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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10 comments

  1. 2streeter

    November 10, 2010 10:18 AM

    I have to add that there was a league-wide decline in power numbers this year, meaning that coupled with Howard’s two week injury, he did not have as bad a year as the article makes it out to be. Do I trust him completely as a hitter? Of course not. Was his 2010 post-season acceptable? No, but the zero RBI stat has more to do with Utley’s struggles to get on base than with Ryan’s ability to hit several doubles and singles. Remember, he was NLCS MVP in 2009, and he can be great again. Or so I hope…

  2. Bill Baer

    November 10, 2010 10:26 AM

    If he can improve and adjust to the way pitchers are dealing with him, his decline may not be as precipitous as it appears. But I’m certainly not optimistic.

  3. 2streeter

    November 10, 2010 10:40 AM

    As much as it pains me to say it, perhaps it’s time for more hitting advice from dear old Barry Bonds, hopefuly before the Giants hire him?

    Besides that, one thing I do trust about Howard is his committment to improve. Like you wrote, look at his numbers against lefties. Look at his dropping weight to become a more nimble fielder. Like most people, I think he struggles to improve everything at once, but now he has a clear problem to correct, and I trust that he will do everything he can to overcome it.

  4. Jake

    November 10, 2010 10:56 AM

    Great analysis. I’d really like to see one of his bat speed. More than anything that’s what struck me this year…his bat head speed through the zone was slower. Not only couldn’t he turn on fastballs, but it left him unable to sit on breaking pitches as well and drive them other way. I felt there were a number of flyballs to left and left center this year that in 2006-2009 would have been homers.

    That bothers me than his decrease in RBIs…nobody was on base in front of him! In the playoffs he had enough hits that he should have collected some RBIs. It’s the power I worry about.

  5. Richard

    November 10, 2010 02:25 PM

    2Street, you’re missing the point somewhat. Howard’s numbers vs. RHP were down even before his injury, which certainly only made them worse.

    One thing I was encouraged by was his walk rate later in the season, and even in the playoffs. If he can layoff more pitches, he may be able to get pitches he can drive, which could perhaps offset the decline against specific kinds of pitches, as shown by Bill here.

  6. nik

    November 10, 2010 02:28 PM

    Bill James is projecting a .276/.368/.547 line for RyHo in 2011, which I would take in a heartbeat.

  7. Joe Redden

    November 10, 2010 02:56 PM

    This may sound crazy, but I don’t see a major decline as a result of anything Howard has done. If you see where he has hit alot of balls, they would normally be base hits but because he can’t hit to the opposite field to save his life, it’s right at the shift. Here’s the solution.

    Major League pitchers obviuosly love to throw low outside soft stuff to Ryan. For most left-handedhitters, this would cause one of two things. Either they would roll-over on the ball and ground out to short or hit it to left field. Somehow, Ryan manages to go against logic and pull a ball that’s a foot out of the zone breaking down, and that’s got a fix.

    When they apply the shift for Ryan, they move the 3B to SS, the SS to 2B, and the 2B to something of a short left fielder. Ryan needs to learn something every pitcher and speedy guys like Crawford and Andrus already know. How to bunt to third. With the speed these balls come at Ryan, he could bunt it hard down the line. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be down the line since there’s no 3B. With his upgraded speed, he could make 1st base. Even if he can’t, after a few games teams would have to take off the shift. It may not be perfect, but I would rather see that then see perfectly placed base hits to right field go right to a fielder that shouldn’t be there.

  8. nik

    November 10, 2010 03:21 PM

    Or he can just hit the ball where there no fielders. Like over the wall.

  9. derekcarstairs

    November 11, 2010 05:05 AM

    2streeter- I think you are exactly right. Howard’s decline in 2010 can be attributed to offense being down across the majors and his injury. His wOBA and OPS+ in 2010 were off his career averages, but slightly better than his 2008 numbers.

    After the Phils’ July 27 game, I believe that Howard’s OPS+ and his wOBA were very close to career norms. Howard then went 0 for 13 in his next three games with 8 strikeouts. The following game was on August 1 when Howard hurt his ankle. When he returned from the DL, Howard had an atrocious August with a .386 OPS in 42 PAs (compared to a career .918 August OPS). Howard bounced back with a .977 OPS in September, but that was still 100 points lower than his career September OPS.

    Before Howard’s injury, I was anticipating a typical Howard late-season performance in August and September. Had he been healthy and put up his usual August and September numbers, Howard would have been one of the offensive bright spots this past season.

    Regarding the heat maps, the more data we have on players the better. It’s too soon to jump to any conclusions about the rest of Howard’s career, however. The heat maps may give the Phils an early indication of a potential long-term problem that Howard must guard against.

    Perhaps, Howard’s bat seemed slower because he was thinking breaking ball more than usual. Perhaps, Howard was focused too much on getting his batting average up and not enough on hitting the ball hard. Maybe there’s a problem; maybe not.

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