Ryan Howard has long been viewed as weak to left-handed pitching. In comparison to his production against right-handers, that is largely true. The truth is that he is a slightly above-average hitter against southpaws, ranking in the 69th percentile with a .359 wOBA in 2010.
Still, the New York Yankees neutralized the Phillies in the 2009 World Series by making heavy use of Damaso Marte, causing Howard to strike out in 13 of his 23 at-bats. The Cincinnati Reds followed suit in the '10 NLDS using a quartet of lefties as Howard struck out five times in 11 AB. And, of course, the World Series champion San Francisco Giants allowed Howard to become familiar with lefties Javier Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt, striking him out 12 times in 22 AB.
If you are keeping score at home, that is a grand total of 30 strikeouts in 56 at-bats, a 53.4 percent strikeout rate in his last three playoff series.
Howard is under contract for one more year before his five-year, $125 million extension kicks in. Phillies fans are worrying that the slugger is declining much sooner than anticipated.
2010 was rough for Howard. Aside from missing two weeks with a sprained left ankle, he finished the year with by far his lowest ISO (.229 compared to a .293 career average) and his .367 wOBA was two one-thousandths of a point from being a career low. Following four consecutive years of 45+ HR and 136+ RBI the respective 31 and 108 output is a disappointment.
The surprise, at least in the regular season, was that Howard did not decline against lefties. In fact, he improved! His .358 wOBA against lefties outpaced his career .329 average. By process of elimination, Howard must have declined against right-handers -- and he did, significantly. His career .424 wOBA against right-handers is head-and-shoulders above his .372 output in 2010.
Baseball is a great game because it is impossible to achieve optimal strategy. As your opponent makes adjustments to you, you make adjustments to those adjustments, and so on. Lefties threw Howard a bunch of low-and-away sliders, so the first baseman started to look for those pitches more. He was crushing fastballs from right-handers, so those pitchers threw him more soft stuff.
In 2008, one in every two pitches thrown by a right-hander was something hard -- particularly four-seam fastballs. That figure dropped to 47 percent in '09 and 42 percent in '10.
The following heat map displays the fly ball distance on soft stuff thrown by right-handed pitchers in each of the past three seasons. Two things are apparent on the graph: right-handers have become much more willing to challenge Howard inside, and that Howard became noticeably weaker against pitches on the outer portion of the plate -- perhaps the latter as a function of the former.
The following heat map shows the fly ball distance on hard stuff thrown by right-handers from 2008-10. Notice that Howard's coverage of the plate -- particularly the inner portion -- seems to have vanished.
It is particularly the hard stuff that pitchers have been using inside on Howard. This could be an indication that Howard's bat speed slowed; that they doubt his ability to turn around on an inside fastball.
If that is the case, the large extension awarded to Howard by Phillies GM Ruben Amaro may become the franchise's biggest mistake before it even starts.