On Ryan Howard Benchmarks
Loyal Crashburn readers, you have my sincerest apologies for back-to-back articles on Ryan Howard. It feels like 2010 all over again here. I do want to make a point that I think is rather important, though, as it pertains to gauging the various levels of success Ryan Howard might enjoy in 2014.
In this article by Todd Zolecki, Howard says he is still a “30-100 guy” (meaning 30 home runs, 100 RBI).
“Can I be a 30-100 guy?” he said. “Yeah, I definitely think so. I believe in my ability. I hear what people say. It’s cool. You guys are all entitled to your opinions. But let’s say I come back and I do what I do. Then what? If I come back and put up numbers like ’07, ’08, ’09, then what? Are we having these conversations?
And he very well could be right about that. But here’s an area where Sabermetrics could be useful to a player mentally. 30-100 now isn’t the same as 30-100 back when Howard was younger and healthier. 30-100 has long been a benchmark for offensive success and it has never been adjusted for the league’s run environment. Thus, 30-100 in 1998, for example, is purportedly just as impressive as it is in 2013.
After the 2009 season, offense began to decline and it has rapidly fallen ever since, going back to an offensive environment circa 1992.
The causes of the offensive decline are manyfold. Some will attribute it to more stringent drug-testing. Other factors include the prevalence of spray charts, smart defensive positioning (see: 2013 Pirates), better scouting reports, teams focusing on pitchers with higher strikeout rates, a trend for newer ballparks to be more spacious, etc.
In 2006, when Howard won the NL MVP with 58 home runs and 149 RBI, he was one of 27 players to accomplish the 30-100 feat. In 2013, only 10 players did it. 12 in 2012 and ’11, 15 in 2011, and 19 in 2009. It has gone from a feat that any above-average hitter worth his salt achieves to something only MVP-caliber players get to put on their resumes.
If Howard doesn’t reach 30-100 again, some — maybe even Howard himself — will write him off as a failure, and that would be unfair. As Joey Votto showed us over the last two seasons, a hitter can post lackluster HR and RBI stats but still be a force offensively. And that will be what I’ll be looking at in 2014: how does Howard do in terms of his triple-slash line, his walk rate, his wOBA, his ISO? Opposing teams are shifting him more and more, they know to neutralize his bat with a lefty reliever throwing an array of sliders, and Howard hasn’t been much of an opposite-field hitter in a long time.
As a result, Howard’s unintentional walk rate has dropped from 11.1 percent in 2007 to a career-low six percent last season. His strikeout rate was a career-high 34 percent in 2012. His isolated power dipped below .200 for the first time in his career last season. His .334 wOBA in 2013 was exactly at the average for his position and marks about a 60-point decline from 2009’s .392. So, Howard can reach 30-100 in 2014 and it wouldn’t necessarily be indicative of a good offensive performance. Similarly, he could fail to reach 30-100 and it wouldn’t necessarily be indicative of a poor offensive performance. When we’re evaluating him next season, we have to keep in mind that the run environment has changed since he was last really productive, and we ought to use component stats which lend themselves to accurate depictions of his ability.