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This Debate Again?

Posted By Bill Baer On July 14, 2011 @ 7:00 am In MLB,Philadelphia Phillies,Sabermetrics | 63 Comments

So, Bill Conlin wrote an interesting article. He stood up for Ryan Howard — again — against a slew of bloodthirsty email commenters who can only be defeated by a newspaper column refuting their claims. It’s been a while since I gave the FJM treatment to an article, so let’s jump in. His words in bold; my responses in normal text.

ON THE DAY AFTER the All-Star Game was played in Phoenix without Ryan Howard, this column is directed at the haters and bashers who have been coming out of the woodwork in larger numbers than usual.

This is the number one issue for Phillies fans at the All-Star break? This is what fans are screaming about? Perhaps Conlin’s inbox is different than mine, but from my experience, hardly anyone talks about Howard or his contract anymore. I reference it snarkily on Twitter, perhaps Conlin’s been following me?

They are predictable as smog in a heat wave. They pretend to be knowledgable baseball fans, but trip themselves up every time because they are dead wrong. And egregiously stupid.

Coming from someone who once said, “The only positive thing I can think of about Hitler’s time on earth–I’m sure he would have eliminated all bloggers,” I don’t think Conlin has the right to call anyone “egregiously stupid.”

I hear the reason why he was not voted into the All-Star Game by the fans – and Phillies fans basically ignored him while stuffing the ballot box for an injured Shane Victorino – is because the National League has all these great first basemen. And RH is no longer one of them . . .

It’s true. Ryan Howard’s .830 OPS is only 48 points higher than the NL average at first base. Among qualified first basemen, Howard’s OPS ranks 14th of 26. He is behind such luminaries as Mike Morse and Gaby Sanchez, while slightly ahead the likes of Mitch Moreland and Daniel Murphy.

Howard is a productive first baseman; above-average, for sure. But he is not the top-five player in Major League Baseball he has been depicted as over the years. He might generously rank in the top-50. No, Howard is not a great first baseman. He’s merely good.

I also don’t get the need to bash Victorino in defending Howard. As written here recently, Victorino has been a very important player for the Phillies this year — more so than Howard.

So, chew on this: Prince Fielder went to the All-Star Game and captained a Home Run Derby team that was blown out of the water by a couple of real hitters named Adrian Gonzalez and Robinson Cano, who put on one hell of a show.

Not that Fielder is chopped liver. He is, after all, tied for the league RBI lead with some slipping, already over-the-hill guy named Ryan Howard. Each had 72 at the break. Oh, and Prince did rule last night, with a three-run homer that helped the National League win, 5-1.

But let me mention that Howard bats cleanup for a first-place team that leads the majors in wins and has the biggest division lead at the break in either league.

Again, bashing another player to sing the praises of Howard. Why is this necessary? If Howard really were as good as Conlin thinks, there should be no need to knock other players down to make Howard appear more attractive.

Prince Fielder’s OPS is — sit down, Bill — 162 points higher than Howard’s. To focus on their RBI totals is an obvious cherry-pick, even for a traditionalist like Conlin. There is no possible argument, traditional or Sabermetric, that can equate the two players let alone paint Howard as the more productive player this year.

Yeah, Howard’s team has eight more wins. It’s irrelevant because Conlin can’t show how many of them are due specifically to Howard as opposed to the great starting rotation, or the bullpen, or other offensive players. There is a stat that could do that, but as we’ll see shortly, Conlin dismisses such a wacky endeavor.

Oh, but he’s a butcher with the glove (all of four errors), clogs up the bases (as if Fielder is Michael Bourn) and is not providing close to acceptable return for the $125 million salary. (And since that contract just kicked in and he’s on pace for 140 RBI, maybe you should wait a while on that.)

Who, besides mouth-breathing WIP callers, claims that Howard is a “butcher with the glove”? Even Saberists have given Howard credit for becoming an adequate defender at first base.

The more important question is, “Why are sportswriters overreacting to a cherry-picked, non-representative portion of the Phillies’ fan base?” Ryan Lawrence did this on Twitter a couple weeks ago and Conlin is doing it now.

By the way, Bill should be advised that Howard’s contract extension doesn’t kick in until next season.

At this point, Conlin publicizes some emails and responds to them (badly). Ironically, something he cried about back in 2007.

This was the generic chant from the Tab-and-Scrapple Choir. He doesn’t hit for high enough average, he never hits in the clutch (See Mike Schmidt abuse files from the 1970s). He needs to bunt or slap the ball to left against the shift. Yada, yada, yada . . .

One guy even invoked the despicable, undecipherable WAR stat. That’s a totally bogus acronym for “Wins Above Replacement.” It presents a patentedly unsupported hypothesis that measures the “projected” performance of an “average” Triple A player called up to replace Major League regular A . . .

This post from TangoTiger is very relevant here. The title is “Everyone has their own WAR”, meaning that everybody has their own criteria for measuring players that ends up in the same place as WAR, even if they took the more scenic routes.

We all come up with our “single number”, even though we kick and scream that we shouldn’t come up with a single number.  If one guy argues that Felix is better than Lincecum, and the other argues the opposite, then guess what: they’ve each “smushed” a bunch of parameters, considerations and gut feelings to get to their final opinion.

[…]

The one good thing about the case-by-case basis is that it forces you to think about parameters.  You’d like to ding Manny Ramirez a little, you’d like to up Jeter a little.  So, you have to create a “heart” parameter.  And that’s perfectly fine!  Just spell it out that that’s what you are doing.  And tell us how much you are giving to each player for heart.  I have no problem with giving out wins for heart, over-and-above whatever his actual performance tells us.  Just spell it out and be consistent.

Anyone who tries to ascribe value to a player actually creates their own WAR. What Conlin should be screeching at is not the WAR stats themselves, but the criteria behind them.

I’m laughing too hard to continue. You saw what happened last season when Howard missed 19 games with an ankle sprain and was off-form the rest of the season, yet still managed 31 homers and 108 RBI.

The case has been made many times by now, but it is worth repeating since Howard gets so much credit for RBI: RBI is a bad statistic because it reflects more on the players batting ahead of Howard than Howard himself. If Howard has a bunch of players with .300 on-base percentages batting ahead of him, is he going to be anywhere near the league lead in RBI? Absolutely not. If Howard has players who get on base at a .350 clip batting in front of him, he will absolutely be at or near the top of the RBI list.

Howard hits for power, which is conducive to driving in runs. Other than that, though, Howard does not have a magical ability that allows other players to round the bases faster. I don’t point this out to be derisive to Conlin; it’s to be helpful — using RBI to ascribe value is like trying to eat soup with a fork: you’re using the least-efficient tool!

Conlin closes out his article by comparing Howard to Chuck Klein. It’s not the most outrageous comparison: Howard has a career 139 OPS+ while Klein finished at 137. But it doesn’t bolster any of Conlin’s points and only serves to beat down a straw man.

People who criticize Howard don’t do so because he’s unproductive; he is clearly still a productive player. The criticism comes from his being awarded a five-year, $125 million contract extension that pays him like one of the best players in the league*, but he is 31 years old and is clearly not anywhere near the top of the list. It is also a commensurate counter to the deification of Howard from traditionalists such as Conlin.

* The current value of one win above replacement (FanGraphs) is about $4.5 million. Howard would need to be better than a 4.4 WAR player in 2012 and ’13, and better than a 5.5 WAR player in each of 2014-16, assuming that value stays constant (it won’t, but it’s close enough). Howard has finished a season with 4.4 or more WAR exactly twice in his career (2006 and ’09).

There’s a way to give Howard his proper credit without deifying him. Doing so involves admitting both his flaws and the flaws of traditional statistics. Unfortunately, some people are too stubborn to admit that the Phillies’ first baseman may not be perfect.


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