Howard’s Power: Where Is It?

Ryan Howard signed a five-year, $125 million extension a few weeks ago. Many Phillies fans loved it, but number-crunchers winced at the thought of having a one-dimensional power hitter through his age-36 season. The prevailing thought was that it is not a good idea to pay so much money to the type of player that typically does not age well. No one, however, questioned that he would be productive in the early stages of the deal.

Presently, Howard has his batting average up to .290. Great, so that means an OPS of about .900?

.797, more than 150 points below his career average. His previous career-low in slugging percentage was .543; his 2010 SLG is .464. Over his career, 48 percent of his hits have gone for extra bases, but that percentage has dropped to 32.5 percent in 2010.

More disturbing is that, while he has cut his strikeouts by six percent, his walk rate has also been cut to nearly one-third of his career average 12.6 percent. He has had a significant loss in power with an isolated power (ISO) of .174 compared to his career average .300. 30 percent of fly balls hit by Howard have cleared the outfield fence over his career; only 16 percent have so far in 2010. Going into the season, there was roughly a 95 percent chance that he would have a HR/FB% between 19 and 31 percent, so he has thus far been defying the odds.

His last 10 hits have been singles and he continues to struggle against left-handed pitching.

What happened to Ryan Howard’s power?

It appears that, given his decreased walk and strikeout rates, Howard is simply trying to make more contact. The plate discipline stats at FanGraphs back this up. While his overall swing rate hasn’t changed much between 2009 and ’10, he has swung at pitches inside the strike zone nearly six percent less and more than eight percent at pitches outside the strike zone. Howard’s contact rate on pitches inside and outside of the strike zone have increased at about the same rate, six to seven percent.

Could southpaws be to blame for this? In 2009, 36 percent of his plate appearances were against lefties; 35 percent this year. While his performance against them continues to dwindle (.579 OPS this year), he has not faced them in any greater amount in 2010 than he has in the past. It is interesting to note that Howard swings a lot more at fastballs thrown by left-handed pitchers: 61 percent to 48 percent.

2009 was the beginning of the Breaking Ball Era for Howard. Between 2005-08, he saw between 51 and 58 percent fastballs; last year, he saw only 45 percent and that rate has held constant so far in 2010 as well. However, unlike last year, he is simply not hitting fastballs well at about one run below average per 100 fastballs. Having seen more than 200 fastballs this year, that puts him at more than two runs below average already.

It has been clear since his MVP season in 2006 that opposing managers are fearful of Ryan Howard. While he has been intentionally walked less and less, that has gone hand-in-hand with his increased plate appearances against left-handed pitchers. This is not a tactic soon to be abandoned.

Howard needs to take an approach similar to that of Barry Bonds, who gave him hitting instruction during the off-season: recognize how opposing managers and pitchers are (not) pitching to him, accept it, and wait for his pitch. It has been said that Bonds may have seen only one pitch throughout an entire at-bat at which he could reasonably swing. The same may hold true for Howard, what with all of the low-and-away sliders he has been seeing.

If Howard sees his pitch, great: hack away. Strikeouts are fine as long as he is generating his prodigious power to the tune of at least a .550 SLG. If Howard doesn’t see his pitch, great: take. Walks are fine as well.

What’s not fine is a power hitter to whom the Phillies owe $19 million this year and $145 million in 2011-16 turning into a singles hitter with evaporating plate discipline.