More Thoughts on Trading Ryan Howard

In baseball, a five-tool player is one who excels at hitting for average, hitting for power, baserunning skills and speed, throwing ability, and fielding abilities.

Let’s play a game. You are the general manager of a Major League Baseball franchise and you are faced with the burden of choosing between Player A and Player B. You may only keep one.

  • Player A is a four-tool player who was worth between 4.5 and 5.0 WAR last year and averaged about 4.5 WAR over the past three seasons
  • Player B is a one-tool player who was worth between 4.5 and 5.0 WAR last year and averaged about 4.5 WAR over the past three seasons

The decision is obvious, right? Clearly you’d take the four-tool player. No questions asked. When one (or even two) of Player A’s tools aren’t useful, he can still rely on his other tools to contribute to the team. When Player B’s only tool falters, he becomes a detriment to his team.

Time to attach names to the faces. Player A is Jayson Werth, who I think we can all agree is a four-tool player (power, base running, throwing, fielding). Player B is Ryan Howard, who I think we can all agree is a one-tool player (power). In case you’re not convinced…

  • Average (not a tool for either player), 2007-09: Werth, .276; Howard, .266
  • Power (SLG), 2007-09: Werth, .494; Howard, .565
  • Base running (EQBRR), 2007-09: Werth, 8.7; Howard, -11.9
  • Throwing: Can’t really compare an outfielder’s arm to a first baseman’s but I don’t think anyone will disagree with the statement that Jayson Werth has a great arm and Ryan Howard does not. Howard has committed 20 throwing errors as a first baseman in his career; Werth has never committed a throwing error as an outfielder, and he has accrued 29 assists.
  • Fielding (UZR/150), 2007, ’08, and ’09: Werth (as OF), 35.3+35.3+3.4; Howard, 0.4+2.4+1.2

I recently suggested that, after the 2010 season, the Phillies should trade Howard to create enough payroll space to sign Werth to a contract extension. If you take the time to peruse the comments left on the article, you can see that a lot of fans balked at the suggestion. Both Werth and Howard were worth about the same in terms of Wins Above Replacement (WAR) last year; Werth has had the higher WAR average from 2007-09. And Werth, of course, is a much more versatile player. That’s not to say that Werth is the more valuable player, but that his value is spread out into more areas which in itself has value.

Both players bring with them some concerns. With Werth, the question is whether or not he can sustain his recent level of production going forward. Personally, I think you can set your watch to Jayson as he has finished each of the past three seasons with an OPS between .861 and .879. Others are worried about the wrist issue that plagued him prior to his time with the Phillies but that has not come back on the radar at any time in the past three years.

As for Howard, those of us who use statistics have compared him to past sluggers who did not age gracefully. In his age 26 and 27 seasons, Baseball Reference thinks his closest comparison is Norm Cash, which is not an upsetting comparison — he was a very productive hitter. However, Howard is compared to Cecil Fielder in his age 28 season. Fielder flamed out in 1997 at age 33 and was out of baseball entirely one year later. Richie Sexson is Howard’s best comparison for his age 29 season. Sexson hit the skids in 2007 in his age 32 season and was out of baseball entirely one year later.

A lot of casual baseball fans are skeptical of these comparisons and the raised eyebrows are not unwarranted. I cannot think of many baseball players who really fit the Ryan Howard mold, and those I can think of are Hall of Famers like Willie Stargell and Willie McCovey. There is a lot of bias in there, though, as I will be primarily reminded of players who made a positive impact (for instance, try to remember anything former Phillie Dave Doster has ever done on a baseball diamond), and my Phillies fandom also biases my perception. Still, I think Stargell and McCovey are better comparisons than Fielder and Sexson.

In addition to the unpredictable aging process, Howard has performed gradually worse against left-handed pitchers and he’s been seeing them gradually more — a bad trend:

  • 2006: 225 PA vs LHP, .923 OPS
  • 2007: 246 PA vs LHP, .826 OPS
  • 2008: 265 PA vs LHP, .746 OPS
  • 2009: 252 PA vs LHP, .653 OPS

Howard’s walk rate has also decreased from 16.5% in 2007 to 11.6% in ’08 to 10.7% in ’09.

So, both players have some question marks going forward and they are questions that the Phillies’ front office will have to answer when deciding to keep both, neither, or one of the two players. Personally, if I have the opportunity to clear a large amount of payroll space, re-sign a similarly-valuable but more versatile player, and acquire Major League talent and/or prospects by trading Ryan Howard (who is owed $20 million in 2011), I’m going to do it in a heartbeat.

As for moving Utley to first, a few commenters have come up with alternatives that still involve trading Howard. Instead of shifting Utley to first base, Raul Ibanez would instead move from left field and Domonic Brown would take his place. Ibanez is a free agent after 2011 though, so the Phillies would have to either shift another player to first base or sign a slugger via free agency. I actually like this idea better than the one I originally proposed especially due to its Occam’s Razor nature.

I know fans wanted — and still want — Ruben Amaro to pull out all the stops and go for another World Series in 2010, the future of the franchise be damned, but I imagine most would opt for a much more conservative strategy if they were responsible for balancing the ledger. Amaro’s job is not just to put together a competitive roster in 2010, but ensure that he and his successors are able to do so down the road as well. Ultimately, trading Ryan Howard may chip away a percentage point or two in terms of probability of winning it all in 2011, but it makes future Phillies teams much more likely to have that same shot down the road. Losing Jayson Werth after 2010 and Howard after ’11 is simply not worth gunning for another championship.

To put it simply: keeping Howard until he leaves via free agency — resulting in Werth leaving after 2010 to free agency — is gambling. The “keep Howard” strategy mortgages future assets in attempt to increase present assets. It’s not a good strategy because baseball’s post-season is a crapshoot. The team with the best record in the Majors has won the World Series just twice in the 2000’s: the ’09 Yankees and the ’07 Red Sox. Since the inception of the wild card in 1995, the World Series has been won by a wild card winner four times: the ’04 Red Sox, ’03 Marlins, ’02 Angels, and ’97 Marlins. Having the best team does not ensure anything in the post-season.

Successful gamblers know when to stop rolling the dice. That time would be after the 2010 season when Ryan Howard’s trade value will be at its highest (assuming he has a typical Ryan Howard year) and the Phillies can wait no longer to retain Jayson Werth.