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.

Year OPS
1992 .700
1993 .736
1994 .763
1995 .755
1996 .767
1997 .756
1998 .755
1999 .778
2000 .782
2001 .759
2002 .748
2003 .755
2004 .763
2005 .749
2006 .768
2007 .758
2008 .749
2009 .751
2010 .728
2011 .720
2012 .724
2013 .714

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.

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  1. Joecatz

    November 27, 2013 06:27 AM

    Bill, in regards to ISO, though here’s one thing to keep in mind: 80 games, 317 PA .199 on the season, and .220 vs RHP. Yet it was just 148 vs LHP.

    One more home run and he’s over .200. I’m not sure I’m ready to call that a decline until we know how much his power (or maybe his distance is more accurate) was deflated the last two seasons due to his lower half.

    In 2012 his .204 ISO was identical for LH and RH pitchers.
    In 2011 it was and absurd .284 vs RHP and .128 vs LHP
    In 2010 it was .230 and .228 respectively.

    But your spot on with the analysis here. And I think it says a lot about how low peoples expectations for Howard have gotten.

    I’ve said this before and I’ll keep saying it. A healthy Ryan Howard hits the power milestones in his sleep.

  2. SteveH

    November 27, 2013 07:42 AM

    @ Bill B

    Happy thanksgiving Bill. I have an off topic question. I keep hearing whispers of Dom Brown being used as trade bait. Is there any truth to it? I know it was mentioned here a few weeks ago but it still gets mentioned. If it is real, who would fill our outfield and what would you think they would be looking for in return?

  3. joecatz

    November 27, 2013 10:36 AM

    I noted this in the other thread, but through 2011, the only full season Howard didn’t hit 30 HRs JUST VS RHP was 2009.

    his RBI totals 2006 through 2011 vs RHP:

    2006: 104
    2007: 90
    2008: 97
    2009: 108
    2010: 69
    2011: 88

    he was on a 31/127 pace in 2012 when he came back from the injury.

    last year, with depleted power he was on a 22/87 pace.

    Again, he literally has the ability to go 30/100 just vs. RHP if he’s healthy.

  4. LTG

    November 27, 2013 11:34 AM

    “The causes of the offensive decline are manyfold.” BB, showing his anti-prescriptivist chops. I love it.

    I find it a little strange that you emphasized the need to evaluate offensive performance contextually but then only listed a-contextual metrics. I would have thought we should be looking at wRC+ and OPS+, if we are worried that our expectations for Howard are calibrated to the wrong baseball environment. After all, not just HRs but all components of ISO, BB%, and K% have been on the decline for offenses.

    The interesting question here is what do Howard’s raw numbers have to be in order for him to be a 2 fWAR 1B. As I see it, Howard will have to hit between 25% and 35% above league average production in order to make up for playing 1B at below league average defense and poor baserunning. Brandon Moss and Matt Adams give us a couple of examples of players who managed this in last season’s run environment. So, here’s what a Howard line would have to look like:
    OBP/SLG – .335/.510
    BB% – 8.0
    K% – 26.5
    ISO – .230
    HR – 28
    RBI – Who cares?

    The last two years suggest the ISO and K% are a bit out of reach. But the last two years have been injury-plagued. Otherwise, those numbers are not outlandish at all. I guess we’ll have to wait and see. Is it March yet?

  5. derekcarstairs

    November 28, 2013 08:27 PM

    From 2006-2009, Howard was a 50-HR guy, not a 30-HR guy. So, when Howard asserts that he can be a 30-HR guy again, he’s conceding that the halcyon days are over, but believes that, now healthy, he can return to his 2010-2011 form.

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