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,”

Grade: F

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26 comments

  1. Renmiked

    November 11, 2014 07:47 AM

    It’s an unfortunately fair grade. There’s no joy in watching a guy who no longer has the ability to perform be run out there everyday and be put in the most high profile spot in the lineup, but who am I to question the “B” GM, that seemingly shoved Howard back in the lineup in mid-summer?

    • Shane

      November 11, 2014 10:00 AM

      More likely it has to do with our C+ Manager who should have batted him much lower in the order.

      • Renmiked

        November 11, 2014 12:14 PM

        The C+ manager took him out of the lineup, and then was seemingly told to get Howard back in there. I’m not in love with Sandberg but Howard is 100% Ruben’s mistake.

  2. Barry Onyx

    November 11, 2014 10:48 AM

    Howard single handedly made baseball fun in this town again. Yeah, Utley was fun to watch too. But there was nothing like watching Howard belt 58 in ’06.

    That said, watching Howard decline these last few years is like watching Superman succumb to age-related dementia. Occasionally, you catch a glimpse of the old Howard. But for the most part he’s a shadow of his former self. I really hope he just retires. And when he does he deserves a place on the Phillies Wall of Fame. But until then, I hate to say, he’s worse then dead weight.

  3. Beez Nutz

    November 11, 2014 11:32 AM

    It was not a good season by any measure, as you said.

    But gimme a break. He gets an F and Dom Brown does not?

    Howard OPS+ = 93
    Dominic The Donkey OPS+ = 77

    And say what you want regarding new stats vs old stats. 95 RBI’s is still nothing to sneeze at.

    • Jonathan

      November 11, 2014 11:52 AM

      >> 95 RBI’s is still nothing to sneeze at.

      It is if you understand that RBIs do not closely correlate with any batting skills. RBIs do, however, closely correlate with OBP of the previous batters in the lineup.

    • Ryan Sommers

      November 11, 2014 12:51 PM

      RBI in general are perfectly suitable to sneeze at and I do so regularly. More relevantly though, I didn’t grade Domonic, Brad did, and we didn’t undertake any blog-wide normalization of the grades.

      • Beez Nutz

        November 12, 2014 07:41 AM

        Ah my bad Ryan … I thought you each did the write ups and the grades were more of a board writers consensus.

      • Bill Baer

        November 12, 2014 08:22 AM

        Beez, sorry for the confusion. Last year, each writer gave their own grade but we also included other writers’ grades as well. We didn’t do that this year, opting just for the author’s grade.

  4. Scott G

    November 11, 2014 02:02 PM

    I obviously know nothing about this as I don’t work for the Phillies nor am I around the team, but haven’t there been reports about how Howard actually DOESN’T put in a great deal of work in contrast to what you said above? I feel like it’s pretty openly discussed that the guy doesn’t watch tape of his at-bats or of opposing pitchers. All the Phillies really count on him for is his batting. It’s not like he’s dominating opposing pitchers and he doesn’t want to watch tape. He’s been floundering for years now, and doesn’t want to watch tape (assuming these reports are accurate).

    • Nick

      November 11, 2014 03:39 PM

      Sandberg before the season seemed like that was an issue that he had with Howard. The most upsetting thing to me as a Phil’s fan isn’t that he isn’t producing. It’s the fact that he should be one of the first people there in the morning and the last one to leave. He should be trying to help the young guys like Dom Brown and Franco in the offseason. I have not seen any type of leadership from this guy and that is what pisses me off.

      I understand the guys got a family and a hot wife so he shouldn’t take some time off in the winter. But he needs to understand the responsibilities that come with being paid that type of money.

      • Scott G

        November 11, 2014 04:40 PM

        Do we even want him influencing these young hitters when he has a flawed approach to hitting?

      • Nick

        November 11, 2014 10:20 PM

        Scott… good point. I just felt like we didn’t get the impact off the field that one should expect with that contract.

  5. bubba0101

    November 11, 2014 01:59 PM

    Ryan,

    Is Howard useful to this team in 2015 in any capacity? That is to say, if you could put him in any role, what role would you have him in 2015? Bench bat? Pinch Hitter? DH for AL games?Give him 2 at bats against some right handed pitchers then sit him for a defensive (and most likely offensive) replacement? Im interested to know your thoughts.

    • Ryan Sommers

      November 11, 2014 03:27 PM

      I suppose since you’re paying him anyway, he could pinch against righties, if the power drop and collapse against righties last year was not permanent. That’s about it though, and that’s a bench spot for a bat only, which teams often do, but still.

      • Bubba0101

        November 11, 2014 11:37 PM

        Thanks. I hope they trade him only to free up first base and the cleanup spot.

    • Chris

      November 12, 2014 08:32 AM

      Of course there is a role for him next year, due to the fact we have no one to take over the 1st basemans job. Ruf can play against lefties to spell both Howard and Brown.

      Moving Franco over to 1st is not a good idea since he is one of your best prospects at a position that usually lacks premier hitters. Keep him there.

      Besides, why are we looking forward to next year, when what we really should care about is 2017. Let these awful contracts play out, do not take any LTC, and look forward to the future of Crawford, Nola, Franco, Biddle, and some other guys… especially top picks.

  6. Major Malfunction

    November 11, 2014 02:14 PM

    Here’s something to think about. He’s an F now and that was when you thought his skills could not decline any further. He’s still got 2 years left and the buyout on that contract. Sweet merciful crap. It was said when the contract came to life many a time and it was true on this one, “one trick power guys do NOT age well”.

    So what do you do with this guy if you can’t trade him? Keeping him on the roster accomplishes….what? I have no idea. He’s certainly not helping you in anway, as we can see through WAR and metrics. A non contact pinch hitter off the bench? Like who would want to utilize him in a high stakes situation? Once you see him coming in, you just bring in the LOOGY and its 1-2-3, have a seat. He’s merely taking away much needed playing time from younger, cheaper, and (at this stage) more talented players.

    Thank you Howard for the wonderful seasons, the MVP, and the WS you helped bring to town. Watching you crush balls into the 2 and 3rd decks were something to see. But please pull a Schmitty and self realize when you are no longer a MLB player.

  7. Chris

    November 11, 2014 06:33 PM

    Ben Revere A-
    Ryan Howard F

    There just never has been any consistency to any of these grading. We give higher grades for bad luck, for being healthy, for expectations, for everything under the sun.

    What were the expectation for Howard this year? A lot of people would have said .250/25/90 and been happy with it. And he came pretty close to it. The walks were up, the strikeouts and the defense were as bad as ever. I dont know what many people expected.

    Just funny how when we grade Revere, we didnt mention a thing about his awful defense. When we mention Utley, we were happy he stayed healthy (yet nary a word towards Howard).

    Was he good this year? Absolutely not. But its amazing how the advance stat world cannot see he was just as bad as many others on this team.

    Seriously, we gave Revere an A- this year. Let that sink in for a second…

    • MattWinks

      November 11, 2014 06:51 PM

      If it weren’t for Allen Craig Ryan Howard would have been the worst first baseman in baseball. He was one of the worst defenders and one of the worst hitters at the position. His RBI numbers are a huge compliment to the years that Revere, Rollins, and Utley had and in no way reflect Howard’s abilities. Furthermore he showed more holes to his game including the inability to hit high velocity. On the Phillies he had a worse wRC+ than Cody Asche and barely edged out Ben Revere (93 to 92).

      Revere on the other hand was one of the best baserunners in baseball and put up a league average CF season (depending on whose defensive metrics you use).

      • Chris

        November 11, 2014 09:21 PM

        Revere is one of the worst starting CFs in all of baseball and his empty singles dont change that. As far as his defense…

        – 17 out of 19th in RZR
        – 18 out of 19th in DRS
        – His arm is by far the worst in baseball, and no stat can tell me different.

        But again, none of this was mentioned in his write up. The sad thing is I dont even think Howard is good, but people act as if Revere is part of the future. He is so bad, but he plays hard, smiles, and is friendly. If the Phillies were fortunate enough to sign a guy liek Tomas and trade for Saunders…. Revere would be parked on the bench.

        But again, I reiterate.
        -Lee is unlucky
        – Chase is healthy
        – Revere no mention of defense
        – Asche and others…. no expectations.

        But when it comes to Howard, we dont look at he played the whole year, his walk rate increased walk (2nd on the team, by the way.) and lets look at the OBP of the top 4 hitters.

        .325
        .323
        .339
        .310

        Very minimal differences. In fact Utley 225 out of 664. Howard 201 out of 648. So utley got on base 24 more times in 16 more at bats. Which results basically in Utley getting on base 1 more time every 6 games. Like I said, minimal.

        Yes, Howard is a bad fielder and base runner. No doubt about it. But if he deserves an F, many people who got “A’s and B’s”…. deserve C’s and D’s.

      • Ryan Sommers

        November 11, 2014 10:17 PM

        Chris, you’ve drawn out this argument in some of the other report card comments and I don’t know what more there is to say about it. There are very simple reasons why similar (in Revere’s case) or significantly better (Utley) output is more valuable at positions that are not first base and defensive abilities that are not as totally vacant as Howard’s (no matter what you make of Revere’s — I agree it’s not great, though I’m not as low on it as you are). It has nothing to do with your preference of analytics or team culture.

        Also I think this sort of fills out my point a little — you don’t seem to really disagree about Howard, this is just an argument about how we talk about Howard, and other players.

  8. Steve

    November 11, 2014 09:57 PM

    Can you guys stop doing report cards, especially on players that didn’t play, or barely played, in the majors this year? A piece on Thomas would be nice, or something regarding the Royals interest in Howard or the Red Sox interest in Hamels. Some of the report cards were interesting, but we all know how the season went for Dom Brown, Howard, Lee, etc. The comments inevitably turn into personal b&tch board arguing a “D” vs an “F”. I understand that is not the writers’ fault, but maybe it’d be nice if we all just starting looking at the possibilities for next year.

    • Bill Baer

      November 11, 2014 10:03 PM

      You’re a bit too late, as this is the final report card of the series.

      As for the other suggestions, that would be speculation and we try to avoid that here for the most part.

    • Ryan Sommers

      November 11, 2014 10:20 PM

      In addition to what Bill said, this and mid-January are the absolute worst doldrums of the offseason. There’s virtually nothing to write about. Anything about the coming offseason this early is total wishcasting (Amaro’s early signings aside); it’s this or bickering about league award choices. Now’s as good a time as any to reflect upon the previous season.

      • edwin

        November 12, 2014 05:01 AM

        reflection on this seasons is masochism on a grand scale. let’s just forget it and move on and hope for a better brighter future – too optimistic for a philadelphian?

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