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Entries in ryan howard (4)


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.


April's Outside Power Hitters

April's Top 15 Power Hitters on Outside Pitches
  • Jose Bautista (TOR) continues to crush pitches regardless of where they are in the zone. His 5 HRs on outside pitches leads all major league hitters. Curtis Granderson (NYY), Mark Teixeira (NYY), and Ryan Howard (PHI) are tied for second with 4 HRs.
  • Peter Bourjos (LAA) leads the league with 4 triples on outside pitches.
  • Carlos Quentin (CWS) leads all hitters with 6 doubles on outside pitches.
  • Carlos Santana (CLE) lead the majors last year with a .643 SLG on outside pitches. He's currently ranked 42nd with a .476 SLG. Albert Pujols, who was ranked 2nd last year with a .601 SLG, currently holds a .167 SLG on outside pitches, putting him in 235th place.

Downfall of a Goliath

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.

Ryan Howard's fly ball distance vs. RH soft pitches

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.

Ryan Howard's fly ball distance vs. RH hard pitches

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.