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« Big Veggie Trims His K Rate | Main | A Little Bit of Luck »

Soft Stuff Howard's Achilles Heel

One week ago, Ryan Howard lunged at a Chris Carpenter curveball and smacked it to Nick Punto at second base. The ground out ended the Phillies' 2011 season -- and jeopardized Howard's 2012 campaign. Howard stumbled out of the box, limped down the first base line and then sat grimacing in the grass as St. Louis celebrated, having fully torn his left Achilles.

The injury has up to a six-month recovery period, meaning Howard figures to miss at least part of the campaign in which his five-year, $125 million contract extension kicks in. There were plenty of reasons to worry about that sort of commitment even before the injury. The contract covers Howard's age 32-36 seasons, which are decline years for the vast majority of players and don't figure to be near as fruitful as his prime seasons in his late twenties and early thirties. And Howard's calling card -- his light-tower power -- may already be on the decline.

From 2008-2009, Howard slugged .556 and had a 133 OPS+. Over the past two seasons, he had a .491 slugging percentage and a 126 OPS+. Howard is still killing high-velocity pitches, but he's slowing considerably against soft stuff.

Howard slugged .617 against "hard pitches" (fastballs, sinkers, cutters and splitters) in 2008-2009, and has kept on mashing against them since he turned 30 (.589 slugging percentage in 2010-2011). But against "soft" pitches (breaking balls and changeups), the big lefty has seen his slugging percentage dip from .501 in 2008-2009 to .366 in 2010-2011. He once crushed slow pitches no matter where they were thrown, but those hot zones have been reduced to high and in, high and away or right down the middle:

Howard's in-play slugging percentage vs. "soft" stuff, 2008-09

Howard's in-play slugging percentage vs. "soft" stuff, 2010-11

That's a big problem, considering that the mantra for pitchers against Howard is away, away, away:

 Location of "soft" pitches to Howard, 2010-11

As a below-average defender who doesn't have elite plate discipline, Howard needs to post prodigious power numbers to rank among the best at his position. With less pop over the past two years, Howard places a middling eighth out of 18 qualified first basemen in Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball-Reference. Unless Howard picks up the pace against slow stuff, his decline could be anything but slow.

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