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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22 comments

  1. nik

    November 26, 2013 03:56 PM

    Howard was starting to get hot before his knee gave out last year. Remember that 2 homer game where he hit a couple of major bombs — I think he still has it in him, IF he can regain some semblance of health.

  2. sweatingisnormal

    November 26, 2013 04:16 PM

    He’s a naturally big, strong guy–any ball he squares up with backspin will leave the yard—so he’s got that going for him.

  3. Phillips Fan from germany

    November 26, 2013 06:16 PM

    Well, Howard definitely has a Lot of ability left, at least Against right Handers but at his Age and with his Injury History he will Need more Rest than Other Players. Solution Seems to be Easy: Sit him Against left Handers.

  4. Bob

    November 26, 2013 08:36 PM

    Can Longenhagen break down his swing for us? It appears as though Ortiz and Ibanez have short, compact swings, whereas Howard has more extension in his arms and stands further off the plate.

  5. Joecatz

    November 26, 2013 08:51 PM

    HR spits by year (vs RHP, LHP

    2006: 42, 16
    2007: 31, 16
    2008: 34, 14
    2009: 39, 6
    2010: 19, 12
    2011: 30, 3
    2012, 8,6 (71 games)
    2013: 8,3 (80 games)

    He was on a 31 home run pace in 2012, and a 22 pace in 2013.

    If you believe that the leg sapped his distance in 2013 ( and a .522 SLG and .220 ISO vs RHP suggests that’s probably accurate) and realize that in his 100% healthy seasons he hit 30 vs RHP every year but 2010 I think the odds he hits 30 are better than even money if he stays on the field.

    If he plays 150 games, and connects on enough mistakes vs LHP he can hit 40 fairly easily. It’s all about his lower half and his ability to turn on the ankle and the knee holding up. Barring issues there, he does it in his sleep.

    I’ll believe he’s healthy when the season is over though.

  6. Larry

    November 26, 2013 10:52 PM

    “If he plays 150 games, and connects on enough mistakes vs LHP he can hit 40 fairly easily. It’s all about his lower half and his ability to turn on the ankle and the knee holding up. Barring issues there, he does it in his sleep.”

    This is very accurate. People forget what he can do. People used to say as Jimmy goes, so does the team. This team struggles to score without Howard. He is an RBI machine when healthy, it’s all about the RISP. The real true saying should be “AS Howard goes, so does the team.”

    When healthy, he is the most impactful offensive weapon on the Phillies. He’s one of the best power hitters in baseball.

  7. yizzit

    November 27, 2013 09:36 AM

    I think there is a better chance of Howard’s K rate staying over 30% for 145 games than him being a scared hitter in our lineup. He had to muscle so many of his singles last season, and that bat swing (while also affected by injuries) has slowed considerably. But if there is anyone that can do it, because of their dedication to trying to stay on the field, it is Howard. It’s impossible not to root for him. (The contract isn’t his fault; every human being is signing that one)

  8. joecatz

    November 27, 2013 10:42 AM

    Howards K% vs. RHP by year.

    2013: 24.3%
    2012: 29%
    2011: 25.7%
    2010: 23.8%

    vs LHP:

    2013: 44.8%
    2012: 42.5%
    2011: 29.7%
    2010: 28.2%

    the increase in 2012 and 2013 is SO DRAMATIC, that when you factor in the ankle and knee injuries and realie how much he altered his swing to compensate, lower half wise, I don;t know how anyone can dispute that until we see that repeat over a full season when he’s healthy that its a regression issue.

  9. Pencilfish

    November 27, 2013 11:07 AM

    Larry,

    100% agree. Howard is a RBI machine. If he’s healthy, it will go a long way to helping the team in 2014. People who say the Phillies will be a sub-.500 team in 2014 are essentially saying Howard will never be healthy enough again OR a healthy Howard is no better than the 2013 version because of age and declining skills.

  10. hk

    November 27, 2013 12:06 PM

    From LTG on the other Howard thread:

    “The interesting question here is what do Howard’s raw numbers have to be in order for him to be a 2 fWAR 1B….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?”

    Larry,

    I don’t think anyone above the age of 10 forgets what Howard could – and hopefully still can – do. I do think that many are skeptical as to whether he can do it again due to the impact of aging and injuries.

    Pencilfish,

    Even if Howard produces numbers like LTG shows above, it may improve the Phils by 3 wins over what they got from 1B last year. That takes them to somewhere between 69 (3 better than their pythag record) and 76 (3 better than their actual record). Don’t you still have to count on a lot of things going right and very few going wrong before you can reasonably project them for 82+ wins?

  11. MCW

    November 27, 2013 12:08 PM

    Oh joy, our multi million dollar man might be a 30-100 guy if he stays healthy..I’m thankful for RAJ decision making; im being pessimistic i know, but i’m not drinking the koolaid.

  12. yizzit

    November 27, 2013 12:50 PM

    @joe

    That’s completely discounting an opposing team’s ability to isolate his strengths in late-game situations and feast on his weaknesses. I agree that his overcompensation for injuries does a play a part in his increased rates, but they’re not the sole reason. He CAN be pitched, too, and teams can quite easily neutralize him.

    Even if Howard can physically go 30-100, he’s not threatening enough in the other parts of his game for pitchers to not do one of two things: junk low out of the zone, fastballs ANYWHERE inside. He’s obviously big enough and strong enough to power any mistake over the fences; but the rest of our lineup isn’t scary enough for teams to even worry about that fear.

    We all know the insane talent Ryan Howard had around him when he was destroying counting numbers. Again, I’d love to see him go 35-100 though I’d much rather see a return to the .350+ OBP and more opposite field base hits. I just don’t see that many opportunities arising for him to achieve these goals.

  13. Larry

    November 27, 2013 01:23 PM

    HK,

    “Even if Howard produces numbers like LTG shows above, it may improve the Phils by 3 wins over what they got from 1B last year.”

    There are so many other factors besides a change in 1 player’s WAR that would produce more wins for that team.

    1 player can make a huge difference actually producing 15-20 more wins as a team even if his WAR was only 5.2……..

    For instance, If there was no Ryan Howard on the Phillies in 2006 and a so-called replacement level player was the 1st baseman, do you really think the Phillies would have only 5 less wins that season? Your answer would be “yes”, but in reality the answer is “No”.

    Howard makes his team better just not individually as the WAR value leads you to think that way. The fear of Ryan Howard in the lineup in 2006 changes a pitcher’s approach. There is a runner or runners on base and your 3 hole batter is up. That fear from the pitcher will throw more fastballs and strikes to that guy, because he doesn’t want to walk the 3 hole guy and put another runner on base for the RBI machine Ryan Howard. This makes it easier for the 3 hole hitter to get a favorable pitch which will produce a better chance to drive the ball. Therefore, your 3 hole hitter should have a really good season, because he’s getting a lot of fastballs down the middle. His value, his WAR will be higher, because of Ryan Howard.

    This scenario will produce situations where Chase hits a single or double, making the situation 1st and 3rd or 2nd and 3rd when Howard is up. He’ll either knock in runner or runners, or they will pitch around or intentionally walk him.

    This leads to a bases loaded situation where the 5th hole hitter is in more favorable situations. Let’s say the 5th hole guy was Werth or Burrell, guys who make a pitcher throw strikes, because they walk a lot. Now the pitcher is forced to throw fastballs or strikes down the middle which makes the outcome more favorable to drive a pitch they like. This creates better stats for the 5th hole guy and should produce a higher WAR for themselves. It’s a domino effect that helps the team produce more runs.

  14. Larry

    November 27, 2013 02:50 PM

    Also HK and anyone else who believes a player’s WAR changes the team wins as stated by HK:

    “Even if Howard produces numbers like LTG shows above, it may improve the Phils by 3 wins over what they got from 1B last year.”

    Now I’ve seen several others on this site with very similar statements on how we have to increase our WAR by 17 wins to get to a 90 win team. (Phillies won only 73 games this year.) This is not an exact science. This is not how WAR works.

    I just want to point out something to everyone who thinks that way.

    2012 Phillies won 81 games (regular season)
    2011 Phillies won 102 games (regular season) Really awesome 2011 for wins. It was a very enjoyable season to watch until the playoffs of course.

    Does anyone know the difference in team WAR between 2011 and 2012? People might guess 21 WAR difference higher in 2011. The actual real answer is 0, zilch, nada, nothing.

    Phillies Team WAR 2011 – 20.2
    Phillies Team WAR 2012 – 20.2

    Information gathered from Fangraphs. Just change the year on top to compare:

    link

    [[Ed. Note: shortened link]]

  15. Larry

    November 27, 2013 03:15 PM

    Crap that was just oWAR, pitching was 8.4 WAR difference

  16. Bubba0101

    November 27, 2013 03:52 PM

    Pitching account for an 8.4 win difference but that’s far away from the actual 21 win difference. WAR is a good predictor for comparing players on an individual basis but can’t be added up and account for actual wins given to a team, as I have even suggested before. But on the other hand, as far as I know, it’s the only stat that even allows us to make such a comparison. In the absence of such a metric I think WAR is the only thing that can get us close to what a new group of players could do to our win total.

  17. Pencilfish

    November 27, 2013 07:30 PM

    hk,

    Besides what Larry just said about the 3 WAR difference, it is clear the Phillies have to improve in other areas, too, specially SP.

    Looking at Howard in isolation, he is the “big piece” as Charlie called him for a reason. The Phillies need his power, even if platooned. 30 HR’s and 100 RBI from 1B is not negligible. If healthy, he changes the opposing manager’s calculation with runners on base, in tight games, or in late innings.
    Except *maybe* for an unproven Ruf, the Phillies don’t have that kind of power in their current roster or even in the players RAJ traded over the past few years. You might argue we could have traded for someone with some of the players RAJ traded away, but a 30/100 player is not only rare, but demand vastly exceeds supply.

  18. hk

    November 27, 2013 08:47 PM

    Bubba,

    There’s a pretty high correlation between teams’ cumulative WAR and teams’ actual wins. I believe it was .86 in 2013.

    Larry,

    Despite what I noted above, I know that adding a 3 WAR player to replace a replacement player doesn’t necessarily mean that the team will win 3 more games than the year before. However, the point still stands that this was a bad team last year, one that was out scored by 139 runs, and even if Howard hits 30 HR’s, they’ll need a lot of other things to go right for them to be a .500 team, much less a contender.

  19. amarosucks

    November 27, 2013 10:42 PM

    He’s too fat. He’ll get hurt again. You’d think $125 million would afford him to buy a treadmill.

    Not like it matters with this roster.

  20. Larry

    November 28, 2013 01:14 AM

    Amarosucks,

    Believe it or not, Howard looks more like a bodybuilder right now than a fat guy. Obviously he had a lot of time to workout. Picture a cross between a fat Ryan Howard and Barry Bonds on steroids.

    He’ll have the power of his prime years, but still has to fight mother nature for his age. It should be an interesting 2014 for him.

    Pencilfish,

    I am very worried about the sp. I envisioned a plan RAJ could have done, but he spent money elsewhere. It’s a wait and see til spring training. I guess us Phillies fans can give RAJ one more chance, one more year and that’s it.

    On a side note, trading Shane Victorino hurt this team in so many ways. He was one of the best outfield defenders in baseball in 2013. He was a 4 tool player with a chance to be a 5 tool player if he exclusively bats from the right side. This team has mostly 2 tool players right now, hard to compete with that. The only player left on the team with more than 2 tools is Chase Utley and he is not getting any younger. He also has a huge injury history. This isn’t how you construct a winning team with such a big payroll.

  21. derekcarstairs

    November 28, 2013 07:54 PM

    Implicit in the discussion about Howard’s ability to hit 30 HRs in ’14 is the assumption that he is the full-time first baseman.

    If he were platooned with Ruf at first, I think that Howard would still be good for 25+ HRs and that the Howard/Ruf platoon would produce 35+ HRs.

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