The Philadelphia Phillies longtime first baseman delivered what is likely to be his final spring training press conference this afternoon.
On a beautiful afternoon in Clearwater, Florida on which the temperatures rose to a warm and comfortable 78 degrees, rains fell in Philly and the temperatures barely reached to the 40 mark.
The beat reporters and broadcasters covering the Phillies gathered at Bright House Field, while fans of the team were glued to their TV sets up north. Both groups were watching as Ryan Howard took a seat to deliver what is sure to be his final “State of the Piece” address, and then field questions during a press conference.
Here at TBOH, we have covered Howard from a number of different angles over this off-season. But the bottom line in each of those discussions has basically been the same: the former National League Most Valuable Player can still be a valuable bat, but only if used smartly as the lefty part of a near-strict platoon at first base with the righty swinging Darin Ruf.
Howard addressed that possibility of a platoon during the press conference. “Do I think it’s fair? Me, personally, probably not. But it is what it is. The situation is the situation. You just go out there and play.”
“I’ve always been a guy that’s been a team player, and I’m always going to be a competitor. I’m always going to want to be able to go out there, and it doesn’t matter righty or lefty, I know I can get the job done.”
“If I was able to go out and hit .300 against lefties this year, then what?” ~ Howard
The Big Piece then backed up his claims of being able to get that job done, fighting back against the career and recent statistics which all show his generally abysmal record against left-handed pitching and strong successes against right-handers.
“I think there was one year that I had the most RBIs and home runs against lefties. That was what, two years ago? I think people forget that.” In the 2014 season, Howard did indeed produce power against left-handers in 2014, clubbing 10 home runs and driving in 32 runs per Ryan Lawrence of he Philly Voice staff.
Howard then moved into challenge mode, though it rings of someone fighting both against the reality of his past, and the reality of his future as well. “This is a fresh year. Just as last year was bad, this year I can go out and hit .300 against lefties. Then what do you say? If I was able to go out and hit .300 against lefties this year, then what?”
I’ll tell him then what. If Howard hits .300 against lefties in the 2016 season in a representative number of plate appearances (his career norm against them being somewhere in the 120-150 range), then I will walk from Philadelphia to his hometown of Saint Louis, Missouri.
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Howard has a career .219 batting average against left-handers. Even in his 2006 MVP season when hitting for an overall .313 batting average, the only time in his career that he has sniffed the .300 mark, Howard hit just .279 against lefties, a career high.
For Howard to ask “If I was able to go out and hit .300 against lefties this year, then what?” is only marginally better than me saying the same thing. Neither is every going to happen. It is not just unlikely – it is an impossibility. Howard said at one point “Check the numbers, check the track record,” regarding his production. It certainly does, and what it says about his hitting lefties is not very kind.
Howard also addressed the issue of his being named as a PED user in the December report from Al Jazeera, but mostly skirted the issue now that he has a lawsuit filed against them. “The process is underway, and I’m just going to let it handle itself through the process.” He said that he has not been approached to this point by investigators from Major League Baseball, who are looking into the players named in that report.
He also spoke of missing his former teammates, such as Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins, but understanding the reality of his current situation. “I still have a job I have to go out there and go do. My mindset every year since I’ve been here is, whoever is out there on the field, that’s who you have to go with.“
Howard was a vital part of a championship winning team, the game’s greatest power threat of the mid-late 2000’s. But time has mostly passed him by now, just as it has most of his great teammates of those glory days. Howard doesn’t seem to be quite ready to let go, which is fine.
But manager Pete Mackanin and the Phillies cannot let sentimentality get in the way of hard decisions that need to be made regarding the truth of his role with the team in the 2016 season, which is surely going to be the final one in red pinstripes in the great career of ‘The Big Piece’.