After rupturing his Achilles tendon to end the NLDS last year against the St. Louis Cardinals, Ryan Howard began his slow climb back to the Phillies’ lineup. He didn’t return until July 6, by most accounts earlier than expected given the way he gingerly ran around the bases. Still, Howard was a welcome sight back at first base as the Phillies had utilized a less-than-exciting cast of characters in his stead, including Ty Wigginton (190 PA, .742 OPS), John Mayberry (75 PA, .625 OPS), Hector Luna (41 PA, .652 OPS), Laynce Nix (34 PA, .942 OPS), and Jim Thome (13 PA, .585 OPS).
Even as Ryan Howard set career lows in OPS in both 2010 (.859) and 2011 (.835), he was still an above-average hitter overall and slightly above-average for his position. No longer was he the 40-50 home home run, 135-150 RBI threat of yesteryear, but he was still a force to be reckoned with and still a player opposing teams needed to prepare for in pregame preparation. Since returning from the disabled list, however, he has been a shadow of his former self, even the 2010-11 version. In his 121 plate appearances, he is setting career-highs and lows and all the wrong categories:
- Walk rate: 9.1% (career average: 12.2%)
- Strikeout rate: 36.4% (career average: 27.6%)
- Isolated power: .222 (career average: .283)
- BABIP: .281 (career average: .323)
These are the basic stats for hitters that let you know how he is performing. This should be very alarming, especially in the first year of Howard’s five-year, $125 million contract. The walk rate tells you he isn’t being very patient, the strikeout rate tells you he is not making nearly enough contact, the isolated power tells you he isn’t making solid contact, and his BABIP backs up that point as well. Hitters tend to have a lot of control over their BABIP, as opposed to pitchers who typically don’t.
One big change in Howard’s game is that he is back to being an opposite-field hitter, but he has been such almost exclusively since returning. All seven of his home runs have been to right-center or further away from right field. In fact, only one has actually gone to the right of center field; Howard has not pulled any in his 121 PA.
The heat maps tell the story here. You can see a lot of blue (no power) where there once was plenty of red (lots of power).
And it holds true for both right- and left-handed pitchers.
What is concerning is that, although Howard has at least shown some power, he is hitting a lot of balls on the ground. FanGraphs puts his ground ball rate at 48 percent, well above his career average of 39 percent. As a result, he is sitting on career-lows in line drive rate and fly ball rate (excluding 2004-05) as well. Ground balls are great if you are a Juan Pierre-type who doesn’t hit for any power, has speed, and doesn’t force an infield shift. Howard, of course, wants to hit as few grounders as possible because he does induce that shift on the right side and he hits into it often as his hit chart indicates.
The average lefty has a .175 isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average) on inside pitches. Howard’s ISO is .000. From 2009-11, it was .254. In previous years, we worried that Howard was becoming too pull-happy and now he is not at all. There is a balance to be struck, but Howard has bounced from one extreme to the other.
The lack of contact is also a big red flag. Howard has always been a high-strikeout hitter, but 36 percent is astronomical even for him and even in the small sample size. To put this in perspective, Howard has taken the third-fewest swings (236) of the 21 National League first basemen who have logged at least 100 PA. Yet, he has the tenth-most swings and misses (82). In terms of percentages, Howard has swung at the second-fewest pitches in the strike zone (41 percent) and the third-most outside the strike zone (35 percent).
Whether Howard has made mechanical or approach changes to compensate for his Achilles injury or made a concerted effort to be less like he was last year and more like he was in 2006, it simply hasn’t worked thus far in 2012. Fortunately for him and for the Phillies, he has a free month and a half before the end of the season, as well as the off-season and spring training to iron out all of the kinks and return in 2013 as the first basemen the Phillies thought they were keeping around when they agreed to the five-year deal two seasons ago.