Ryan Howard went 1-for-4 with two more runs batted in yesterday as the Phillies dropped the series finale in Houston, a disappointment in their chase for the National League’s second Wild Card spot. Howard’s RBI total on the season moved up to 46 in just 61 games and 253 plate appearances. In a full season, that would put him on pace for over 120 RBI, a threshold we had gotten used to seeing Howard cross in the past. However, as usual, the RBI statistic is painting a very inaccurate picture of a player’s actual offensive contributions.
All of the signs point to a dramatic decline for Howard, some of which was to be expected after returning from his Achilles injury — some would argue too soon. Howard is walking at the lowest rate of his career, striking out at the highest rate of his career, and hitting for the least amount of power in his career.
The 0.29 walk-to-strikeout ratio would rank among the worst in baseball if he had a sufficient amount of plate appearances to qualify. His 33.2 percent strikeout rate is second only to Adam Dunn‘s 33.6 percent. The next-highest strikeout rate belongs to Pedro Alvarez at 30.5 percent, painting a veritable chasm between Dunn, Howard, and the rest.
Among first basemen, Howard’s .183 isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average) ranks 24th among 44 first basemen with at least 250 plate appearances. More importantly, it signifies a drastic loss of power when compared to his marks in previous seasons. 60 percent of his hits are singles this year, the second-highest rate of his career (2010, 61.2%) and way above his normal rate, between 48 and 54 percent. Home runs account for only one out of every five of his hits in 2012, compared to between one in three and one in four previously in his career.
Weighted on-base average, a much more accurate measure of offensive production than RBI, has Howard at .302 this year. His career average is .381 and even in his less-productive seasons in 2010 and ’11, he was still up at .367 and .354. The league average for a first baseman is .330. The difference between 2011 Howard and 2012 Howard, using wOBA and on a scale of 650 PA, is 29 runs. 29 runs is equivalent to about three wins, meaning that if the 2012 Phillies had last year’s version of Howard for a full season, they would have three more wins than they do now, ignoring defense and base running. Those three wins, as we found out recently in Houston, would have been nice to have.
Why, then, does Howard have so many runs batted in if he has been performing so poorly? As always, he has had players with a great combination of power, speed, and on-base skills in front of him. Jimmy Rollins hasn’t had a phenomenal year offensively, but he has 14 combined doubles and triples along with 15 stolen bases since Howard returned on July 6. Juan Pierre, since July 6, has a .354 on-base percentage and 15 stolen bases. Chase Utley, who returned only a week before Howard, has a .374 on-base percentage with 15 combined doubles and triples, and eight stolen bases since July 6. Kevin Frandsen also spent some time batting second, contributing a .354 on-base percentage. When the hitters in front of you are able to get on base and/or advance themselves around them more quickly whether with power or speed, your job as a “run producer” is made much easier.
On the defense and base running side of things, Howard hasn’t been much better. The sample size is much too small to lend any credence to defensive statistics, but he has not had a good year at first base, whether the topic is range, making throws to second base, or scooping baseballs from third base and shortstop, there are very few positives. Howard has never been a great runner, so it is no surprise that he has been the team’s worst according to Baseball Prospectus, at negative 3.7 runs despite only 50 base running opportunities.
2012 was the first year of Howard’s monstrous five-year, $125 million contract, and it has been a disaster, though not entirely Howard’s fault — his Achilles injury can certainly be classified in the “freak injury” bin. Still, the Phillies still owe him $105 million and he turns 33 years old in November, both numbers that are now too high for their liking. In the likely event the Phillies are making golf plans in October, perhaps the five-month reprieve will allow Howard ample time to return to full strength for 2013. Otherwise, the Phillies will be left trying to hide him and hoping to dump his contract in an August in a waiver deal as the Boston Red Sox did with Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, and Adrian Gonzalez several weeks ago.