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.

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33 comments

  1. Nik

    December 01, 2011 11:52 AM

    How exactly are the Phillies going to work hard to extract as much value as they can? Its up to the player to make adjustments. The Phillies obviously believed in his work ethic enough to give him the money, so now its time to see if their faith will be justified.

  2. Bill Baer

    December 01, 2011 11:54 AM

    They’ve worked with Howard in the past and he’s been open to making changes. He even moved up in the batter’s box at one point during the past season, but moved back because he was more comfortable.

  3. LTG

    December 01, 2011 12:34 PM

    So, what’s up with Jiwan James? How should I read the minimal facts that I have available to me about him? On the one hand, he’s rated a top-ten prospect in the system. On the other, he is in the rule V draft and his stats are less than impressive. Are the people rating his talent wrong? Is the Phillies’ talent pool just that weak? Are the Phillies making a mistake by not protecting him? Lots of questions, I know, but something doesn’t quite add up here.

  4. Ajay

    December 01, 2011 12:37 PM

    For $125 million dollars they ought to hire a hitting coach just for Howard personally.

  5. Greg

    December 01, 2011 01:21 PM

    Sigh… how many different charts and graphs can we use to see what a terrible, awful, no-good extension this is?

  6. SABR

    December 01, 2011 02:26 PM

    Luckily for the Phillies, Bill has on several occasions pledged to pay the entire 125mil. Ruben dodged a bullet.

  7. Ajay

    December 01, 2011 04:30 PM

    Oh, good idea. Tax Ryan Howard $125 million to help pay down the deficit.

  8. JB Allen

    December 01, 2011 06:21 PM

    Occupy Ryan Howard!

  9. Phillie697

    December 01, 2011 09:51 PM

    For $125M, he can freaking learn how to bunt.

  10. David Molina

    December 01, 2011 10:26 PM

    Ryan Howard’s extension, is without a doubt, one of Mr. Amaro’s biggest mistakes. Howard is one of the most over-rated players in the game. He is a “deer in headlights” when the pressure is on. By the way, why is Charlie Manuel getting a free pass on his epic failure to get it done???!!! Charlie is another one who can’t perform under pressure. How and why is he not being held accountable for his incompetency? A first round exit is not acceptable.

  11. Jesse

    December 02, 2011 05:15 AM

    “By Bill Baer on Dec 1, 2011
    haha, I remember a time when the overwhelming majority of Phillies fans were in favor of the contract.”
    –When the heck was this??? All I remember was the universal scorn that summer, and not just the SABR heads but even the olds, like my dad…

  12. heather

    December 02, 2011 08:36 AM

    When did 40% become an overwhelming majority? I must have been absent the day they taught that in math class.

  13. LTG

    December 02, 2011 10:17 AM

    What did the Daily News folk have to say? That will probably give you a good idea of the average fans’ opinions.

    And, in the US, less than 40% of the population equals an overwhelming majority in our elections. If elections were run like most associations that vote, we’d never have a quorum.

  14. Bill Baer

    December 02, 2011 10:42 AM

    I know from personal experience that almost all Philly media types were in favor of the contract. Also why most in the Philly media hate me. :-P

  15. LTG

    December 02, 2011 11:23 AM

    Oh, and I want to give props to Alex Remington’s recent piece on fangraphs: www.fangraphs.com/blogs/index.php/cba-forbids-discrimination-on-sexual-orientation/.

    The piece itself is well written and the comments below it are sociologically fascinating, if not also above the usual intellectual level of most comment sections. Even the NY Times doesn’t get as good discussion on its site as some baseball blogs like this one and FG.

  16. LTG

    December 02, 2011 11:24 AM

    Oh, and if you look at the comments section you will see me being a bit of a jerk and a know-it-all. I sometimes cannot help myself.

  17. LTG

    December 02, 2011 12:11 PM

    I hope you had some beakers around to catch the liquid brains. My zombies are getting a bit waif-like.

  18. jauer

    December 02, 2011 04:29 PM

    Does the sexual orientation clause in the CBA mean no more hello kitty backpacks? Can’t they just have the rookies drink themselves into oblivion like the ’93 team instead? It’s more fun all the way around without the contrived pink-backback walk-to-the-bullpen.

  19. Phillie697

    December 02, 2011 09:31 PM

    I was briefly reminded of the late 90s when I heard of Howard’s extension, as I was panicking that’s where we are headed. I still sorta feel that way, although I decided to enjoy this historic rotation and not think about the bad times possibly ahead.

  20. Phillie697

    December 02, 2011 09:41 PM

    @BB,

    Any way we can invite some of those posters in that Howard extension blog who supported the signing to come back and tell us just how wrong they are?

    “125 million for the best hr hitter in the game, I say good job RAJ.” Kyle A.

    “I think that it’s easy to forget that $25M for a first baseman in 2015 may be more ‘middle of the road’ than highest paid player in the league. In addition, keepin Mr Five Dollar Footlong on this team is important to the phans and the community. Sometimes you cant put a dollar value on the intangibles.” DC Phils Fan

    “Howard has had four consecutive seasons with at least 45 home runs and 130 RBIs. Only two other players in baseball history have reached that plateau, Ken Griffey Jr. and Babe Ruth. The Babe did it six consecutive seasons.” LH

    “That is a missing piece to this puzzle when evaluating the contract. If Howard generates 5 million dollars in merchandise/tv/etc… revenue, that’s 5 million more in operating income that can be spent elsewhere. That is part of the attraction to keeping home grown, center piece players for the duration of their contract.” Ryan. To which BB said excellent point. Well, let see, anyone thinks Howard is generating $5M more in operating income at this point? And we’re in year ONE of the new deal.

    When you don’t perform, you don’t generate jack. Teams make money when they win, and they don’t usually win with a 1B making $25M/year while producing 1.6 WAR.

  21. ProduceJC22

    December 03, 2011 02:15 PM

    I think it was Pujols or Fielder who said that Howard’s extension was a “bad deal” [for Howard].

  22. JimT

    December 04, 2011 12:42 AM

    It’s kinda 50/50 now with Ryan after the serious Achilles tendon surgery. He could go downhill from here, and then the big contract will hurt the Phillies for years. It seems that’s the majority view in the comments thus far. But I believe it’s equally likely this will be the wake-up call Ryan needed. He’s still a young guy, very smart, very conscientious, very poised, and let’s not forget immensely talented. He has become a good fielder, and while he tailed off the last two years he carried the team in clutch situations and his stats his first few years were among the greatest in baseball history. The mystery to me is why Charlie Manuels, considered such a great hitting instructor, hasn’t cracked the code which is nicely pointed out in Bill Baer’s assessment here.

  23. Jesse

    December 04, 2011 12:43 PM

    JimT,
    What do you mean “could go downhill from here”? He’s been going downhill since the the season *before* he signed that extension. Achilles or otherwise… And he’s young for a human, but not at all “a young guy” for a professional athlete.

  24. hk

    December 04, 2011 06:53 PM

    How does any GM in his right mind sign Laynce Nix and his sub-.300 OBP for 2 years? Maybe they figure he’ll keep LF warm for Dom until 2014.

  25. LTG

    December 04, 2011 07:01 PM

    He’s going to keep it ice cold. Dom is already as good as Nix and probably better if given a decent chance to succeed. The only advantage Nix brings is better defense, and that might be on the decline. Why spend money on Laynce Nix when we already have one and maybe even a better one?

  26. derekcarstairs

    December 04, 2011 11:09 PM

    BB – When the teams employ the shift on Howard, don’t they also tend to pitch inside to him more? If so, isn’t it asking too much to expect Howard to become skilled as an inside-out hitter?

  27. Bill Baer

    December 05, 2011 01:03 AM

    No, according to the heat maps, when Howard puts a ground ball in play, the pitches are almost all on the outside part of the plate.

  28. Rob SJ

    December 05, 2011 01:56 PM

    I would wager that the approval ratings for Howard are still much higher than you would expect from reading these comments. There’s not much incentive for someone who’s pro-Howard to post here, and be ridiculed mercilessly. Anyway, the decline is clear and really inarguable, the only real question is if he can remain the full time 1B throughout the life of the contract or if he will become true dead money by year 4-5. I do question some of those who say he is a deer in the headlights in the clutch. We all remember those two series ending outs, but he has been clutch in other big spots (I specifically remember game 4 in Colorado when he doubled to tie it up with two outs in the 9th). The 3 run HR in game 1 against STL was also pretty huge at the time and triggered a big win, although obviously a distant memory now.

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