The Ballad of Mike Schmidt, Ryan Howard, and Left-Handed Pitchers


Can Ryan improve against lefties? Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

At Mike Schmidt’s so-called “State of the Schmidt” on Thursday, the greatest third baseman in baseball history and the franchise’s best-ever player said he thinks he can help Ryan Howard fix his struggles against left-handed pitching.

Speaking with reporters in Clearwater, Schmidt said…

"“He’s stuck in a game situation against the best pitcher, one of the best left-handers in the league, probably 60-70 times more than other any hitter in the league. He probably creates 20 jobs in the Major Leagues. There’s 20 left-handers that wouldn’t be in the Major Leagues if Ryan Howard weren’t in the major leagues, right? I guess what we’re kind of working on is a mindset that may allow him to become a little stronger in those at-bats. A little more contact. He’s still going to strikeout. I’m in the top 10 all time in strikeouts so I’m pretty comfortable with striking out. But I think he needs to and we were talking about ways where we might get him to be a little less strikeout prone in those kind of (Jonny) Venters at-bats, against Atlanta late in the game, when you get that nasty left-hander to get him out. We need contact in this at-bat. I don’t care if it’s a grounder to second or a chopper up the middle. Even if it’s on the first pitch or second pitch. Less foul balls and two-strike vulnerability in those at-bats. He has bought into the discussion 100 percent.”"

OK, there’s a lot to unpack here.

Howard’s struggles against left-handers has been well documented. In 1567 career plate appearances, Howard has a .227/.305/.434 slash line against lefties, with 74 HRs, 138 BBs and 532 Ks. His best year against lefties was his MVP season of 2006, when he hit .279/.364/.558 with 16 HRs, 22BBs, and 76 Ks.

(By the way, holy crap about that 2006 season. Anyway, we continue…)

And while numbers like that will not be repeated, an improvement on the .224/.286/.347 slash line with 3 HRs and 12 BBs in 185 plate appearances back in 2011 (his last full season) can hopefully get better.

In fact, despite some horrific numbers overall last year, Howard hit twice as many home runs (6) in 79 fewer plate appearances (106) against lefties last year, as compared to the three he hit in ’11.

Still, Howard’s been bad against lefties for a while now, as Crashburn Alley pointed out last month

"[Howard] against left-handed pitching: .302 wOBA ranks 130 out of 149 players with at least 500 PA vs. LHP since 2009"

Instructors have presumably sought ways to fix this critical flaw in Howard’s offensive game since it emerged in 2007. And it’s gotten worse over the years as the league’s left-handers have started throwing him fewer and fewer fastballs and defenses have figured out an alignment that effectively neutralizes the entire right side of the infield against him.

Now, everyone knows Schmidt is known for hyperbole (his comments comparing Michael Young to Derek Jeter and calling Young a potential Hall of Famer are just the latest example). So when he says Howard has created 20 jobs in the Majors strictly for left-handers to pitch to him, it’s probably an overstatement.

Still, the league has learned that, late in games, if a manager pitches a right-handed pitcher not named Steven Strasburg against Howard at any point after the sixth inning, that manager should immediately be fired.

So how does a hitter, at age 33, all of a sudden become a better contact hitter against left-handers? Is that even possible?

And more importantly, is that even the real problem?

If there is anything Howard needs against lefties, it’s a better eye and more patience at the plate. Howard has walked in just 8.8% of his career at bats against lefties.

Considering how many breaking pitches he sees in a given year against left-handers, a more patient approach would undoubtedly put him in more favorable hitters counts where he’s more likely to see a fastball.

But this is all stuff everyone knows. Heck, even Ryan knows it, even if he didn’t want to address it last week.

"People say, ‘Oh, he can’t hit lefties.’ I have to show them I can hit lefties. Obviously, to get to the big leagues, you have to hit lefties and righties. It’s putting all that stuff aside and just trusting my abilities. I know I can hit lefties. It’s just a matter of being relaxed.”"

It’s great news that Schmidt believes Howard wants to improve in this area, that Howard seems more willing to listen now than ever before, and that Schmidt thinks he can actually help him.

Just what Mike Schmidt will be able to do to reverse this trend is highly questionable.