This latest era of Phillies ignominy was, for me, inaugurated by Ryan Howard. Specifically, it began as he collapsed to the ground in agony, clutching at what turned out to be a ruptured Achilles tendon, as in a blur, out of my focus, the Cardinals completed the force at first and began celebrating their trip to the 2011 NLCS on the field.
That game, which I watched from section four hundred and something above home plate, went as that series did. It looked and felt bad, as if the Phillies were constantly clawing and thrashing to keep from falling out of it completely. And though the game and the series allowed for some hope towards the end, the door was slammed shut, forcefully and painfully, not just on the playoffs but on an uncommon and heady 5 year run of success.
That was also the moment that the 5 year, $125 million extension that Howard had signed in April of 2010 stopped being a theoretical point of contention among fans and media and became a fact that we all had to face. Prior to that moment we had lots of “what ifs:” What if Howard were given another truly healthy full season, which, some argued, he had not had since 2009? What if he gives further effort towards improving his conditioning and mobility in the field? What if player salaries continue to wildly inflate? What if he pushes his slugging percentage back up into the mid .500s? Now reality had arrived, bastard that it always is, and it was far worse than we dared imagine.
2013 for Ryan Howard was better than 2012, at least insofar as he did not fracture his toe by dropping a metal pipe on it, which sounds really painful. In all other ways, though, it was a mixed bag. Howard carved out a 111 wRC+ in 317 plate appearances. 11% above the league average is not bad, unless your position is first base, you don’t field it particularly well, you run the bases with a noticeable limp, and you’re being paid Vernon Wells money to do it. Still, it’s an improvement over 2012. Unfortunately, his ISO dropped below .200 for the first time in his career, and that metric has been more or less flagging since his 2006 MVP season. His reasonable offensive improvement in 2013 wasn’t achieved by gaining back some of his power; it was thanks to him becoming, for a brief time, Ryan Howard: singles hitter.
Worse still, what used to be a humorous and frustrating footnote to a dangerous hitter is now an insurmountable roadblock to productivity. From 2012 to 2013, Ryan Howard has come to the plate 609 times, and struck out 31.9% of the time. For hitters with at least 600 plate appearances over that period, only Adam Dunn and Chris Carter have struck out more often, and both of them have substantially higher walk rates, ISOs, and OBPs than Howard. Since returning from his Achilles injury, Ryan Howard has struck out four times as often as he has walked. His previous multiplier in that category was around 2.2.
The post-Achilles era has also exacerbated another preexisting issue: Howard since 2012 has a .248 wOBA against left-handed pitching, a .173/.223/.352 line and strikeouts in 43.5% of those plate appearances. A good southpaw can completely negate what power he has left by working him down and in (click for big):
When a Ryan Howard plate appearance ends on a breaking ball from a left-handed pitcher, there’s a 62.3% chance you’re watching him strikeout. Even if we were supposing he could, in his mid-30s, turn around these deficiencies enough to salvage some value from his extension, the tear of his medial meniscus on July 5th, after playing only 80 games, certainly didn’t help us to hope. A $25 million platoon player (that the team will refuse to platoon) now, sadly, seems like a 90th percentile outcome.
Even those of us who cringed at the numbers the day he signed his big extension could not have imagined it playing out this incredibly poorly. And every one of us were hoping against probability for an inexplicable renaissance for a lumbering, big-swinging, big-smiling first baseman who was a mainstay of our miniature golden age. Ryan Howard is hard to watch now not because he limps up the line, or because his bat all too often cannot find the ball; he is hard to watch because it’s awful to see inevitability steamroll a really great guy, and still worse to watch him at once fight it, and come to a grim understanding of it. Come February Howard will pick himself back up and go at it again, and odds are it won’t be any easier.