Do Sunnier Skies Await Ryan Howard?

There ain’t no two ways about it: 2012 was absolutely dreadful for first baseman Ryan Howard. At 32 years old in the first year of his five-year, $125 million contract, the slugger missed his team’s first 84 games recuperating from a torn Achilles. After he finally returned, he was a shell of his former self, limping around the bases at an even slower pace than usual. Howard’s walk rate sunk to a career low 8.6 percent, his strikeout rate ballooned to a career-high 33.9 percent, and his .301 wOBA ranked 222nd out of 302 hitters with at least 250 plate appearances. Add to that his poor defense and sub-par base running, and it’s no surprise he was the tenth-least valuable player in baseball according to FanGraphs.

The days of Howard hitting 45 homers and driving in 140 runs are long gone. But even as recently as 2011, Howard was close to an average player in overall value, and he was above-average considering only his offense. In fact, against right-handed pitching, Howard had the 11th-best wOBA (.398) between 2009-11. Howard’s heat map to the right — displaying his isolated power against RHP since 2009 — is a bloodbath. Clearly, Howard still has some juice left in the tank if he can only stay healthy.

Unfortunately, the cons outweigh the pros at this point when looking at Howard overall:

  • Bad base running: -4 base running runs in 2012, worst on the team
  • Bad defense: -9.4 UZR/150 in 3,127 defensive innings since 2010, second-worst among MLB first basemen
  • Bad against left-handed pitching: .302 wOBA ranks 130 out of 149 players with at least 500 PA vs. LHP since 2009
  • Best years are behind him: He turned 33 years old in November and has sustained a devastating injury to his lower-half
  • Non-premium position: First base is the least defensively-demanding position on the field yet he is among the worst in the game. It is also the easiest position at which to find offense, mitigating the effectiveness of his power

There are ways to utilize Howard to get the most out of his pros, however. As mentioned here in recent months, platooning Howard at first base with a right-handed hitter such as John Mayberry or Darin Ruf would have the dual benefit of replacing Howard’s weak bat against southpaws with an above-average bat while also giving the aging, injury-prone slugger a day off every so often. Left-handed pitchers only accounted for 29 percent of all plate appearances in 2012, so it isn’t as if Howard would play in only 81 games — 115-125 would be a more realistic number. If a first base platoon isn’t attractive to manager Charlie Manuel, then Howard should have a short leash past the halfway point in the game: if the Phillies are facing a team with a lefty-heavy bullpen, or Howard reaches base, then he should be replaced by a pinch-hitter or pinch-runner as necessary.

Howard had the platoon advantage in 64 percent of his plate appearances last year. Imagine if that number shot up closer to, for example, Eric Chavez, the left-handed side of a platoon at third base with the New York Yankees last season (87.5 percent). If Howard plays in 115 games and has the platoon advantage in 85 percent of his 400 or so plate appearances (340), his offensive value changes as follows, assuming his average since 2010 in each match-up (.370 wOBA vs. RHP; .310 vs. LHP)…

The following formula is used to convert wOBA to runs:

( ( Player wOBA – League average wOBA ) / wOBA scale ) * Plate Appearances

  • Normal use
    • vs. RHP: ( ( .370 – .315 ) / 1.245 ) * 250  = 11.0 runs
    • vs. LHP: ( ( .310 – .315 ) / 1.245 ) * 150 = -0.6 runs
    • Total: 10.4 runs
  • Platoon-focused use 
    • vs. RHP: ( ( .370 – .315 ) / 1.245 ) * 340 = 18.7 runs
    • vs. LHP: ( ( .310 – .315 ) / 1.245 ) * 60 = -0.3 runs
    • Total: 18.4 runs

The difference is about eight runs, or nearly one win.

Platooned or not, Howard should improve on his .219/.295/.423 triple-slash line from 2012. An off-season of rest can only help and the Phillies should be expected to keep a watchful eye on him, preventing him from overexerting himself. Regaining some strength from a healthier lower half will do wonders just in making contact alone — his .287 BABIP and .204 ISO last season (previously found between .300-.330 and .225-.235, respectively) indicated that he was making uncharacteristically weak contact. Upon further inspection, his power evaporated almost exclusively on inside pitches:

By mean-regression alone, Howard should be closer to his 2010-11 value, somewhere between replacement level and average, closer to average. With selective employment, the Phillies can get the most out of Howard’s strengths while limiting the chances for his weaknesses to make an impact. No matter what, you haven’t seen the last of Howard so long as he can stay healthy.