Ryan Howard’s Struggles Concerning

After rupturing his Achilles tendon to end the NLDS last year against the St. Louis Cardinals, Ryan Howard began his slow climb back to the Phillies’ lineup. He didn’t return until July 6, by most accounts earlier than expected given the way he gingerly ran around the bases. Still, Howard was a welcome sight back at first base as the Phillies had utilized a less-than-exciting cast of characters in his stead, including Ty Wigginton (190 PA, .742 OPS), John Mayberry (75 PA, .625 OPS), Hector Luna (41 PA, .652 OPS), Laynce Nix (34 PA, .942 OPS), and Jim Thome (13 PA, .585 OPS).

Even as Ryan Howard set career lows in OPS in both 2010 (.859) and 2011 (.835), he was still an above-average hitter overall and slightly above-average for his position. No longer was he the 40-50 home home run, 135-150 RBI threat of yesteryear, but he was still a force to be reckoned with and still a player opposing teams needed to prepare for in pregame preparation. Since returning from the disabled list, however, he has been a shadow of his former self, even the 2010-11 version. In his 121 plate appearances, he is setting career-highs and lows and all the wrong categories:

  • Walk rate: 9.1% (career average: 12.2%)
  • Strikeout rate: 36.4% (career average: 27.6%)
  • Isolated power: .222 (career average: .283)
  • BABIP: .281 (career average: .323)

These are the basic stats for hitters that let you know how he is performing. This should be very alarming, especially in the first year of Howard’s five-year, $125 million contract. The walk rate tells you he isn’t being very patient, the strikeout rate tells you he is not making nearly enough contact, the isolated power tells you he isn’t making solid contact, and his BABIP backs up that point as well. Hitters tend to have a lot of control over their BABIP, as opposed to pitchers who typically don’t.

One big change in Howard’s game is that he is back to being an opposite-field hitter, but he has been such almost exclusively since returning. All seven of his home runs have been to right-center or further away from right field. In fact, only one has actually gone to the right of center field; Howard has not pulled any in his 121 PA.

The heat maps tell the story here. You can see a lot of blue (no power) where there once was plenty of red (lots of power).

And it holds true for both right- and left-handed pitchers.

What is concerning is that, although Howard has at least shown some power, he is hitting a lot of balls on the ground. FanGraphs puts his ground ball rate at 48 percent, well above his career average of 39 percent. As a result, he is sitting on career-lows in line drive rate and fly ball rate (excluding 2004-05) as well. Ground balls are great if you are a Juan Pierre-type who doesn’t hit for any power, has speed, and doesn’t force an infield shift. Howard, of course, wants to hit as few grounders as possible because he does induce that shift on the right side and he hits into it often as his hit chart indicates.

The average lefty has a .175 isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average) on inside pitches. Howard’s ISO is .000. From 2009-11, it was .254. In previous years, we worried that Howard was becoming too pull-happy and now he is not at all. There is a balance to be struck, but Howard has bounced from one extreme to the other.

The lack of contact is also a big red flag. Howard has always been a high-strikeout hitter, but 36 percent is astronomical even for him and even in the small sample size. To put this in perspective, Howard has taken the third-fewest swings (236) of the 21 National League first basemen who have logged at least 100 PA. Yet, he has the tenth-most swings and misses (82). In terms of percentages, Howard has swung at the second-fewest pitches in the strike zone (41 percent) and the third-most outside the strike zone (35 percent).

Whether Howard has made mechanical or approach changes to compensate for his Achilles injury or made a concerted effort to be less like he was last year and more like he was in 2006, it simply hasn’t worked thus far in 2012. Fortunately for him and for the Phillies, he has a free month and a half before the end of the season, as well as the off-season and spring training to iron out all of the kinks and return in 2013 as the first basemen the Phillies thought they were keeping around when they agreed to the five-year deal two seasons ago.

Talking Phillies with Chris Branch

We were sad to see David Hale leave his Phillies beat at The News Journal as he moved on to cover college football for ESPN (@DavidHaleESPN). No one referenced The Simpsons quite like he did. However, we are also happy to welcome in a new guy into the fold, and that is Chris Branch (@ChrisBranchTNJ). Chris introduced himself on July 3 here if you’d like to learn a bit about him. I caught up with him via email over the All-Star break to get his views on a few issues pertinent to the Phillies.

. . .

1. You’re jumping right into a disastrously bad season for the Phillies. Have any of your perceptions of the team as an outsider changed now that you’ve been in the clubhouse?

They haven’t changed much. Before I got here, I knew the Phillies were having a bad season, but I didn’t know how bad. I will say my first few days I was impressed with how upbeat they tried to stay as the losses kept piling up, but any optimism vanished as they left for the All-Star break.

2. What is the general atmosphere in the clubhouse? We learned that Jonathan Papelbon had a mild tantrum after blowing Thursday night’s [July 5] save in Queens. Is this a regular occurrence?

Like I said, it was kind of upbeat before they really started sucking. There seemed to be a main troupe of guys laughing and joking before games (Victorino, Papelbon, Lee), but smiles were nowhere to be found after last Sunday’s loss. I haven’t seen any tantrums of any kind yet, but seeing Victorino that depressed before Sunday’s game was just as weird.

3. How are the younger players treated in the clubhouse, particularly the relievers who have been a big reason behind the Phillies’ troubles?

Honestly, the relievers kind of stay mum when the media’s in the clubhouse. I’ve seen Papelbon razz them a bit, but they’re normally all business when we’re around.

4. After Brian McCann‘s grand slam in the eighth inning on Friday [July 5], fans immediately filed out of the stadium in seething anger. What is your perception of the atmosphere at Citizens Bank Park as it relates to the fans?

Frustration. It’s pretty palpable that people are sick of the losing, especially in that fashion. To have Kyle Kendrick, who’s struggled most of the season, pitch seven shutout innings only to have Antonio Bastardo give up the McCann boomstick like that has to be brutal for fans to watch. You could feel any electricity built up over the course of the game evaporate the second the ball hit the brick wall in center field.

5. What do you expect the Phillies to do with Cole Hamels, who may become a free agent after the season?

I have a feeling they’re going to re-sign him before the deadline. But, if the team keeps losing, you have to think Ruben will listen to some trade calls at the deadline rather than get caught up in a Pujols-esque situation. There’s no way the front office lets the status quo remain for the rest of the season, though.

. . .

Thanks to Chris for taking the time to share his perspective as an insider. Make sure you follow him on Twitter (@ChrisBranchTNJ) and check out his work on Philled In for The News Journal.

Crashburn Alley Podcast Episode 5

The Crash Pod returns, and so does Bill Baer, who talks with Michael Baumann and Ryan Sommers about Kyle Kendrick, Juan Pierre, Roy Halladay‘s injury, and the first two months of the Phillies season. As a result, everyone gets really cranky, resulting in Bill and Ryan getting into the first out-and-out argument in Crash Pod history.

Download this episode (right click and save)

Topics:

  • Joey Pankake update
  • Jonathan Papelbon‘s five-out save
  • Roy Halladay’s strained muscle
  • Season in review over two months
  • Kyle Kendrick: Master of the Universe
  • Trivia
  • Twitter Q and A

As always, feedback is welcome, and be sure to follow us on Twitter if you want to write in for either next week’s podcast or Friday’s Crash Bag:

  • Bill: @CrashburnAlley
  • Paul: @Phrontiersman
  • Michael: @AtomicRuckus
  • Ryan: @Phylan
  • Bradley: @BradleyAnkrom

Thanks again to Dirty Ghosts for providing our interstitial music this week.

Crashburn Alley Podcast Episode 4

Bill Baer is busy doing Bill Baer stuff, so Michael Baumann helms this week’s podcast with a performance that can only be described with words like “competent” and “well-intentioned.”

Download this episode (right click and save)

Topics:

  • Carlos Ruiz’s white-hot start to 2012
  • Last week’s roster shake-up
  • Hunter Pence in the doghouse
  • Break
  • Ruben Amaro’s opinion on relievers and strikeouts
  • Cole Hamels trade rumors
  • Trivia
  • Twitter Question: Which member of the Phillies has the best hair? (@soundofphilly)
  • Twitter Question: Who is your all-time favorite Phillie? (@kfk5025)
  • Outro

As always, any and all feedback is welcome, on iTunes, in the comments section, or on Twitter. We’d love to know what you like and don’t like so that we can improve future podcasts. Some of the audio in this one is a little shaky, but it gets better in the second segment, and we should have the protocols down for a solid audio product for next episode. Make sure you’re following us on Twitter if you want to send in a Twitter question for the next episode:

Thanks to Local Wizards for allowing us to use his music for this week’s episode. Please check out his Bandcamp page and give a listen to “Muckrakers,” the album from which the music on today’s episode came, and several other releases.

No Reason to Worry About Halladay

Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports has noticed some changes in Roy Halladay:

Halladay is using his trademark two-seam fastball 10 percent of the time, compared with 27 percent in ‘11 and 30 percent in ’10. His average fastball velocity is 90.1 mph, compared with 91.4 mph in ‘11 and 92.8 mph in ‘10.

He is throwing 51 percent cutters, 23 percent curveballs and 16 percent splitters, all increases over the past two seasons (Halladay had thrown only 13 percent curves through four starts in ’11 and 14 percent in ’10.).

Halladay’s velocities on all of those pitches also dropped from ’10 to ’11, and they’re down again in ’12. His cutter has gone from 92.1 mph to 90.5 mph to 88.7 during that time.

Not to pick on Ken, because he does fantastic work and is invaluable to the baseball community, but he ticks off a couple of boxes in Mike Fast’s “what not to do with Pitch F/X” article from a couple years ago at The Hardball Times.

Rosenthal mentions Halladay is using his two-seam fastball less. Fast wrote:

The pitch classifications in the PITCHf/x data, as shown on Brooks Baseball, Texas Leaguers and Fangraphs (not to be confused with the BIS pitch classifications also on Fangraphs), are done by an algorithm developed by Ross Paul at MLB Advanced Media. Ross has made significant updates to this algorithm every year, and one of the most noticeable impacts is that the percentage of pitches classified as two-seam fastballs has increased with each update. This does not mean that the pitchers themselves have changed anything about their pitch selection or the movement on their pitches.

If you want to know if a pitcher has really added a new pitch type, explore his data on a site like Texas Leaguers and see if he’s added a completely new pitch cluster from the previous year. Don’t pay attention to how the pitches are labeled; learn for yourself how the different pitch types behave. When you have mastered that, then you’re ready to identify when a pitcher has added a new pitch.

[Update: I originally said that Rosenthal wrote that Halladay was using his two-seam fastball more often, which was incorrect. I have made the appropriate edits, and apologize for the error.]

Rosenthal also notes a decline in velocity for Halladay. This article by Tristan H. Cockcroft at ESPN notes that fastball velocity is at its lowest in April and gradually increases with each month as temperatures rise.

Those March/April numbers are noticeably low, easily the worst in any single month, and while you might claim that less than a half-mile per hour difference between those April and May numbers is small, remember those numbers were accrued over several hundred thousand fastballs per year, and more than 50,000 per month. That’s one monstrous, whopping sample, and it shows that in “blanket statement” form, there might indeed be something to the dead-arm theory.

Rosenthal gets into Halladay’s pitch selection breakdown. While the shift in percentages may seem significant (13 to 23 percent on the curve, for instance), it’s only four starts. Per ESPN Stats & Info, Halladay’s pitch breakdown is as follows:

  • Fastball: 57
  • Cutter: 206
  • Change-up: 68
  • Curve: 98
  • TOTAL: 429

What if Halladay had an off-night where he wasn’t feeling one of his pitches, so he decided to lean on his curve? That could have been the case on April 16 against the San Francisco Giants, when 31 of Halladay’s 109 pitches (28 percent) were curves as opposed to his previous start, when he went to the curve for 23 of his 109 pitches (21 percent) against the Florida Marlins on April 11.

What if Halladay was facing a lineup that was comprised mostly of hitters who are weak against the curve? The Giants’ lineup featured three consecutive left-handed hitters in the 5-6-7 slots: Aubrey Huff, Brandon Belt, and Brandon Crawford. 14 of Halladay’s 31 curves (45 percent) were thrown to those three hitters exclusively. He threw only three curves against right-handed hitters throughout his entire start.

With a sample of only four starts, the effect one outlier can have is enormous. Sure, it’s possible that Halladay is wearing down after throwing so many innings season-in and season-out. But we must be cognizant of small samples this early in the season and be aware of our human tendency to look for stories where there may not be one.

Phillies Q&A with Lee, Howard, Thome, Papelbon

Cliff Lee, Ryan Howard, Jim Thome, and Jonathan Papelbon took questions at the 2012 On Deck with the Phillies Reception, a Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce event. Watch the video below to see what they had to say.

Papelbon isn’t the most well-liked guy in baseball, but he seems very affable and funny at this event. Thome is as lovable as always, Lee couldn’t care less that he’s at this event, and Howard seems rather optimistic about his future given his injury. Overall, it was a very interesting Q&A session that should only make you thirst even more for Opening Day.

Tune in to 94 WIP Tonight!

I will be speaking with Spike Eskin on 94 WIP tonight around 11:20 PM ET to talk about the Phillies and my book “100 Things Phillies Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die”. Make sure you tune in!

UPDATE: You can listen to my spot by clicking here. It starts at about 21 minutes.

Sam Harris on Statistical Concepts

Author, philosopher, and neuroscientist (what a combo!) Sam Harris appeared on the Joe Rogan Experience yesterday for a few hours of discussion. Towards the end, Harris and Rogan discussed some statistical concepts such as sampling bias, the hot hand fallacy, and probability. As this blog makes heavy use of Sabermetrics and statistical concepts in general, I felt that part of the discussion was quite enlightening.

You can watch the discussion below, or click the link for the transcript. Be warned that there is some strong language (not much), and a very brief discussion of religion, so use your discretion if you are easily offended.

Transcript

Those points apply to baseball as well. There is a lot of sampling bias involved in justifying belief in clutch hitting, for example. The ninth-inning walk-off will always register more strongly in your memory than a ninth-inning ground out that sent the game into extra innings. When people justify calling a player clutch, they rattle off all of his clutch hits, but don’t put it within the context of total chances nor do they consider other factors that may have been at play.

The hot hand fallacy gets some play in baseball, especially when players go on hitting streaks. Jimmy Rollins went 1-for-6 in the first game of what would become a 38-game-hitting streak in 2005-06. If you had asked anyone within the first 13 games if Rollins was dialed in, they most likely would have affirmed. However, Rollins actually put up a lackluster .254/.318/.356 line. Rollins wasn’t any more likely to get a hit then than he was in any other situation at that time.

Rare events certainly drive baseball narratives. The Red Sox slipped out of post-season contention at the end of the regular season last year, and it was blamed post-hoc on the team’s consumption of beer and fried chicken in the clubhouse. Other teams have thrown away their post-season hopes in worse ways than the Red Sox, and it had nothing to do with beer and fried chicken. They went 7-20 (.259) in September, which is bad. But if you swapped their September with June (16-9, .640), the beer-and-chicken narrative goes away. It’s certainly not impossible for a .557 team to lose 20 of 27 games in a given stretch. Some of them happen early, some of them happen late, but it’s only when it happens late do we really pay attention and assign meaning to the occurrence.

Phillies 24/7 HD Radio Links & Info

I was a bit forgetful in procuring the clip from my appearance on Spike Eskin and Chris Johnson’s show “What’s the Word?” on Phillies 24/7 HD Radio last week. Although the topics are a bit outdated, you may still enjoy listening to the 20-minute segment. Use the player below.

What’s the Word? with Bill Baer by Crashburn Alley

If the player doesn’t show above, try viewing the page in a different browser or use the links above.

Today’s edition of “Stathead” is also ready to go at 3 PM ET today. Spike is filling in for Jeff Sottolano, who had to attend to more important things on this beautiful Tuesday mid-morning. We’ll be talking about that amazing 19-inning game, the resurgence of Raul Ibanez, what’s in store for Vance Worley, and the best Phillies starting pitcher Cole Hamels. If you have an HD radio, tune in to 98.1 WOGL HD-4 at 3 PM ET.