Ryan Howard and 30 Home Runs

Thirty homers. It’s a nice, round number. It’s a decent benchmark for power during the season, and it’s a level Ryan Howard used to reach regularly. And he thinks he can do it again.

His contention is that injuries have kept him from being full strength (understandable) and that age is really just a number (less so). There’s no arguing the injury point; Howard’s missed tons of time over the last two seasons, and even when he was in the lineup, he generally produced – much less just slugged – far below his career averages.

But in baseball, age isn’t always¬†just a number. Sure, now and then you get guys who defy the odds, who put together solid-to-good-to-great seasons well into their 30s (from Raul Ibanez on up through Barry Bonds and Randy Johnson), but this isn’t the norm, especially when the most accessible examples are Hall of Fame-level talents. Howard is not a future Hall of Famer, but he was an elite slugger at one point. That point wasn’t recent, but at least it exists.

So, on its face, the claim that Howard could hit 30 homers isn’t a silly one, but there’s enough to leave one dubious.

Limiting ourselves to players who only donned red pinstripes, only three players in Phillies history have hit 30-plus home runs in a season in which they turned 34 by June 30 or earlier: Cy Williams (1923, ’27), Mike Schmidt (1984-87) and Ibanez (2009). Schmidt is only the best third baseman in history and has 548 homers to his name, so his presence is expected. Williams is a bit more of an anomaly, with no prolific power-hitting history prior to his 41-dinger output in ’23.

Where Howard differs from those three is the amount of time he’d been on the field leading up to his age-34 season. Each of the prior players had been on the field for no fewer than 146 games in each of the two seasons immediately preceding their late-career outbursts, a number Howard only tops by five since the start of 2012. Outside of players who accomplished this in Philly, there have been 68 other players who have hit 30-plus at 34-plus since 1947, Williams obviously excluded. In simple math, that’s barely over one such occurrence of this across the league per season. Before considering actual talent level and production, the odds seem long.

So, about that talent level, then. This is where Howard actually builds most of his case, because so much mystery and plausibility surrounds his chances at a return to form in 2014 that one could actually be talked into believing it. After all, he did hit 30 or more homers each year from 2006-2011. Even as his power began to leave him before his leg exploded in the 2011 playoffs, 30 didn’t seem like too big a challenge. But his lack of healthy playing time over the last two seasons obfuscates most of the picture; there’s isn’t a whole lot to go on beyond conjecture and three-year-old stats, alongside historical trends of players who don’t all fit Howard’s profile.

I will say this: I do believe that, if Howard is able to stay on the field for 130 games, he’ll get his 30. That this prediction feels even slightly risky is a testament to how much uncertainty I feel about the big man’s remnants. How the rest of his season looks is anybody’s guess, but with rested legs and a work ethic that, as far as I’ve seen, has yet to be questioned outside of some Eagles fans, what’s left of his once-prodigious power should be enough. For what it’s worth.

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