got worse, particularly compared to his peaks of two, three, or four years ago, but leaguewide offense is down overall, mitigating that somewhat. His collapsing WAR, as cherry-picked for the second paragraph of this piece, is according to one site (Baseball-Reference), but by WARP he actually improved from 2012 to 2013, from 1.3 to 2.2. That 2.2 is in line with the 2.3 he produced at age 27 and age 28.

And while Phillips won’t mention any of that, focusing instead on his silly, lineup-spot- and Votto-induced RBI total, he did hit .338/.404/.469 with runners in scoring position, the best performance of his career. There’s no reason for you to care about that. But for Phillips, who has been trained by decades of coaches to try like hell to win baseball games, even against better opponents, you can understand why that would be a pretty big deal in assessing his own season. Who cares if he’s not as good as he was? He’s as productive as he ever was. Why, you imagine Phillips feels, would you rip on the guy who helped his team win?

2. Athletes have to delude themselves
But, all that aside, we do know with something like certainty that Phillips is declining. We knew it even before his bad second half last year, before his drop off from 2011 to 2012, even. We know it because that’s how physical objects work.

Ira Glass once talked about the struggle creative types face early on:

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. ...If you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work... You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

This is essentially the Scott Hatteberg problem. As Michael Lewis recounts of Hatteberg’s first base lessons with Ron Washington, “Reflecting on those grim times Wash would say, months later, ‘You could see he shouldn’t be out there.’ … Wash didn’t ever say to Hatteberg, or even give him the slightest non-verbal hint, what obscenities might cross the mind of the typical fan watching him play first base. The first thing Hatty needed was a feeling of confidence, even if he had no right to the feeling.”

Hatteberg, and Ira Glass’ creative type, would get better if they could keep from quitting. They needed to, essentially, delude themselves into ignoring how bad they were so that they could get good. An aging ballplayer has a much more difficult delusion to create: He’s never going to get better. His taste is as good as ever, though.

It does him no good to be realistic about his decline. There’s no prize for being the first guy to retire. There’s no bonus for getting out a year before you have to, or five years before you have to. Phillips gets, essentially, one shot in his life to be fantastically special and incredibly valuable, and there are only two things that are going to end that shot: Time, eventually; or his own self-doubt, today.

So he deludes. They all delude. Derek Jeter, this winter, declaring himself to be in the best shape of his life. Almost literally the least-true thing he could say about himself, when you think about it. Albert Pujols, last week, bristling at the reporter who compared Mike Trout favorably to him. Well, shoot, of course Mike Trout is better than Pujols. Mike Trout is better than Pujols like Pujols is better than Willie Mays, currently. Willie Mays would certainly accept this fact without arguing; he has no financial incentive not to accept this fact. Pujols does, and so long as he doesn’t look down and see that there’s no ground under him anymore, the only opinion that should matter to him is the one that keeps him moving.

Pujols is declining. Jeter is declining. Phillips is declining. We should say it when it happens, and they should ignore it when we say it. What we shouldn’t do is act shocked, or like these guys are idiots, when they do.

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

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