2014 Phillies Report Card: Ryan Howard
One of my fondest early memories of Ryan Howard as a major league player was a simple, one-sentence post on a sports forum I frequent:
Ryan Howard is amazing.
This was written by a Yankees fan. It was 2006, a season after the Phillies had finished one game out of the Wild Card race and fired Ed Wade, and fans of other teams were starting to notice positive things about the Phillies, which was a nice thing in the grouchy thicket one waded into to yell about sports on the internet in the mid-00s. More specifically, it was June 20th, and the Phillies were at home against Yankees. Ryan Howard had repeatedly given the Phillies the lead (he had 2 home runs already), and Phillies pitching had repeatedly handed it back to the Yankees. What prompted the above quote was Ryan Howard snatching the lead back for a third time in the 7th, with a line drive triple to right that scored Pat Burrell and Chase Utley, his 6th and 7th runs driven in on the day.
Granted, a combination of Arthur Rhodes and Ryan Franklin promptly handed the lead back to the Yankees in the eighth, and the Phillies went on to lose. And sure, Howard had already shown what he was capable of in a brief 2004 stint and a half-season worth of plate appearances in 2005. But this felt like a true breakout, against one of the best teams in baseball. Many had thought the Phillies had dawdled too long with Jim Thome, and that Howard should’ve been an everyday player sooner. There were a lot of pent-up expectations and day-dreaming, and plenty of regional frustrations years in the making piled upon Ryan Howard, and that was fine, because he was more than delivering.
Howard won the MVP that year, in his first full season, though he arguably was not the most valuable player on his own team, and almost definitely not in his league. And so began years of Ryan Howard being evaluated on attributes that were totally external to Ryan Howard, baseball player — the traditionalist vs. analytical bickering, an albatross of a contract, a maddeningly underrated teammate, and the ungraceful aging of a large portion of his team’s roster, which his general manager failed to plan for. Sooner or later, of course, his case was bad enough on its own. His offensive production fell off steeply, and his defense mostly did not improve. The contract was every bit as ill advised as even the bleakest of doomsayers had warned. His health declined, sometimes subtly, sometimes catastrophically. You know the story.
I always think I’ve been fair to Ryan Howard, even as critical as I tend to have been about him. I think it’s completely fair of me to give Ryan Howard a failing grade for his 2014, which was, by every measure, very bad. The 2014 Phillies never really got off the ground, so it hardly matters, but there was plenty of wondering in the preseason if value could still be salvaged from Howard. For some, he was only ever one clean bill of health away from a late career rebound, and maybe 2014 could be it. Instead, Howard hit .223/.310/.380, struck out in 29% of his plate appearances, and hardly seemed able to run the bases comfortably. His usually reliable performance against right-handed pitching totally collapsed, to the tune of a .292 wOBA (.371 in 2013, .327 in 2012, the worst overall season of his career), which totally undercut an unexpected improvement in performance against southpaws (a .339 wOBA, his highest since 2010). The only positive thing that can be said about his 2014 is that it probably wasn’t as bad as his 2012. All of this, I think, is fair and objective.
Fair as it may be, it still doesn’t feel quite right, because so much of the discourse surrounding Ryan Howard has been unfair. Arguments about Ryan Howard are more often than not arguments about how we talk about Ryan Howard, or arguments about how other people talk about him. Fundamentally, Ryan Howard is a hard-working, bat-only first baseman who had a fantastic 3 or 4 year peak, whose value was always capped by his position, and who predictably was unable to overcome a declining body and some brutal injury issues. Everything beyond that — the contract, the frustrating (post-championship) early playoff exits, the stumbling front office, the balky traditionalist arguments — has nothing to do with him, but he still bore an undue extra share of hand wringing as a result of it.
Howard’s mere existence may cause Cody Asche and Maikel Franco to be platooned at third base next season. That’s totally absurd, but is also no fault of Howard’s. If the Phillies fail to trade him this offseason, and fail to realize that (much as I hate to say it) they really should just release him, he will likely bear some of that resulting animosity as well. What I wrote in Howard’s 2013 report card, posted one year ago today, remains true: It’s awful to see inevitability steamroll a player who fought it as hard as he could, and worse yet to see the surrounding discourse so stubbornly off-base. It’s not going to change my grade; I guess it’s just my way of saying “with a heavy heart,”