Ryan Howard Has Come Full Circle
I remember when Ryan Howard first made his mark on the Phillies. I was thirteen years old, and he was called up to replace an injured Jim Thome. I love Jim Thome; he’s my favorite player of all time. So when Howard hit 22 home runs in about half a season, and I read reports that Howard was ready to replace Thome permanently, I was not happy. Then he won Rookie of the Year. That offseason, Thome was traded to the White Sox for noted face-smasher Aaron Rowand and a couple prospects, including Gio Gonzalez.
This was before I paid attention to the minor leagues and before I knew anything about advanced stats. All I knew was that I loved Jim Thome, and Ryan Howard forced him off the team. I was furious.
Then Ryan Howard came out in 2006, hit 58 home runs, and won the MVP. All with that charismatic smile and swagger. Being a fickle young fan, my opinion immediately changed. I still loved Jim Thome, but there was room in my heart for Ryan Howard too. And there was plenty of room for his trademark booming opposite field home runs.
Howard has been a fixture in the Phillies lineup ever since, for better or for worse. Lately, it’s been for the worse. I don’t need to recite the statistics to you; I’m sure you know. But let’s just say this is his third consecutive year running a negative WAR tally, and each year has been negative-er than the last. But over the last 12 years, he’s provided fans with more than enough memorable moments. He hit 48 homers in 2008; I think it’s safe to say the Phillies wouldn’t have won a World Series without him. But he’s a shell of that explosive hitter now, and his career arc has come full circle. He’s now the aging veteran with an injury history blocking an up-and-coming prospect.
Tommy Joseph is the closest thing the Phillies have to an in-house replacement, and there has been some level of confusion or, dare I say, tension regarding his current role with the Phillies. He was supposed to take the role of Howard’s right-handed caddie; he’d start when there was a lefty on the mound, roughly 30% of the time. The thing is Howard has been terrible against righties too, and so logically the Phillies should be giving the 24-year-old Joseph some opportunities against same-handed hurlers as well.
Recently, Pete Mackanin said Joseph would be seeing more starts against righties. Slightly more recently Ryan Howard indicated to the media that he was not pleased about that. Even more recently still, Mackanin back-tracked on his comments, saying that Howard would not see a significant reduction in playing time, no matter that Joseph has produced more fWAR this season in 39 PAs (0.4) than Howard has in the past 7 seasons combined (0.2).
I want to go back to Jim Thome for a second. In 2005, after Ryan Howard’s rookie year, Jim agreed to waive his no-trade clause, with the condition that the Phillies trade somewhere near Chicago so he could be with his family. He saw that Ryan Howard was the future of the Phillies, and bowed out gracefully. And that man could still hit. In 2006, while Howard was winning the MVP, Thome hit 42 home runs and accumulated 4.8 fWAR for the White Sox. Not bad for being run out of town.
I think Ryan Howard could take a lesson from his own early career roadblock. Imagine if Jim Thome had taken the stance that Ryan Howard is now. He had the right to; he’d earned his position and his paycheck, and despite his injuries, he was still a very productive player (he’d go on to hit another 182 home runs in his career).
The Howard-Joseph situation is not exactly analogous to the Thome-Howard situation. For one, Joseph only has 39 career plate appearances and is not a can’t-miss prospect. And there’s no Chicago to trade Howard to. The best he could hope for this offseason is a minor league deal with an AL club and an outside chance to be a DH. But let’s also acknowledge that 2016 Ryan Howard is no 2006 Jim Thome.
I’ve been thinking about that situation a lot this season. Jim Thome could see the writing on the wall, and the Phillies were better off for it. Ryan Howard cannot, and the Phillies are suffering.
However, I don’t think the vitriol directed at Howard is justified. Now, of course, he is the one who cannot seem to grasp his declining ability, but that’s just the nature of the hyper-competitiveness that propels players into the MLB in the first place. Do you think Howard could have hit 198 home runs in four years without that fire? He believed every time he came to the plate that he could go yard, and he still thinks that. From an outsider’s perspective, I’d guess that’s why he’s been as ornery as he has in the media about the prospect of being relegated to the bench.
And let’s be clear here; Ryan Howard, for all his shortcomings, is an all-time Phillies great. On the Phillies franchise leader board, he’s second in home runs; third in RBIs; fourth in extra-base hits; sixth in total bases; ninth in PAs. He’ll be a worthy induction to the Phillies Wall of Fame when he retires. He’s done all that and believes he can do it again; there’s something admirable and tragic about that mindset, as frustrating as it can be to an outsider. But if that mindset is what propelled him to be great in the first place, well, would you trade a World Series for to avoid this?
I wouldn’t, and it seems the Phillies wouldn’t either.