Right Field or Bust for Ryan Howard

As Ryan Howard made his mark on Major League Baseball, he became known for his unique ability to hit for nearly as much power to left field as he does to right field. Jack Moore, of ESPN SweetSpot blog Disciples of Uecker, wrote about this before the 2010 season at FanGraphs:

In general, the reason that most hitters aren’t very productive when hitting the ball the other way is that despite the high fly-ball rate we see to the opposite field, it’s rare for these balls to leave the yard (3% for LHBs), and many of them don’t even escape the infield (14.5% for LHBs). This makes the fly ball, generally a decent result because of the possibility of home runs and extra bases, a very poor result.

When we look at Howard’s career, we see that when he goes the other way, he actually hits more fly balls than the rest of the league’s left handed batters. For his career, Howard has hit a whopping 71.6% of pushed balls in the air, about 19% more than his southpaw peers. This would signal disaster for a normal hitter, as it would mean more infield flies and softly hit outfield flies.

For Howard, it has historically meant lots of home runs. Over his career, 27% of the fly balls he has hit to left field have left the park. This is partially just a function of his mammoth strength, as his 52% HR/FB rate on pulled balls is just under double the league average. There does appear to be more to it, however, as his 27% rate is 9 times higher than the LH average. Part of it probably has to do with Citizens Bank Park, but likely not enough to consider this kind of power as anything but amazing.

As the following charts from Texas Leaguers shows, Howard certainly has had success going to left field.

His chart for the 2011 season looks completely different, however.

He is still making the majority of his outs towards the hole between first and second base, but he isn’t getting his hits to left and center field at the rate to which we have grown accustomed.

As a result of his pulling pitches more often, he isn’t hitting as many opposite-field home runs either, as these charts from Hit Tracker Online illustrate (click to enlarge):

2009

2010

2011

Howard particularly went the other way against left-handed pitchers because they often threw him off-speed pitches that broke towards the right-handed hitter’s batter’s box. If a left-handed hitter were to pull those pitches, he would simply ground out weakly to the right side. Howard was one of the rare hitters that would not roll over on those pitches.

Despite the common perception, Howard has not been terrible against lefties; in fact, he has been slightly-average over his career, posting a .326 wOBA (average is between .310 and .315). As discussed here in February, the reason why opposing managers like to use a LOOGY against Howard is due to his incredible production against right-handed pitching.

This season, though, Howard’s production against lefties has plummeted. As of this writing, he has a .272 wOBA with zero home runs and a .107 ISO against southpaws. The lack of production is a symptom of his inability to hit to the opposite field. The way opposing teams approach him is nothing new: he has seen fastballs less than 50 percent of the time since 2009 and he has had the platoon advantage in two-thirds of his at-bats or fewer dating back to 2007. He has shown an ability to overcome that in the past, but we are not seeing it this year and it is not due to bad luck (.279 BABIP vs. RH, .340 BABIP vs. LH).

Instead, Howard is rolling over on the pitches he used to hit for fly balls and line drives. He is hitting ground balls at a 46 percent rate against southpaws compared to 39 percent last year, and 11 percent of the fly balls haven’t left the infield compared to his career average 4.5 percent. Comparatively, he is hitting fewer ground balls and significantly more fly balls against right-handed pitchers.

With the offense struggling to produce at even a league-average level, getting Howard back to his roots and producing against left-handers will be key as the season progresses. He sits with a .500 slugging percentage, more than 70 points higher than the next-highest mark, held by Raul Ibanez. The Phillies have one legitimate slugger on their roster, and that is Ryan Howard. As his $125 million contract extension kicks in after the season, he is quite an important piece in the team’s future success.