Keep Howard Off the Plate?

One of the common refrains during the playoffs was that Ryan Howard was too far off the plate, hindering his ability to reach outside pitches. It is true: Howard was further off the plate than he had been last year. Compare the following two screen caps.

2011

2010

While the camera views are slightly different, you can see that Howard’s foot is on the chalk of the left-handed batter’s box in the image from this season (September 15 vs. Marlins) while his back foot is in the middle of the batter’s box in last year’s image (April 17 vs. Marlins).

The question is: did this actually hinder his ability to reach outside pitches and put quality swings on them? As best as I can tell, the answer is no. Using data and heat maps from ESPN Stats & Information, I compared Howard’s numbers on the outer-third of the plate and further in 2010 and ’11. (Click to enlarge)

2011

2010

Howard’s coverage wasn’t quite as good up in the strike zone, but he handled lower pitches better. Overall, the difference is minimal.

Year AVG OBP SLUG OPS K% BB% HR% BABIP wOBA ISO
2010 .271 .359 .473 .832 24.9% 12.5% 5.5% .323 .347 .202
2011 .256 .363 .458 .821 24.6% 14.7% 5.1% .307 .342 .202

On outside pitches classified as “hard” (fastballs, cutters, sinkers, and splitters), there wasn’t much of a difference. Howard’s ISO dropped from .277 to .265 while his average rose from .311 to .353. On soft pitches, Howard’s ISO didn’t change by much (.125 to .149) but his BABIP dropped significantly, from .298 to .222. Maybe it’s the quality of contact being made? Starting with fly balls:

2011

2010

Howard actually hit “soft” pitches further in 2011 than in 2010. The location of pitches on which he hit line drives changed, however.

2011

2010

Many of the line drives hit up in the zone in 2010 were fly balls in 2011. It could be a classification error, but it may also be a decline in quality of contact.

Additionally, Howard’s ground/fly ratio changed. In 2010, it was equal (38/38); in 2011, he hit more ground balls (44/34) with an equivalent amount of line drives (15/16)*.

*Note: Raw totals, not percentages.

As mentioned, Howard’s overall BABIP dropped. Here is a specific breakdown by batted ball type on “soft”, outside pitches:

Type 2011 2010
Ground .102 .225
Fly .222 .256
Line .824 .800

The location of pitches that Howard hit on the ground changed as well.

2011

2010

Obviously, Howard should not be hitting pitches up and outside on the ground; he should be lifting those over the left field fence. It stands to reason that, while moving off the plate didn’t have a significant impact on his production overall, it did change his success on pitches in certain locations.

Hitting is not just based on mechanics and timings; it is also based on comfort and feeling. If there is no significant impact of his standing further away from the plate, but he feels more comfortable there, then he should stay off the plate. However, Howard might be able to improve his odds of success by moving closer and pushing outside pitches over the left field fence the way he used to circa 2005-09.