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.

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242 comments

  1. Bill Baer

    September 02, 2011 04:25 PM

    I definitely agree with your point in (1) but I’d need to see some Pitch F/X data before accepting (2).

  2. Jeff G.

    September 02, 2011 04:30 PM

    Can anyone find out who leads the league in RBI without actually recording a hit? I think this would clear some things up. Compare Howard and Kemp this year. Kemp has come to bat with 217 runners on first and 67 runners on third. Howard is at 196 and 86 respectively. So of course Howard is going to have a higher OBI%, he’s had more runners that he’s only had to advance one base, and less three bases. It’s actually pretty sad that his OBI% is only 0.2% higher given that.

  3. Cutter

    September 02, 2011 04:30 PM

    In the haste to rip apart my RBI argument, claiming that it is a flawed stat, you all seem to forget that pretty much every stat is a flawed stat.

    RBIs are somewhat dependent on the hitters in front of the hitter. Agreed.

    But isn’t the value of OBP also dependent on the hitters around a hitter?

    After all, if a batter reaches base, but gets stranded there, he hasn’t actually contributed anything towards the team’s winning.

    As for the RISP argument, both sides are saying the same thing, but both claim it backs up their point of view.

  4. Bill Baer

    September 02, 2011 04:34 PM

    That’s a non-sequitur argument, Cutter. OBP isn’t dependent on the hitters around a hitter, unless you want to argue that hitter OBP significantly fluctuates based on runners on base (and you’d need to provide sufficient evidence for such a claim).

    After all, if a batter reaches base, but gets stranded there, he hasn’t actually contributed anything towards the team’s winning.

    So, you’d take a batter with a .050 OBP as long as someone else hit a double to bring him home, as opposed to a player with a .400 OBP player backed up by a dreadful offense?

    o_O

  5. Phlipper

    September 02, 2011 04:40 PM

    From that article:

    “[Howard] sees fewer fastballs in “fastball counts” (55.0 percent) than any hitter in either league. And that percent has been plummeting precipitously, from 77.8 when he first reached the big leagues in September 2004 to 64.7 percent in his rookie of the year season in 2005, to the 50s shortly thereafter. Some fun.”

    Pitchers know he can’t hit breaking balls – particularly ones out of the strike zone. It stands to reason that they will throw him fewer breaking balls out of the strike zone with runners on base (which is concurrent with the removal of the shift – which results in better production when the shift isn’t on/when runners are on base).

    Of course, if the actual data show that he doesn’t get more fastballs when runners are on base, my whole theory is pretty much shot and Howard’s a bum.

  6. Phlipper

    September 02, 2011 04:42 PM

    Jeff G.

    That’s a good point – except you have to look at longer data sets to get a better sense of what’s going on.

    I’d say that the chances of Howard coming up with a higher % of runners of the runners on base at third as compared to first – in comparison to other elite hitters over seven years of data – is probably pretty small.

  7. Phlipper

    September 02, 2011 04:43 PM

    You want me to do the hard work of statistical analysis!!

    It’s much easier to sit back and carp about other people’s analysis.

  8. Bill Baer

    September 02, 2011 04:46 PM

    You make the claim, you must provide evidence. The burden of proof is on you.

    You’re doing the analog of saying, “There’s an invisible unicorn in my dining room. Prove to me that it doesn’t exist!”

    EDIT: This is my last comment for now. I don’t feel like sitting here debating this until the end of time. I’ll check back later.

  9. Phlipper

    September 02, 2011 04:49 PM

    True –

    But you are making a conclusion also, without a sufficient handling of all the relevant data.

    I am saying that his career production with runners on base (measured by OPS) is stellar. Add to that, a high %OBI (career), and a high hr/ab rate (career), and you have the conclusion that his performance as a cleanup hitter is at a very elite level.

    I am not saying I have the lock-tight explanation for why his OPS with runners on base is high – but I am offering two hypothetical explanations. Whether they are the reasons or not doesn’t change the fact of his production with runners on base.

  10. Jeff G.

    September 02, 2011 05:06 PM

    Last three seasons (percent of total runners on base):

    Howard: 1st-48.9% 2nd-31.4% 3rd-19.6%
    A-Gonz: 1st-50.7% 2nd-33.2% 3rd-15.9%
    Pujols: 1st-51.8% 2nd-31.6% 3rd-16.6%
    Fielder: 1st-49.6% 2nd-33.4% 3rd-17.0%
    Cabrera: 1st-52.5% 2nd-31.0% 3rd-16.3%
    Teixeira: 1st-49.6% 2nd-34.3% 3rd-16.0%

    I can go back further but I’m pretty sure it won’t change much.

  11. Phlipper

    September 02, 2011 05:23 PM

    Well – the fewer on second mitigates the greater number on third as compared to first. And how many of the runners that he knocked in from third were knocked in a runner if he were on second also (single, double, triple, HR)? And even if his higher %OBI is a product of that difference in % on 3rd as compared to % on first, you bring him down to the same level of %OBI production as you have with those other, elite players. Then you add in the additional RBIs from greater HR production.

    Still looks elite-level to me.

  12. Matt H

    September 02, 2011 05:26 PM

    Bill – you’ve done it! I have been convinced to calculate Ryan Howard’s personalized linear weights. Don’t worry, I will re-scale. Will be back in a little while when I have had time to do it.

    Care to hazard a guess on his wOBA over the past 3, 2, or 1 years? I am curious. My prior is an ignorant one – perhaps a 0.1 increase in wOBA, and my error bar on my prediction is +/- 0.2.

  13. Mark

    September 02, 2011 06:00 PM

    I would like to know why Howard and the Phils don’t try to have him change or work harder at his hitting so he can get rid of that shift with a higher average that would stop the shift. I really like having him bungle a few times and if he gets on base it would change.
    Onhis money

  14. Geo

    September 02, 2011 06:01 PM

    Don’t the improved numbers for BABIP (caused by grounder singles) with runners on base simply stem from the change in the defensive alignment and are thus the very reason he’s a better scorer with runners on base?

  15. Geo

    September 02, 2011 06:03 PM

    *better HITTER with runners on base

  16. Mark

    September 02, 2011 06:12 PM

    I would like to know why Howard and the Phils don’t try to have him change or work harder at his hitting so he can get rid of that shift with a higher average that would stop the shift. I really like having him bungle a few times and if he gets on base it would change.

    On his money I agree he over paid by about ten million but as far as that hurting Phils getting more talent I doubt that will effect them until and if they start over paying to many players even with luxury tax.

  17. Cutter

    September 02, 2011 07:10 PM

    “That’s a non-sequitur argument, Cutter. OBP isn’t dependent on the hitters around a hitter, unless you want to argue that hitter OBP significantly fluctuates based on runners on base (and you’d need to provide sufficient evidence for such a claim).”

    No, but the value of the OBP to the team is indeed dependent on the hitters after him.

    If a player with a lower OBP is scoring many more runs than a player with a higher OBP then maybe there is something behind it rather than just the surrounding lineup.

  18. Phillie697

    September 02, 2011 10:21 PM

    @Maestrom,

    1. Yes, I can in fact claim Howard isn’t a better hitter with men on base than without. In fact, that’s what I’ve been saying. He’s “better,” stat-wise, only because the shift isn’t as effective against him with men on base, as they have to pay attention to the runners as well. Howard is still the same exact hitter whether there is men on base or not. He just isn’t penalized as much for his fatal flaw. As I said, even JUST looking at his career OPS with men on base and extrapolate that to a full season, he BARELY justifies $25 million a year because he is a liability on the base paths and on defense. Basically, your claim of the BEST version of Howard is not even that good.

    2. The point of wOBA and the research behind it is that over the long-haul, a hit (single, double, triple, whatever) is equally valuable whether it’s done with men on base or not. You forget, a hit with no men on base means SOMEONE ELSE is going to hit with you on base, giving that person this supposed “advantage” you speak of. People keep forgetting this is still a team sport. Ryan Howard was not responsible by himself for those 100+ RBIs.

    3. Understand the above two concepts, you’ll realize why people say all of that is factored into WAR. What makes WAR incomprehensible to people who have not really learned all the advanced statistical research that has been done over the years is they have too much pee-conceptions that have basically been debunked to realize why WAR, by in large, is a much better stat than traditional stats people cling onto. Obviously every stat has its flaws, but why would you ever want to cling on to using your fingers to do math when you can buy a calculator or even a computer to do it for you?

  19. Geo

    September 02, 2011 11:07 PM

    Sorry to jump in here, Maestrobe and Phillipper, but I really would like to help. . .

    1. The point Rob was trying to make (i think) is that it is indisputable that RH is more effective with runners on base. The reason is what you concede. He hits where defenders are not when they can’t employ the shift. No one thinks it’s a good thing that he can’t do so with the bases empty. But that doesn’t change the fact that a PA by him with RISP is more likely to produce a positive result. And we know it’s not random– you agree so yourself. (And, until we have Matt H’s statistics let ‘s just assume that Howard’s improvement with RISP is meaningfully more significant than other hitters. That’s the underlying premise of this argument.)

    2. You say a hit is a hit is a hit. But is it? Sabermetrics assumes that it is because the theory is that when a batter gets a hit ( and for how many bases) is not affected by runners on base, except to the extent that having runners on base helps all batters equally (bc the pitcher is pitching out of the stretch, he’s distracted by base-stealers, not ideal defensive alignments, etc.). But what if one player has hitting tendencies that give him an extra boost in that situation? The result would be that the player helps his team more when there is a greater opportunity to score runs. It doesn’t matter whether RH drives in the runs. He predictably gets more hits when his team has a chance to drive in more runs. Why is that not more valuable than the theoretical player whose OPS does not meaningfully change when there are RISP?

    3. I understand your points, but I don’t think you understand the logical arguments that others are trying to make. No one is discounting math or taking off his shoes to counter your arguments. We are suggesting another variable that we think should be plugged into the calculator. In the end, it may not be a meaningful variable. And Howard certainly doesn’t deserve praise for predictable element of his game that, in fact, hurts his team when the bases are empty. But I thought the goal of Sabermetrics is to take meaningful, non-random variables into account and to explain outliers with stats, not play games with praise and blame. The goal is predicting future success. Why are additional variables not helpful merely bc they don’t come from what you deem a skill?

  20. Nathan Buydos

    September 02, 2011 11:41 PM

    People cut down Ryan Howard. I’m sorry any major league baseball player that can have his stats for his first 6 full years is a great player. Age does have it’s disadvantages. Michael Jack Schmidt is 8th on the all time strike out list. Ryan is put down for his strike outs, so was Schmidt. If a player can hit 30 plus homers and have 100 plus RBI’s each season who cares about the rest of his stats. You’re also talking about 80-90 runs scored a season. Give Ryan a break. There is no one in baseball that can do this.

  21. Matt H

    September 03, 2011 01:15 AM

    Phillies697-

    Point 1 is arguable, and in fact more interesting than the current debate for a couple of reasons. But it is a digression from the point at hand.

    Point 2 is demonstrably false. You do not understand wOBA.

    Point 3 is true insofar as computers are better than calculators are better than hands. But you are militating in favor of a flawed stat in the face of an argument over its flaws. This is an asymmetric fight. No one is saying “RBIs Rulz”. There is no single comprehensive stat that precludes value of other advanced or traditional stats. The creators of the stat you seem to favor acknowledge this.

  22. JC

    September 03, 2011 01:44 AM

    @Matt H.

    I agree that no one is saying RBI rule. But a lot of people seem to be saying that RBI are indicative of a good hitter. RBI are not indicative of a good hitter. If you want to say that a good hitter gets RBI then fine. But that is a different argument.

    It is interesting that you say that
    “there is no single comprehensive stat that precludes value of other advanced or traditional stats.” I would argue that RBI falls into the same trap then. And being that people want to elevate what his RBI mean then…

    Apologies if I am misinterpreting what you are saying…..

  23. Matt H

    September 03, 2011 02:43 AM

    JC – I don’t think you are misinterpreting anything that I am saying. But just to make sure, here is what I’m saying: RBIs are a stat with additional information above and beyond what the hitting component of WAR (wOBA) offers, and you should look at both. wOBA is a very cool statistic but has shortcomings that have been described here by quite a few posters. To put it bluntly, if you were trying to explain WPA with both wOBA and %OBI, the latter would not be a redundant statistic.

    So that’s my long winded way of saying I think we are in agreement, unless I am misreading you.

  24. Matt H

    September 03, 2011 03:02 AM

    BTW, I realize an ambiguous word choice has the potential to be a source of confusion. When I say “above and beyond”, I just mean that obviously wOBA is the stat with the most explanatory power, so it has the primary role here. Other statistics have power “above and beyond” wOBA when they are not rendered completely obsolete, which many are not.

  25. Phlipper

    September 03, 2011 08:10 AM

    “But a lot of people seem to be saying that RBI are indicative of a good hitter. RBI are not indicative of a good hitter”

    FWIW – that would not be my argument.

    RBI, in an of themselves, are not indicative of a good hitter. The rate at which a batter knocks in runners, controlled for the number of opportunities he has, is ABSOLUTELY a measure of a hitter.

    It is not the only measure of a hitter. The rate that the hitter gets on base is also a measure. How the hitter performs when there is no one on base is also a measure. The rate at which a hitter knocks himself in (HRs) is a measure. the # of pitches a hitter sees is a measure.

    But all those other measures are similarly meaningless if they are not evaluated relative to how other hitters perform along the same metric.

    Controlled for the rate of opportunity, the comparative rate at which Ryan Howards knocks in runners (and drives himself in) is a perfectly valid measure of his value to the team.

  26. Jim

    September 03, 2011 08:12 AM

    You know, I hear that in soccer, strikers are usually pretty lousy defenders. In fact, some are considered to only have a single skill – putting the ball into the back of the net. Funny how no one ever calls them on that. Better get sabermetrics (safermetrics?) on the job right away!

  27. curtwill

    September 03, 2011 09:36 AM

    This was a good discussion, and very respectful too. A lot of times, in a contentious discussion, people lose their cool.

    It’s good to see that there were great arguments being expressed without the rancor that tends to happen in discussions like these.

    I have nothing to add because it is true that Ryan has decline in some areas, he has maintained in other areas and it would be redundant to speak what I have already posted. So I will post what Hank Aaron said of Ryan Howard around 2008, because I think it is appropriate to the debate is about:

    Ryan is a great ball player and people have to realize that he may not ever hit .270, .280 or .290, but he’s going to make a vital contribution to his ball club,” said Aaron, who hit 755 home runs and is second on the all-time list. “He may strike out twice tonight and then go out the next night and hit two home runs. That’s the kind of ball player he is. He’s a great ball player.”

    thechrismurrayreport.org/2011/08/21/sabermetrics-my-a-ryans-howards-true-value-to-the-phillies/

  28. Maestrobe

    September 03, 2011 09:43 AM

    I never meant to focus on RBIs. My focus was always on scoring opportunitiesbfor the team. If Howard walks or singles in those situations, it still helps the team.

  29. Jartrek

    September 03, 2011 10:47 AM

    I hate to say it, but Phillies fans always seem to focus on negatives. Man, sit back and enjoy this time. As a person who lived through ’64, there is no better time in Phillies history then now. Don’t get caught up in paralysis by analysis. To much focus on statistics tend to take away from your enjoyment as to how the team is doing right now. Times are great; enjoy them as they will not last forver.
    Phillies old timer

  30. LTG

    September 03, 2011 02:47 PM

    Where’re the Howard-adjusted linear weights? I want to see, I want to see, I want to see.

  31. LTG

    September 03, 2011 03:39 PM

    Jartrek,

    Some of us enjoy things more through the process of making our understanding of them explicit. Critics need not be misanthropes and malcontents.

  32. LTG

    September 03, 2011 03:47 PM

    I have to correct something I posted earlier. The difference between Howard’s ShH/FIB (136) and his actual wRC+ (117) is mostly the result of regressing his PA/HR rate to his career rate (~15) from his current rate (~19).

  33. Bill Baer

    September 04, 2011 01:41 AM

    Had to share these tweets by Colin Wyers (@cwyers) on Twitter:

    RBIs are very player-focused way of evaluating team run scoring; you look at what occurred during each player’s at-bats and apportion credit

    But a system like linear weights is a very team-focused model of how an offense works – it recognizes that run scoring is a team effort.

    [...]

    Analysis that starts with a player’s outcomes without an understanding of how those outcomes interact with teammates is incomplete.

  34. Matt H

    September 04, 2011 05:04 AM

    Ok, LTG. Howard’s wOBA increases by between 10 and 23 points by accounting for his MOB differential, depending on what adjustments you think are appropriate. Not that big! But I think that adds up to $3-7 million in salary over the course of a year for the penny pinchers in this thread (joking).

  35. LTG

    September 04, 2011 09:39 AM

    Thanks, Matt H. Certainly interesting to see the result. I’m not at all surprised that the adjustment was not large. If only this would settle the debate.

  36. Cutter

    September 04, 2011 10:24 AM

    @Bill:

    Couldn’t the same be said about any individual statistic?

    We’re ultimately trying to determine an individual’s value in a team sport, and we’re never going to get a 100% accurate measure of that because the impact of just about anything a player does depends on his teammates.

  37. Maestrobe

    September 04, 2011 01:47 PM

    Although I have only the vaguest idea re: what calculations Matt H actually applied (and although those calculations came nowhere close to justifying Howard’s salary), I feel somehow validated.

  38. Matt H

    September 04, 2011 03:20 PM

    Maestrobe and LTG – I downloaded Howard’s split stats, then did some imputation to find the linear weights for various MOB scenarios. (I didn’t do anything related to how many outs there are.) So he’s still using league average linear weights rather than team specific or individual specific ones.

    After calculating this “raw” wOBA I adjusted back to league average PAs because Howard gets more PAs than the league with MOB. This lowers his wOBA from 28 points higher to about 20 points higher than his current wOBA.

    There is no “clutch factor” in this because the linear weights are time independent and scenario independent (other than the number of people on base).

    I’m gonna do it for other years as well. Now that I put it together it’s pretty easy to do for any player in any year.

  39. JB Allen

    September 04, 2011 08:08 PM

    For everyone saying that Howard hits better with RISP because RISP prevent defenders from exploiting his weaknesses, you could also just say that RISP allow Howard to exploit his hitting strength more than it allows others.

    Bigger picture, if statistical analysis shows that Howard hits marginally better with RISP, and sample size is significant enough, then it’s safe to say that he may very well hit marginally better with RISP. Several of those who’ve made this point here have NOT been arguing about “heart and soul” or “clutch” or any of that other stuff. So enough with the straw men (as legit as that criticism may be in other forums), trying to change the value of an objective fact, or any of that other stuff that this website and others typically try to debunk. It’s a molehill compared to the mountain of silliness presented by Joe Morgan and his ilk, but it’s still silliness.

    [For the record, I'm assuming that the numbers back up a marginal improvement for Howard with RISP. If the numbers don't back this up, then the numbers indicate no marginal improvement. That's fine. Howard's extension blows, regardless of the RISP advantage. Greg Luzinski. Cecil Fielder. Mo Vaughn. Richie Sexton. Adam Dunn. Big, beefy, and done by 33.]

  40. Cutter

    September 05, 2011 11:35 AM

    Just wanted to point out that in yesterday’s game, with a runner on second and Utley, Howard, and Pence due up, it was Howard who received the intentional walk.

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