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.

twitter.com/jh_moore/status/215913844550279168

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.

Howard:

Advances
Year Age <2,3B Scr % 0,2B Adv %
2004 24 4 1 25% 2 1 50%
2005 25 23 14 61% 19 13 68%
2006 26 41 20 49% 29 21 72%
2007 27 54 18 33% 27 6 22%
2008 28 42 23 55% 17 6 35%
2009 29 56 30 54% 30 15 50%
2010 30 44 21 48% 31 15 48%
2011 31 48 23 48% 16 7 44%
8 Yrs 312 150 48% 171 84 49%
MLB Averages 51% 56%
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 6/22/2012.

Pence:

Advances
Year Age <2,3B Scr % 0,2B Adv %
2007 24 23 10 43% 20 12 60%
2008 25 44 20 45% 30 19 63%
2009 26 24 10 42% 37 19 51%
2010 27 33 18 55% 27 16 59%
2011 28 43 22 51% 22 14 64%
2011 28 29 14 48% 17 12 71%
2011 28 14 8 57% 5 2 40%
2012 29 23 9 39% 15 7 47%
6 Yrs 190 89 47% 151 87 58%
MLB Averages 51% 56%
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 6/22/2012.

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.

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24 comments

  1. hk

    June 22, 2012 10:44 AM

    Slightly off topic, but how bad is Juan Pierre defensively that Charlie replaces him late in games with JMJ moving from 1B to LF and Wigginton playing 1B?

  2. Phylan

    June 22, 2012 12:38 PM

    Everything Ryan Howard ever does or has happen to him ever proves that you were all wrong about Ryan Howard and he’s one of the best first basemen in baseball

  3. lorecore

    June 22, 2012 12:47 PM

    Bill Baer: “Phillies’ #4 hitters this year (mostly Pence, Carlos Ruiz, and Jim Thome) have posted a .282/.354/.513 line.”

    Put Howard’s line in the #4 spot and put Pence/Ruiz in combination with his numbers and the scoring would be much better. Imagine a 3-4-5 of Pence-Howard-Ruiz compared to what we’ve been playing with so far. Account for the consecutive-ness of that OBP/SLG and you’ll absolutely see a spike in run production.

  4. lorecore

    June 22, 2012 01:03 PM

    Baer: “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.”

    This is a completely invalid comparison with hundreds of inconsistencies, and the fact that you believe any conclusion can be drawn from such a comparison is very disheartening to a reader who visits this website to become more opened-minded/observational to view points on baseball statistics.

  5. Bill Baer

    June 22, 2012 01:43 PM

    @ lorecore

    First comment: I addressed that with the Wigginton comment towards the end.

    Second comment: How so?

  6. Pencilfish

    June 22, 2012 01:50 PM

    Bill,

    Phil Sheridan’s article is really about intangibles. You explain away Hunter Pence’s struggles in 2012 as “likely random” and “not meaningful”. Phil says it’s mental.
    Unfortunately that’s very hard to quantify. You also ignored Phil’s statement about Howard’s power. The Phillies are hitting well, but the singles are not translating into runs because the power is absent from the middle of the lineup. The bottom line is the Phillies were 29-18 in 2011 and 22-23 this year on May 23, both without Utley. The difference? Howard.

  7. Bill Baer

    June 22, 2012 01:55 PM

    @ Pencilfish

    Objectively, randomness is an infinitely more likely explanation for Hunter Pence’s woes than the sports equivalent of magic.

    Re: power, from above:

    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.

  8. Fatalotti

    June 22, 2012 01:57 PM

    Phillies runs against/game through May 22, 2011: 3.11

    Phillies runs against/game through May 22, 2012: 3.95

    Not agreeing or disagreeing with the premise of the article, just responding to Pencilfish that the difference in record this year is solely due to Howard being absent. The Phillies offense has been quite capable this year, and is, surprisingly, near the bottom of the reasons of why they are in such a hole. The pitching has been notably worse this year, especially in the bullpen.

  9. Pencilfish

    June 22, 2012 02:24 PM

    Fatalotti,

    How many of these runs are earned
    (both in 2011 and 2012)? Not only the bullpen, but the defense has been notably worse this year.

    Again, Phil’s article is about the mental aspect (or magic as Bill says) which is difficult to quantify.

    Since it looks like Utley will be back before Howard, it will be interesting to see how the stats change (but beware of small sample size) with Utley and without Howard and then when Howard is in the lineup.

  10. Pencilfish

    June 22, 2012 02:28 PM

    Bill,

    Do you have stats that break down the performance of the #4 hitter in specific situations such as runner on 2nd and 0 outs or 3rd and less than 2 outs, etc? That would be much more telling than raw stats that you are quoting. I have seen the 2012 Phillies fail in these situations (not just the #4 hitter) many times, but it would be interesting to see if any discernible difference appears for this specific case.

  11. lorecore

    June 22, 2012 02:30 PM

    Bill: You said Howard would put Wigginton’s bat on the bench, but you didn’t address that Ruiz’s production could be moved lower in the order with Howard in the #4 spot.

    If Howard’s replacement(Wigginton and others) were solely batting 4th, i would agree with you, but they’ve had to take other people to bat 4th while Howard’s replacement has been batting mostly in the 5-6-7 spots. If you want to properly evaluate, plug in Howard’s line to those spots and compare.

  12. lorecore

    June 22, 2012 02:35 PM

    Comparing 2011 phillies vs 2012 phillies is apples to oranges. Different players, having different seasons, hitting in different spots. There are so many changing variables, how can you isolate Ryan Howard and attempt to come to a conclusion?

  13. Frank Reynolds

    June 22, 2012 03:30 PM

    I think the articles written on this subject are kind of silly. We have no idea how much impact the injuries on both these players. No offense Bill I understand that you wrote this article to counter Sheridan’s article. I just think it was kind of a waste that he wrote it in the first place.

  14. Frank Reynolds

    June 22, 2012 03:57 PM

    *are

  15. Ned

    June 22, 2012 04:29 PM

    What are your thoughts on this…
    With howard back, it moves that #4 hitter to another spot in the lineup, therefore replacing a different player (likely Wigginton as you said). So comparing Howard to the current batch of cleanup hitters isn’t as relevant as you make it out to be I don’t think. Not completely disagreeing with the point of the article, just adding my 2 cents.

  16. Bill Baer

    June 22, 2012 04:31 PM

    @ Ned

    That was in response to what Sheridan wrote:

    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.

  17. LTG

    June 22, 2012 08:17 PM

    I didn’t know Phil Sheridan has a degree in psychology.

  18. JRFarmer

    June 22, 2012 08:26 PM

    Bill, thanks so much for this post, I truly enjoyed it! Sheridan is such a wanker.

  19. Phlipper

    June 24, 2012 06:48 PM

    As long as you ignore the most relevant stat (not the only relevant stat, but the most relevant) for evaluating Howard’s contributions to the team – OBI% – then you will only continue to confirm your biases.

  20. Me

    June 25, 2012 01:33 PM

    Only 4 years til that beauty of a contract runs out!!

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