On Monday, Justin mentioned Ryan Howard’s current situation in Florida. The Phillies regular first baseman has been on the disabled list for some time now, and he has most recently utilized this time off to work on himself. He’s reportedly lost some weight, and continues to rehab and strengthen all of his ailing body parts. This all sounds like promising news, or at least it’s better than news reporting Howard has aggravated or re-injured anything that could further delay his eventual return to the Phillies lineup in 2014.
At this point, no one actually counts on Ryan Howard to remain healthy for an entire season, let alone produce anything substantial on the field. After putting up 18.1 fWAR in his first four and half seasons in the big leagues (good enough for on average ~ 4 fWAR per 162 games), Howard has been worth only 1.9 fWAR in his last four. In addition to a significant drop off in production, Howard hasn’t been able to stay healthy, playing on average about 112 games per season. Instead of moseying off into the sunset though, Howard remains on our collective conscience due to the abhorrent contract he and the Phillies agreed to that will pay him $25 million per season from 2014 through 2016, plus another $10 million buyout of his team option for 2017.
Howard’s contract has become a league wide joke that will only fade away if Josh Hamilton and B.J. Upton continue to play well below their talent levels for the next three plus seasons. Howard has disappointed Phillies fans enough to the point at which we have no expectations for him other than to bring the club more ridicule and provide us more time to point at Ruben Amaro’s biggest mistake to date. Unfortunately though, at some point, we must learn to accept our fate. No team will trade for Howard and his mistake of a contract, leaving him as part of the Phillies for as long as they continue to pay him, give him a spot on the roster, as well as one in the starting lineup.
Howard’s various lower body injuries have made hitting quite difficult for him, even when he and the team consider him healthy enough to play. In no way does the previous statement imply that Ryan’s leg issues constitute the sole barrier between him and his offensive numbers of 2009, but injuries lead to low self-confidence, which inevitably leads to continuous poor play. If Howard can begin the 2014 season completely stable, both physically and mentally, it will provide him the best possible opportunity to return to some semblance of the hitter that once struck fear in his opponents.
Based on the lack of recent success and clean bill of health, what should we expect from the Big Piece when the beginning of next year rolls around? First, let’s dispel any notion that Howard will return to the hitter he was in either 2006 or 2010 because there is no evidence to support such a conviction. If Ryan Howard is to add any benefit to the Phillies he might do so to the best of his abilities, but his current abilities, not to those of the past. One aspect of Ryan’s game that has never waned is his ability to hit right-handed pitching.
|Annual Platoon Splits (wRC+)|
|vs. RHP||vs. LHP|
Analyzing the above chart gives you a sense of Howard as a hitter, and the simple strategy to neutralizing him at the plate. In his career, Howard has hit below average, and well below average more recently, against left-handed pitching, while never losing his penchant for mashing off of righties. Even this season, Howard’s offensive production against right-handed pitching created 36 percent more runs than league average against RHP. If he could have qualified for most statistical categories this season, that 136 wRC+ against RHP would have put him in the top 25 in the majors, similar to Domonic Brown’s 138 wRC+ in 2013 vs. RHP.
This platoon split evidence shows that while Howard’s contract doesn’t allude to him platooning at 1st base, his statistics
show that this might be the most optimal position for him on the team. Having a player like Howard platoon with Darin Ruf at 1st base (with Ruf playing in the outfield against RHP), could allow Howard to benefit the team. Platooning Howard at 1st base would also give him ample time to rest, most likely putting him on track to start 2/3 of the games in a season, even if he is removed later in the game for a defensive or platoon replacement. Add in the increase in inter-league games, and Howard should have an opportunity to DH every so often. Finally, using Howard as a platoon player, will also give the Phillies the opportunity to use him as a pinch hitter against right-handed pitchers. In his career, Howard has proven his worth as a pinch-hitter, putting up a 149 wRC+ when placed in a pinch-hitting position.
If the Phillies decide not to platoon the big man in 2014, but instead decide that Ruf will play the majority of games in the outfield and Howard will start every game he can at first, our expectations will need to shift accordingly. If Howard plays 150 games in 2014, he’ll most likely end up with about 650 plate appearances. Assuming he continues to hit for a .318 BABIP,his average since 2010, Howard will most likely strike out close to 30% of the time. His plethora of strikeouts will leave runners like Ben Revere and Chase Utley stranded on base. As long as Howard puts the ball in play, especially with runners on base, good things can happen. Also, Howard hasn’t experienced any spikes or consistent increases in the number of double plays he has grounded into in the last few seasons in comparison to the beginning of his career. Put all of this information together, and a picture of the type of hitter a healthy-Ryan-Howard-who-plays-almost-every-day begins to unfold.
This Ryan Howard archetype looks something like this:
Add in his lack of fielding prowess and inability to run the bases with any sort of efficiency, and we’ll have an overpaid, solid hitting first baseman who squanders the incredible number of chances given to him at the plate by striking out too often and playing into the extensive shifts deployed by opposing defenses. Only two hitters this season have had a wRC+ of 110 or greater with a strikeout percentage of at least 30%. They include Mike Napoli, Colby Rasmus, Pedro Alvarez, and Chris Carter. Napoli, like hypothetical 2014 Howard, has played this season after injury concerns this past offseason to his core and lower body, while Rasmus proves his worth in other way, and Alvarez has a ton of upside. Chris Carter, the 1B/DH/LF for the Houston Astros probably offers up a solid comparison to what we should expect, at best, from Ryan Howard. At worst, Howard could put up numbers more like Mark Reynolds and Dan Uggla, players who sometimes provide power, but lack most other forms of productivity.
To say Ryan Howard is a lost cause takes the easy way out. Oh, he’s gotten to the point at which fans no longer expect anything from the former NL MVP in light of the money he will collect. Howard’s contract points towards a player who can and will be worth between 4 and 5 wins per season. Such thought constitutes delusion and fallacy, but to expect absolutely nothing shows ignorance and a desire to lower expectations in order to lessen the probably disappointment. We have to face reality, and the Phillies reality is to pencil in Ryan Howard as the starting 1st baseman in 2014, and to expect him to play as much as his body allows. For now, Howard will continue to rake in the millions, and improve his conditioning, strength, and confidence. It’s perfectly alright to push any thought of Ryan Howard to the back’s of our minds, but to forget about him completely won’t do any good.