Admit it, you gave up on Ryan Howard. After three consecutive unimpressive seasons following his torn Achilles in Game 5 of the 2011 NLDS against the St. Louis Cardinals, it looked as if the “Big Piece” had become more like a tiny, “misfit” piece.
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Struggles over the past three seasons resulted in much criticism being heaped upon Howard by the Philadelphia media and fans. Much of the negative scrutiny had to do with the 5-year, $125 million contract extension he signed in April of 2010.
While the extension seemed like a good decision by the Phillies at the time, Howard has, for the most part, not been able to provide the same amount of production that he displayed from 2006-2011. Those were his prime seasons, when he won an MVP, Silver Slugger, and was selected to three All-Star Games. During this time, Howard also led the National League in home runs two times and in RBIs three times, and was widely considered to be among the most dangerous offensive players in the game.
Since that devastating injury in those 2011 playoffs, Howard has played only 304 of a possible 486 regular season games. The Achilles injury put him out for the first half of the 2012 season, and a torn meniscus in his knee caused him to miss the second half of 2013.
After averaging more than 40 home runs a season from 2006 to 2011, the most Howard has hit in a season since are the 23 that he launched a year ago. In 2014, Howard was healthy enough to appear in 153 games. However, in addition to the power, he hit just .223, and led the National League with 190 strikeouts.
Following last season, it looked more and more like the end of the road for Ryan Howard in a Phillies uniform. The club tried and failed to find a suitor for Howard for much of the offseason, even going so far as to offer to pay more than half of Howard’s remaining contract.
At one point, the team was even rumored to have considered releasing the former star. Things got really awkward in December, when Howard’s own boss, Ruben Amaro Jr. told 97.5 The Fanatic’s Mike Missanelli that the team would probably be better off without Howard moving forward.
Despite those pointed comments, little was said from Amaro or Howard after that interview, and the Phillies headed into spring training with the big first baseman still on the roster.
Howard came to Clearwater re-energized and determined to prove the doubters, including those in Phillies management, were wrong, and show that he did indeed have something left to offer. People around baseball, including Amaro, lauded the shape he arrived in for spring training.
Still, Howard struggled in the exhibition play of the Grapefruit League, batting just .176 with 23 strikeouts in 23 games. Luckily for Howard, neither Darin Ruf nor Maikel Franco played well enough to unseat him at first base.
Howard’s difficulties at the plate continued into the first month of the 2015 season, as he finished April under the Mendoza Line with a .194 average, while also striking out 20 times in 76 at-bats.
May, however, has been a completely different story. It all finally began to click, and Howard is out to prove that he’s not dead weight at the plate. Seemingly with just a flip of the calendar, Howard has caught fire and is looking like the “Big Piece” we all used to know and love.
“..that’s the Ryan Howard I know and have always known, that type of power” ~ Hamels
As of May 27, Howard owns a .318/.352/.624 slash line for the month, and has eight multi-hit games compared to just two in April. He is driving in runs and hitting the longball, having blasted six taters and knocked in 14 runs in 85 May at-bats. Three of those home runs and eight of those RBIs have resulted from Howard’s last dozen games.
From May 3 to May 25—a stretch of 20 games, Howard went 27 for 73 (.370) with a .726 slugging percentage. For the season, he is now batting .256 with 10 home runs and 24 RBIs, quite an improvement from the .197 average he was sporting just one month ago.
Teammates are taking note of Howard’s old power display, including ace Cole Hamels. After a game last weekend against the Washington Nationals in which Howard smacked a solo shot en route to three hits on the day, Hamels talked about Howard.
“It was the vintage Ryan Howard that I’ve grown accustomed to seeing,” Hamels said. “Especially that home run he hit, that’s the Ryan Howard I know and have always known, that type of power. He’s been really putting the ball and taking a good approach the past few weeks. It’s good to see.”
His resurgence at the plate is great news for the Phillies, as they will almost certainly try to unload Howard at or before the trade deadline. It’s hard to imagine Howard continuing this torrid pace for much longer, but if he stays around .250 and keeps producing runs, it should be easier for the Phillies in their quest to trade him before July 31.
If he does continue this hot streak, the Phillies will likely need to pay a smaller portion of his remaining contract then they would have had they dealt him over the offseason. Howard would be an upgrade for many American League teams as a designated hitter, and the Phillies may even be able to get back a prospect who has fallen out of favor from another organization.
While it’s no secret Howard isn’t the player he once was, Philly fans seem to have been quick to forget how Howard consistently put the team on his back in the final months of the season during the team’s fantastic playoff run from 2007-2011. In a sports-crazed city like Philadelphia where the question always seems to be “What have you done for me lately?”, Howard is delivering.
No, Ryan Howard will never again be the 40-50 home run, 140-plus RBI guy we used to see season after season in his prime during the previous decade, but he’s also 36 years old. At his current pace, Howard is on track for at least 30 home runs, which is a number that Phillies fans should be more than happy with.
The resentment fans have towards Howard because of his contract is understandable. He never lived up to it, whether it be due to injury or not. But fans can’t forget what Howard did for the team and the city back when Citizens Bank Park was continually sold out, and when he was consistently underpaid for that production.
Howard has never been a problem in the locker room, and has always said the right things despite the criticism and boos that have often been directed at him—fair or unfair.
Fans should enjoy the last glimpses of greatness we get to see from the Big Piece, and appreciate all he has done for this franchise. Without him, there would be no 2008 World Series Championship. After all that Howard has gone through over the past three years, it is great to see him finding success again.