Despite RBIs, Ryan Howard’s 2012 One to Forget

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.

Year PA BB% K% ISO
2005 348 9.5 % 28.7 % .279
2006 704 15.3 % 25.7 % .346
2007 648 16.5 % 30.7 % .316
2008 700 11.6 % 28.4 % .292
2009 703 10.7 % 26.5 % .292
2010 620 9.5 % 25.3 % .229
2011 644 11.6 % 26.7 % .235
2012 253 9.5 % 33.2 % .183
AVG 12.1 % 27.7 % .279

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.

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31 comments

  1. hk

    September 17, 2012 07:10 AM

    When the Dodgers claimed Cliff Lee on waivers, I wonder if they would have given up de la Rosa, Webster, Sands, De Jesus and Loney for Howard and Lee. Is Lee and Howard a better return than Beckett, Gonzalez and Crawford?

  2. NavyJoe

    September 17, 2012 08:37 AM

    That is pretty sobering.

    This is somewhat off-topic, but regarding the people batting ahead of Howard, it seems that Utley has been extremely unlucky with BABIP this season. A quick glance at his splits indicates that his batting average on line drives is only .590; I believe the league average is around .750, but I could be wrong on that.

    If his batting average on line drives were in-line with his career average on line drves (.740), then Utley would have eight more hits on the season. If you assume those hits were six singles and two doubles, which again is in keeping with career splits on line drives, his OBP would be .398 and his SLG would .483, for an OPS of .881 which, perhaps not coincidentallly, is identical to his career OPS.

    To me, those numbers indicate that he is still, by far, the best hitter on this team* and talk of his decline at the plate has been greatly exaggerated.

    If he is able to play, say 120+ games next year, is there any chance the Phillies will try to resign him. Literally, 120 games of Utley at this level, even with his depressed BABIP, is better than 160 games of any other second baseman not named Cano.

    *Chooch is having an unsustainable career year

  3. LTG

    September 17, 2012 10:06 AM

    The evidence evinced in this article and the thought that Howard’s ankle will be an ongoing obstacle make me sad.

    If Howard’s performance continues like this next year, will Charlie sit Howard and try someone else? Will the FO make a move? Is there any way out of Howard’s contract short of him retiring?

  4. EricL

    September 17, 2012 10:18 AM

    Hi, I’m here for the epistemic closure.

    Excellent article, and good work Ruben. I really don’t see why they haven’t just sat Howard against LHP at this point. He’s a platoon player right now, and it’s painfully obvious that he shouldn’t be in the lineup in such situations, much less plopped down in the cleanup role (although his lineup position doesn’t much matter, I suppose).

    Two lines:
    .165/.212/.304
    .172/.212/.263

    One is Michael Martinez’s, the other is Ryan Howard’s vs lefties.

  5. Richard

    September 17, 2012 10:29 AM

    I suspect that Howard will bounce back a bit next year. No reason to assume his ankle/achilles will be an “obstacle” going forward, but no one ever said he was 100% yet, upon coming back.

    None of which means his contract doesn’t remain a disaster.

  6. Tom

    September 17, 2012 11:31 AM

    I’m afraid that at this point a bit of a bounce back means something like an OPS+ of 110. He may be hurting due to everything with the injury but his struggles are nothing new. He can’t hit lefties. He can’t hit with no one on -which kills the 2nd inning if no one gets on in the first.

    I hope the Astros walking Utley to get to Howard was a wake up call for him.

    Charlie is now on record admitting Howard “struggles” vs lefties. Why not sit him for Ruf vs lefties? Whether you are writing off this year or trying to put the best lineup out there that seems like the way to go.

  7. LTG

    September 17, 2012 12:00 PM

    Not every thought is an assumption, nor taken for true. Some thoughts are considerations or pontifications. Casting forward into possibilities need not confuse the possible for the actual.

  8. LTG

    September 17, 2012 12:02 PM

    Epistemic closure? Like, if S knows that p and S knows that q, then S knows that p and q?

  9. Eric

    September 17, 2012 12:06 PM

    While you couldn’t foresee the achilles injury, Howard’s decline is not rocket science. If I was able to figure it out over two years ago, I can’t see why the Phillies couldn’t before they ever signed that extension. (Link to the article included in the website field.)

  10. Frank Reynolds

    September 17, 2012 12:31 PM

    Let’s say we are some how(a miracle) able to trade him. I assume we(the phillies) would have to eat a good chunk of that contract. If we are paying him while he is playing on another team does that money count towards the Lux. Tax? For example is the money that the Yankees are paying AJ Burnett count towards the Lux Tax? Can anyone answer that question? Thanks.

  11. JettMartinez

    September 17, 2012 01:14 PM

    @Frank Reynolds
    I asked a similar question of one of the beat writers on Twitter around trade deadline.(Murph or Gelb, I think.) Their answer was yes, the portion the Phillies pay would count against the tax “cap”.

  12. EricL

    September 17, 2012 01:18 PM

    LTG, sort of (see the second paragraph here: www.juliansanchez.com/2010/03/26/frum-cocktail-parties-and-the-threat-of-doubt/ ), but it was a sardonic comment directed at a subset of people who read crashburn but don’t like it because it has become “… the cult of crashburn […] some sort of dream team of social unawareness and rigidity.”

    Frank, yes, money you give to another team to pay the salary of the player you traded away counts against your cap. The Phils deferred their cap hits from guys like Oswalt and Pence originally by getting Houston to throw in some money (which probably required the Phils to up their offer a bit, but I’m not going to think about Domingo Santana anymore)

  13. ColonelTom

    September 17, 2012 01:23 PM

    There was talk about having Chooch play some 3B next year. I don’t see that happening, but why not have him play some games at 1B when Kratz catches? That gets Howard some rest, keeps Chooch’s bat in the lineup against lefties, and lets them use Kratz a bit more.

    I don’t see Ruf making the team next year unless he can play LF passably. Cholly spent much of this year with a positionless bench player (Thome) and would rather have more flexibility than Ruf affords, especially since Howard should exit a bunch of games early for pinch-runners and defensive replacements.

  14. Bob

    September 17, 2012 01:34 PM

    Great article with one little addition. It seemed improbable to me that the RBIs would be that high with stats that crappy. Howard’s stats with RISP (.344/.463/.623) are too important to neglect, at least to explain the RBIs.

  15. LTG

    September 17, 2012 01:38 PM

    So, I know nothing about ‘the cult of crashburn’, but the epistemic closure you, EricL, are referencing is not what I meant.

    You mean something like being closed-minded or tending to interpret all evidence as supporting your own view however implausible the interpretation.

    I mean the logical principle of closure as applied to knowledge claims (epistemology). The example I posted, if it is right, shows that knowledge is closed under conjunction. Knowing two propositions separately entails knowing them together. Knowledge is also be closed under ‘or’. But knowledge is not closed under substitutions of referentially equivalent expressions. If I know that the inventor of the lightning rod invented the lightning rod, it does not follow that I know that Ben Franklin invented the lightning rod.

  16. AntsInIN

    September 17, 2012 01:39 PM

    So how much should the Phillies be willing to eat if they want to move Howard this offseason? Half of the contract? More?

  17. Bill Baer

    September 17, 2012 01:43 PM

    @ Bob

    Howard has been historically better with RISP than with the bases empty because opposing teams can’t employ the shift, either at all or as harshly depending on their level of commitment. Howard has a .395 BABIP with runners on base and .273 with the bases empty.

    Here’s a visual look at the difference.

    Howard with the bases empty, 2012

    Howard with runners on base, 2012

    Note how many more hits Howard gets to the center and right side with runners on base, and how many more outs are made to the right side with the bases empty.

  18. Evan

    September 17, 2012 01:43 PM

    Frank — yes, money you’re paying to other teams counts against the luxury tax. Basically, any player-related money (including non-payroll fees like insurance) counts against it.

  19. Mike

    September 17, 2012 07:16 PM

    So what you’re saying is that Ryan does deserve some credit for his high avg with RISP, and thus at least in that way is a somewhat superior “run producer?”

  20. Bill Baer

    September 17, 2012 07:25 PM

    If “gigantic flaw in his approach allows opposing defenses to cheat against him” can be construed as “credit”, then have a ball.

  21. Kristin

    September 18, 2012 12:02 AM

    Howard’s contract, which is unwieldy for this team, seems to be the biggest reason that Howard gets so much heat, in my opinion. Yes, his stats are declining, he doesn’t hit like he used to (or we want him to), and his defense has even been on the decline. However, I think it’s knowing that we’re paying him such an ungodly amount to do this is what gets stuck in everyone’s craw.

    I never tore my Achilles, but I did tear all the ligaments in my ankle. I didn’t have the resources for top-notch medical care like he has at his disposal, but I can say, that 18 months following my (lesser) injury, my ankle is still a major problem. I don’t know if Howard will ever recover 100% (and it pains me to say that) from such a devastating injury. And if he doesn’t do some intensive (not golf) PT and rehab in the off-season this year to work hard at getting back to a respectable level, we’re in big, big trouble.

    I don’t know what his problem is…and I don’t think he does either. He seems sincerely frustrated and disgusted with himself and his lackluster performance this year. That doesn’t lessen the blow, however.

  22. Mike

    September 18, 2012 12:10 AM

    @ Bill

    So “gigantic flaw in approach” can, in no way be viewed in the positive as being successful in important situations?

    Howard has never had an OPS under .870 with RISP and almost every year he is well over .900 or even 1.000. So statistically you expect that to decrease, but it never does.

    Your BS comment “As always, he has had players with a great combination of power, speed, and on-base skills in front of him.” is just not factually accurate. Rollins does not have on base skills. Yes, he has historically had a lot of RBI opportunities, but he has also historically had 130+ RBIs. He has not had more opportunities this year than comparative players.

    What is the reason to always complain? Are you so desperate to justify your position that he is no better than average despite year after year of proof otherwise? or maybe once you could just embrace the positive. He’s a guy I want at the plate in a big position with RISP. Why? because he comes through time and again

  23. pedro3131

    September 18, 2012 01:14 AM

    Ask Brian Wilson about how he hits in the big position…

    The point here is his counting numbers aren’t any better then an average power guy given the opportunities he’s had.

    Here are the other “elite firstbasemen” and their respective OPS with RISP, career marks in parentheses
    Adrian Gonzalez 1.106 (.999)
    Miguel Cabrera .981 (.965)
    Prince Fielder 1.004 (.915)
    Joey Votto 1.331 (1.092)
    Albert Pujols .898 (1.118)
    Mark Teixeira .792 (.996)

    When you compare his numbers against his contemporaries he’s usually right about where he should be, or right under it

  24. NavyJoe

    September 18, 2012 07:28 AM

    Mike,

    Don’t you think the fact that Howard is basically an automatic out when he comes to bat with no one on base negates some of his value in ABs with RISP?

    Would any of the guys listed above have appreciably fewer RBIs if they were batting in Howard’s spot in the Phillies lineup?

  25. hk

    September 18, 2012 09:43 AM

    Why don’t teams continue to employ a shift – maybe a less extreme one – when Howard is up with RISP? His production is so significantly different with and without RISP that it would seem to be a worthwhile risk as long as the fielder on the left side of the infield is positioned near enough to 3B to hold a runner on 3rd close to the bag or to cover 3rd if a runner on 2nd tries to steal.

  26. JB Allen

    September 18, 2012 10:31 AM

    pedro3131 – Great point. I would be even more interested in seeing how less expensive first basemen have done this year. Would Adam LaRoche have been any worse than Howard?

  27. LTG

    September 18, 2012 11:10 AM

    Adam LaRoche would have been far, far superior to any of the Phillies firstbasemen this year. He’s having a career year.

  28. LTG

    September 18, 2012 11:11 AM

    hk,

    Because they think Howard might start to inside out the ball? That’s all I got.

  29. Bill Baer

    September 18, 2012 01:06 PM

    @ mike

    So statistically you expect that to decrease, but it never does.

    I explained why it doesn’t.

    Your BS comment “As always, he has had players with a great combination of power, speed, and on-base skills in front of him.” is just not factually accurate. Rollins does not have on base skills.

    But he has power and speed, both of which help Howard bring him home.

    He has not had more opportunities this year than comparative players.

    Yes, he has. I took the top 30 players on the OBI% list at Baseball Prospectus and looked at the PA with RISP as a percentage of total PA. Howard had the third-highest percentage.

    NAME TEAM PA RISP PA RISP PA %
    Matt Carpenter SLN 297 156 52.53%
    Buster Posey SFN 559 289 51.70%
    Ryan Howard PHI 257 132 51.36%
    Jonathan Lucroy MIL 294 149 50.68%
    Miguel Cabrera DET 631 309 48.97%
    Allen Craig SLN 451 218 48.34%
    Carlos Lee MIA 280 135 48.21%

    The rest of your comment is irrational mewing.

  30. Matt

    September 19, 2012 03:39 AM

    @Bill, @Mike,

    When Ryan Howard was out of the lineup guess who was second in MLB in RBI opportunities? That would be Hunter Pence. The data is linked above.

    Mike, do you really think Howard coming to the plate year after year with more runners on base is a skill of his, or does he just have the good fortune of hitting 4th in this lineup? You had 3 guys hitting in front of him who hit a ton of doubles and triples and ran the bases at an elite level. Utley, Rollins, Victorino ranked near the top of the league year after year in going 1st to 3rd, 1st to home, second to home, and in stolen base success rate. Check the numbers and you will see that Howard has had more RBI opportunities then almost everyone since he entered the league.

  31. Cmike

    September 22, 2012 09:04 PM

    Blah.blah.blah. Ryan Howard comes to the plate with the most runners on base in MLB. This is always the talking point when an individual addicted to saber metrics likes to point out….here is the stat they will never offer into the conversation…success rate.

    More AB’s with runners on base is fine and dandy but how many times does he drive in one of them or himself? Give us the success rate. Discounting AVG, OBP, OPS, WAR Howard was just under 20% in 2011 while having almost his worst year statistically. I think Mike Morse might have been the only other 1B that had a higher success rate of driving home a run. Just some names that were LESS successfull when having the opportunity to drive in a run for their team: Fielder, Pujols, Cabrera and Texeira.

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