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.

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21 comments

  1. JA

    January 14, 2013 08:15 AM

    I wish the Phillies would be forward thinking enough to realize Howard is best in a platoon, but then that would mean that the team has come to terms with the fact they made a 125M mistake. Don’t see that happening anyone soon. That said, I’m a optimistic RH will have a good year being over a year removed from that nasty surgery. Phils need it if they have any hope of competing.

  2. JM

    January 14, 2013 10:29 AM

    So much talk about platooning Howard. If 1 win is the result, is that worth it? He is the only guy in the lineup that a pither would be afraid to make a mistake. If you replace him with Mayberry, what does that do to the hitter before and after that spot in the lineup. Why would you pitch to Utley when you can pitch to Mayberry. I am one of the few who likes Mayberry, but he has only hit well when Howard and Utley were in the lineup. Ruf may be a different story…eventually…maybe…

  3. Randy Hill

    January 14, 2013 11:17 AM

    He’s hitting .227 and slugging only .434 against lefties in his career, which means he’s likely going to be worse than that going forward. Lefties have no reason to fear making mistakes against him because 17 times out of 22 he’s an easy out, and that 1 homer can’t make up for all those outs.

  4. Ben

    January 14, 2013 11:18 AM

    I’m confused on your offensive comparison. I understand the math completely, but how do you figure that platooning him would increase his PAs against righties?

    If he started full-time he would already be getting all the possible PAs against righties. So platooning in comparison to have him starting full-time would mean more time on the bench and getting less PAs against lefties. But I don’t think these wouldn’t be replaced all of the sudden by other PAs. Am I looking at this wrong?

  5. Ben

    January 14, 2013 11:20 AM

    *I don’t think these WOULD be replaced

  6. Bill Baer

    January 14, 2013 11:21 AM

    @ Ben

    It’s a vacuum comparison to illustrate the difference in usage. If he’s not platooned, he’ll have more overall PA like he used to before 2012.

  7. Alejandro

    January 14, 2013 11:42 AM

    I gotta agree with Ben on this one!

    No but seriously, the comment is valid. Even the explanation doesn’t seem totally clear to me, and in the article it comes off as misleading.

    The real point is that eliminating the majority of his PAs vs LHPs would reduce negative value by about half a run over a full season; there’s no reason to pad that with weirdly-framed data about how platooning could increase his ‘good’ PAs to get your bottom-line number up to ‘nearly one win’. It just makes the conclusion come off as disingenuous.

    In my opinion.

  8. Pencilfish

    January 14, 2013 11:51 AM

    Don’t understand why you are basing your calculations on 400 AB’s. Howard averaged over 600 AB’s per season from 2006 to 2011. It seems you are advocating both a platoon AND resting him more, which effectively reduces him from 600+ AB’s to 340 AB’s, which is not particularly helpful if the Phillies are starving for runs. In any case, I quickly recalculated with 600 AB’s, and the platoon projects to no more than 2 extra wins.

  9. Bill Baer

    January 14, 2013 12:13 PM

    @ Alejandro

    If there’s anyone who would massage data to come out in favor of Ryan Howard, it’s me…

    @ Pencilfish

    It seems you are advocating both a platoon AND resting him more

    Yes:

    […] 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.

  10. Phillie697

    January 14, 2013 03:51 PM

    Bill, we ain’t see the last of Howard yet just purely by the virtue that we still owe him 100 HUNDRED MILLION BUCKS. All other considerations are irrelevant.

    Am I really, seriously, looking at people who are willing to defend Howard because they are willing to throw away 1 or 2 actual wins? What does 2 wins mean? It means replacing Shane Victorino with John Mayberry full-time. Are people okay with that? And this is the same crowd that desperately wanted us to spend big money signing a middle-relief pitcher and a decent OF?

  11. Cam1LE

    January 14, 2013 05:46 PM

    The platoon makes perfectly good sense. I’ll take +8 runs. I’d bet Cliff Lee would take them too. Those runs might have gotten Lee 4-5 games alone last year. Also, those +8 runs are based on Howard in a platoon and don’t address the fewer outs made by RH when not facing LH pitchers. That means more men on base and continued innings which create even more runs. Howard against RH only with Ruf against LH (1st base is is natural position). When Ruf is on 1st, use the better fielding JMJ in LF.

  12. Cam1LE

    January 14, 2013 05:47 PM

    The platoon makes perfectly good sense. I’ll take +8 runs. I’d bet Cliff Lee would take them too. Those runs might have gotten Lee 4-5 games alone last year. Also, those +8 runs are based on Howard in a platoon and don’t address the fewer outs made by Ryan when not facing LH pitchers. That means more men on base and continued innings which create even more runs. Howard against RH only with Ruf against LH (1st base is is natural position). When Ruf is on 1st, use the better fielding JMJ in LF.

  13. Pencilfish

    January 14, 2013 06:06 PM

    Phillie697,

    We are not throwing away 1 or 2 actual wins. It’s PREDICTED wins.
    What if bringing Mayberry to pinch-hit for Howard prompts the opposing manager to bring in a RHP late in the game? If the Phillies are baited into automatically pinch-hitting for Howard, opposing managers can now freely bring in RHP’s for the remainder of the game without fearing the LH power bat that can win the game with one swing of the bat. It’s poor game management.

    Pinch-hitting or giving Howard days off is not a bad strategy if employed correctly (ie, tough lefties, day game after night game, double-headers, etc).

  14. Mark B

    January 14, 2013 10:11 PM

    Ryan Howard will not be platooned. All he does is drive in runs and hit with Runners in scoring Position (.329 in 2012). Ignore the Fantasy Baseball Statistics and predicted wins. He makes the players around him better when he is in the lineup. Young can play at first for about 10-15 games to rest Howard. Just hope that either Ruf or Brown (hopefully both) hits well enough to be a regular and avoid a double platoon nightmare.

    Roy Halladay was hurt and the bullpen blew over 20 leads, 12 in the 8th inning. That is the real key. If Adams and Papelbon do their jobs and the rest of the pen is as good as the second half of 2012, then we need a healthy Halladay.

  15. tholzerman

    January 14, 2013 11:16 PM

    I don’t agree with you, Mark B.

    *huffs paint*

    *does mescaline*

    *stabs frontal lobe of own brain with wooden skewers*

    Okay, now I get what you’re saying.

  16. Phillie697

    January 15, 2013 02:07 PM

    Considering that they are ALL predicted wins, what’s your point? Isn’t signing middle relievers and/or OF also only predicted to add wins? I rather throw away wins and not spend millions of dollars than throw away wins to keep Howard’s ego intact.

  17. Phillie697

    January 15, 2013 02:37 PM

    @LTG,

    His offensive skills seems to make him a better prospect than Galvis, at the very least the early indications of good plate discipline for a 19-year-old is exciting indeed. Speed means jack squat if you can’t get on base.

  18. mikeb

    January 17, 2013 10:14 AM

    It’s irrelevant until they find another right-handed bat because right now Mayberry and Ruf are your starting corner OF’s vs lefties, which means you’re replacing Howard with Nix or Brown. And those 2 are worse against lefties than Howard.

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