Downfall of a Goliath

Over at the Baseball Analytics blog, I looked at the surprising decline of Ryan Howard against right-handed pitchers utilizing more heat maps. Surely, this does not bode well for that five-year, $125 million contract extension he signed earlier this year.

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.

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