Ryan Howard and the Shift

Acta Sports posted their most recent “Stat of the Week”, this time covering “the Ted Williams shift”, when opposing teams put three defenders on the right side of the infield when a left-handed batter is at the plate. Ryan Howard is a prominent victim of this strategy, and it shows in the results. Howard was one of five lefties to face the shift at least 200 times in the past two seasons. When there was no shift, he hit .273; when there was a shift, he hit .174. With 200 batted balls, the difference between .273 and .174 is, of course, 20 hits.

The following hit chart, courtesy ESPN Stats & Info, shows all of the ground balls Howard hit between 2010-11 that were singles, doubles, or outs. Specifically, look at the cluster within the red circle that I, ever the artist, added.

Howard can avoid the shift, but it will take a methodological change. Teams stack up on the right side of the infield because, in recent years, Howard has been pull-happy. If Howard was able to go to left field with more frequency, then it becomes less optimal for teams to crowd in between first and second base. Additionally, Howard tended to stand towards the outside of the batter’s box. The only ways he went to left field with any regularity resulted from guessing completely right or guessing completely wrong (swinging late). Others have suggested that, every now and then, Howard should lay down a bunt when facing the shift. As he doesn’t have too much experience bunting, it’s asking a lot to have him try to lay down a strategic bunt in a specific location. If he were to succeed with this, however, teams would be taking a risk when their third baseman shifts over to shortstop.

As his five-year, $125 million contract extension begins, Howard risks slumping even further if he does not make some key adjustments at the plate. He finished with 1.4 and 1.6 fWAR in each of the past two seasons (a full-time league-average player will be found at an even 2.0). The first baseman has always been a guess hitter and that doesn’t portend to change going forward, but if Howard doesn’t make any mechanical changes — such as moving closer to the plate and going to the opposite-field with more regularity — then the team should force him to do so. $125 million is a lot of money and it will be a big factor, ultimately, in the Phillies’ success and failure over the next five years. The Phillies can sit on their hands and hope their investment works out, or they can actively work to extract as much value from it as possible.