It is June 10 and Ryan Howard has seven home runs in 231 trips to the plate. Seven home runs used to constitute a good week for the slugger. Among full seasons, his previous low for home runs on June 10 was ten in 2010. His .185 isolated power this year is 90 points below his career average and his .306 weighted on-base average nearly matches his output last year when he was hobbled by his Achilles.
The biggest and most obvious change is that Howard struggles with fastballs a lot more than he used to. Back in 2011, he hit fastballs for a .345 ISO and .417 wOBA. This year, those numbers are .157 and .310. The numbers improve only marginally if you limit the sample to right-handed pitching.
Here’s a graphical look at the evolution — or de-evolution, if you prefer — of his performance against fastballs from right-handed pitchers in 2011 and in 2013.
He is no longer hitting the inside fastball, nor is he hitting the low fastball. Fastballs used to be his thing. Pitchers would flat refuse to throw him fastballs anywhere near the strike zone when he was running good, but now pitchers are happy to challenge him. Take his first at-bat against Brewers starter Alfredo Figaro on Friday:
|5||94||Fastball (Four-seam)||Swinging Strike|
Figaro, a right-hander, throws a fastball 67 percent of the time, along with a slider (17%), curve (9%), and change-up (6%). He fell behind 2-0 and continued pumping fastballs down the middle, eventually striking Howard out swinging. Via Brooks Baseball:
Howard has more or less performed as well against breaking pitches this year as he did in 2011.
He says he has been dealing with a sore knee over the past couple weeks, but it wouldn’t explain his season-long struggle with fastballs. Howard was already easily-neutralized by employing an infield shift, bringing in lefty relievers late in the game, and by giving him nothing but sliders low and away. But now that he can barely punish pitchers who dare to throw him fastballs, he is feared about as much as Erik Kratz (.307 wOBA).
At what point does the team admit their $125 million star first baseman is over the hill and needs to be dropped in the lineup in favor of more productive players? When do they suck it up and platoon Howard at first with John Mayberry or some other right-handed bat? When will they attempt to do with him what the Angels did with Vernon Wells? If this team has dreams of competing, if not this year then next year, it cannot be with Howard continuing to be used in his present capacity.