The Philadelphia Phillies prepare to appropriately turn the page on slugging 1st baseman Ryan Howard, even as he continues to produce.
Before the club decided to make a splash or two at last week’s baseball Winter Meetings, one of the bigger stories of the off-season was a meeting between Howard and GM Matt Klentak.
While classified as a positive meeting between the new general manager and the former World Series hero, the purpose of the meeting was likely to discuss plans on transitioning away from Howard as he winds to the end of his career.
Howard was given a massive contract extension for what would likely be an ugly, rapid, hands-over-your-eyes decline. His old-player skills and advancing age at the time of the deal made for a bad combination. Enough ink and brain power has been used decrying that extension, so that won’t be the subject here.
How’s this instead: Ryan Howard was the best Phillies hitter in 2015 in the area of run production.
A quick perusal of the RBI statistics for the team reveals that Howard led the team in that basic category for the fifth time in seven seasons. It has been argued that Howard receives increased RBI opportunities because of his usual position as the cleanup hitter in the batting order.
If the Phillies lineups are created in the most optimal way, their cleanup hitter should always lead the team in RBI. The players in front of him in the first three spots should have the highest on-base percentages, and would then naturally provide substantively more opportunities to be driven home.
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Because of his overall decline as a hitter, it might be a tad surprising to some to find that Howard can still claim to be the best run producer on the team. There simply aren’t many better options on the current roster, even though players such as Odubel Herrera and Maikel Franco seemed to have better overall seasons at the plate. But when it came to driving in runs, no one was better at that particular skill than Howard.
Before you continue reading, check out this article which discusses a new stat called tRBI+, or “True Runs Batted In.” The author, Kevin Creagh from “The Point of Pittsburgh”, came up with a different approach to evaluating RBI in general.
RBI can be a divisive statistic among the “stat head” crowd, who mostly see it as a statistic of simple opportunity rather than one revealing actual offensive ability.
In his piece, Creagh attempts to create a new way of analyzing RBI, putting the statistic into a specific context: the ability of the batter to drive in runs whenever they are presented with opportunities to do so. Read the Creagh piece linked previously before moving on here, as the rest of my piece will be centered around his ideas.
Using the Creagh methodologies, I examined the regular 2015 Phillies’ batters and input their statistical information with the goal of finding out just how well those hitters actually drove in runs in comparison with the rest of the league.
In the following table, the top 10 Phillies hitters from this past season are presented. “PA” stands for Plate Appearances, “MOB” for Men On Base, and the rest of the abbreviations should be familiar to most baseball fans. Here were the results:
[table id=73 /]
There is quite a bit that should immediately jump off the page at you. First of all, when given the opportunity, Herrera really didn’t drive in any runs. He was 28% below the league average when it came to driving in runs when given an opportunity to do so.
Of course, some context is needed as well. Herrera batted near the top of the lineup for most of the season, so the players who were on base were often the eighth place batter, or even the pitcher. The relative lack of speed and baserunning prowess of those players could have a negative affect on the “El Torito” tRBI total.
The rest of the information gleaned from the table isn’t really all that surprising. There was a serious offensive deficiency across the Phillies lineup in the 2015 season on a team that finished with the worst overall record in Major League Baseball.
However, the encouraging stat, and the one most relevant to this discussion, is the performance of Howard. “The Big Piece” still had a productive season driving in runners, finishing 15% better than league average.
Yes, we could argue about how his place in the order as the cleanup hitter affords Howard this total until we’re blue in the face, but facts are facts. While the decline from his peak years in the previous decade is obvious, what is also obvious by any objective measurement is that the slugger still provides value to the Phillies.
Just for fun, I decided, as Creagh did in his piece, to compare Howard against the league’s top players. Here is a chart examining the same categories for the top two finishers in the Most Valuable Player voting for each league: Bryce Harper, Paul Goldschmidt, Josh Donaldson, and Mike Trout, and how each performed when it comes to tRBI+:
[table id=74 /]
As you can see, Howard stacks up admirably when compared against the top players in the game. We are left with an undeniable fact: Howard, for all the criticism, is still a productive hitter. Enough to justify his $25 million annual contract? Probably not. But at least he’s still giving the team something with the bat.
Now, the big question becomes: does he still need to be on this rebuilding Phillies team? At this point in time, that answer is a little hazy. The youth movement is a matter of public record in Philadelphia now.
While Howard has said and will likely continue to say all of the right things about mentoring, veteran leadership, etc., there is probably a large part of him that would rather be elsewhere, competing to get another ring on his fingers, before Father Time forces him to step aside.
It probably serves the team best if he were elsewhere as well. That would open up playing time for those who are more likely to be a part of the team’s next competitive roster.
Though his contract is most definitely a deterrent, the best way to send Howard off may be to try a trade wherein the Phillies and another club swap bad contracts. In my next piece, I’ll take a look at some of those possible matches, from the perspectives of both Howard and the Phillies.