Mourning Ryan Howard
Phil Sheridan published a fantastic piece of stathead troll bait yesterday, lamenting Ryan Howard‘s absence and fantasizing about what his presence in the lineup could have meant to the Phillies. Some choice quotes:
Howard’s extended absence this season won’t settle anything. Probably nothing will. But the state of the Phillies offense without Howard – and, yes, without Chase Utley, too – certainly has provided a bit of credence to the argument that Howard’s impact is far-reaching.
The presence of Jim Thome in the lineup for a nine-game interleague trip helped support the point. In 60 games under National League rules, going into Wednesday’s sweaty meeting with the Colorado Rockies, the Phillies scored a total of 244 runs. That’s 4.1 runs per game.
In nine games with Thome as the designated hitter, the Phillies scored 53 runs. That’s 5.9 runs per game. Add nearly two runs per game to those other 60 and maybe the Phillies aren’t chasing anybody in the NL East.
This is not pure science. Granted, there were other variables in play here besides Thome. But there’s no getting around it. The lineup just felt different with Thome’s bat in the middle of the order.
Howard’s critics dismiss the RBI as a primitive statistic, one that says less about a hitter than about the on-base percentage of the hitters in front of him. Watch the Phillies strand runners on base every night and the good old RBI doesn’t seem so worthless and quaint.
Howard, in the worst season of his career last year, posted a .253/.346/.488 line. Bad for him, of course, but not terrible. It put him near the positional average, as fellow Sweet Spotter Jack Moore pointed out.
Average first baseman last season: .270/.350/.451. Ryan Howard: .253/.346/.488.
— dB | Jackie Peanuts @ G5 (@jh_moore) June 21, 2012
Could the Phillies use an average player? Absolutely. Among Phillies with at least 70 plate appearances, only Juan Pierre, Hunter Pence, and Carlos Ruiz have been better than the league average offensively. And Pierre has the gaudiest sub-.750 OPS you’ve ever seen. Phillies first basemen — a combination of Ty Wigginton, John Mayberry, Hector Luna, Laynce Nix, and Jim Thome — have posted a .265/.325/.425 line, so the power has certainly been missed but that’s about it.
However, Sheridan’s assumption that the Phillies would be significantly better is not correct. Last year, with a full season of Howard, the Phillies averaged 4.4 runs per game, about 6.5 percent better than the league average. This year, the Phillies are averaging 4.3 runs per game, three percent better than the league average. Over a 162-game season, the difference is 16 runs.
Most of the difference is attributed to Chase Utley’s absence. In 2010-11, two injury-plagued seasons and the low-point in his career, he posted a combined .267/.367/.435 line. Phillies second basemen — a combination of Freddy Galvis, Michael Martinez, Pete Orr, and Mike Fontenot — have combined for a .250/.277/.394 line. The quartet also stole just one base in three attempts, compared to the 27 bases Utley stole in 29 attempts in his most recent two seasons. And while Galvis was more than adequate defensively filling in for Utley, the playing time given to the other three certainly cut into the Phillies’ run prevention as they are nowhere near the caliber of Utley in the field.
I will give Sheridan credit for this, however: Hunter Pence hasn’t been good at driving in runners this year. The key words, of course, are “this year” because Pence otherwise has been equally as efficient on a percentage basis.
Pence is down to 39 percent driving in runners on third base with less than two outs. People hate to hear this explanation, but it’s very likely random and not meaningful in any way, especially based on his previous career numbers (see also: Howard in 2007) and the small sample size. For example, the difference between 48 and 39 percent seems large, but in 23 opportunities, Howard’s 48 percent would only account for two extra runs, or one-fifth of a win. Over a full season, it is less than half of one win. Otherwise, Pence has been Howard’s equal or better in those situations.
The last damning bit of evidence that we are still, in 2012, vastly exaggerating Ryan Howard’s impact is this: Phillies’ #4 hitters this year (mostly Pence, Carlos Ruiz, and Jim Thome) have posted a .282/.354/.513 line. Last year, Phillies #4 hitters (almost all PA belonging to Howard) posted a .250/.342/.477 line. In 2010, Phillies #4 hitters (again, mostly Howard) posted a .271/.351/.490 line. Believe it or not, but the Phillies this year have gotten more production out of the cleanup spot than they have with Howard in 2010-11.
The biggest benefit a healthy Howard would have had on the team is pushing Ty Wigginton out of a regular spot in the lineup. Wigginton has accounted for 49 percent of the Phillies’ PA by first basemen, and has a .785 OPS to show for it. That’s not terrible, mind you, but Howard’s career-low .835 OPS last year would have been much more preferable. And, say what you will about Howard’s defense, but he is definitively better than Wigginton. Additionally, Wigginton’s bat would have been used more often as a pinch-hitter, and he may have been able to be productive in that role as currently, Phillies pinch-hitters have combined for a .612 OPS, the 12th-highest in the National League.
In the end, though, if you are spending time mourning the loss of Howard and not Utley, you are poorly allocating your tears. According to Baseball Reference, Howard was worth two wins above a replacement level player in 2010-11 combined while Utley was at 9.4 WAR. FanGraphs mostly validates that, putting Howard at 3 WAR and Utley at 9.3 WAR. There is good news, though: Utley may rejoin the Phillies before the calendar flips to July. Perhaps with Utley back in the lineup, the Phillies can get on one of their patented second-half rolls and make a historic run at a sixth division title.