Investigating Ryan Howard’s Decline

Last night against the Cincinnati Reds, Ryan Howard hit two home runs and drove in three runs. The latter moved him up to 102 on the season, tied with Prince Fielder for the most in the National League. It also marked the sixth consecutive season in which Howard has driven in 100 or more runs. Along with 29 home runs, the narrative has been that Howard is having another typically great season.

Unfortunately, that is not the case. Howard is sitting on a career-low wOBA at .352, more than 30 points below his career average and 14 points below his previous career-low in 2008. His overall power, as measured by isolated Power (slugging percentage minus batting average), does not begin to compare with his 2005-09 seasons. Elsewhere, he cuts into some of his offensive production with well below-average base running (per FanGraphs, his -6.4 base running runs ranks second-worst in baseball) and he isn’t anything more than an average first baseman defensively. As a result, Howard has just 1.3 fWAR, placing him among the likes of Edwin Encarnacion and Alcides Escobar, not among the likes of Joey Votto (6.7 fWAR) and Adrian Gonzalez (5.7) as the narrative would have you believe.

With Howard’s five-year $125 million contract extension set to kick in after the season, there is a lot of reason for concern. He turns 32 years old in November and he isn’t developing any new skills to offset his offensive decline. Add in the fact that teams take extra steps to turn him into an out — by using a defensive shift and by utilizing left-handed relievers — and you have a potential recipe for disaster.

The problem this year has been more than his production against lefties, which is down about 30 points in wOBA compared to his career average; rather, it has been his performance against right-handed pitchers, whom he has typically battered for the bulk of his offensive production. His wOBA against RHP is down more than 40 points from his career average, amplified by the 230 extra plate appearances he has had against them as opposed to lefties.

As pointed out in early June, Howard simply isn’t going to left field the way he used to, both making the infield shift more of a nuisance and giving the pitchers extra room to make their pitches. The trend has continued, as the following spray charts from Texas Leaguers illustrate:

Howard is having a down-year in BABIP as well. His .297 mark is the second-lowest of his career and is about 30 points below his career average. For pitchers, we usually write this off as a fluke, but BABIP for hitters is different and tends to be representative of skill.

2011

Career

NL 2011

Ground

.164

.197

.237

Fly

.127

.176

.137

Line

.824

.753

.709

The increase in line drive BABIP isn’t meaningful since he hits fewer of them in comparison to the other two batted ball types and thus is more prone to randomness. Additionally, we can write off some of the decline in ground ball BABIP to randomness as well as the efficiency of the infield shift. The fly balls make up the bulk of the issue.

This appears to be a quality-of-contact problem, which is unfortunate since Howard’s eye at the plate has slightly improved. After three  years of consecutive decline in BB%, Howard brought it back up to 11%, just a shade below his career average. Additionally, against right-handed pitchers, Howard is swinging at more fastballs and less at off-speed stuff. The following table shows the rate at which he swung at each pitch type against RHP:

2010

2011

FB

43.1%

51.3%

SL

48.9%

44.5%

CU

45.3%

34.1%

CH

55.4%

50.8%

In a typical year for Howard, this change would lead to tremendous offensive production. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been able to turn this improved plate discipline into extra-base hits or even singles. Instead, he finds himself sandwiched between Jhonny Peralta and Matt Joyce in slugging percentage at .489.

For many people, seeing Howard’s high HR and RBI totals alongside declines in most Sabermetric statistics is hard to resolve. But even if you don’t buy into WAR, or even wOBA, it is very difficult to put a nice shine on a soon-to-be 32-year-old first baseman about to begin a five-year, $125 million contract who is declining in the only area in which he provides value. As Joe Posnanski put it last year:

That is to say … [Howard] has what Bill James has called “old-player skills.” Bill, you probably remember, immortalized Tom Brunansky by pinning him as the Old Player Skills Buddha. The concept is that players with old player skills (power and plate discipline, for instance) but without what you would have to call young player skills (speed and the ability to hit for average, for instance) tend to grow old quite fast. Brunansky was a very good player who expired between age 31 and age 32. There are many similar stories.

Maybe Howard ages gracefully, and there is enough inflation between now and 2016 to make the contract somewhat normal. But, as Posnasnski wrote, it’s not a bet the Phillies are likely to win. At $5 million per fWAR, the Phillies will be paying Howard as a four-win player in 2012. Howard would need to have a scorching-hot September to even come close to a two-win season in 2011.