What’s Wrong With Ryan Howard?

Our 2005 Rookie of the Year and 2006 National League Most Valuable Player is slumping again. He has certainly earned the right to slump every now and then, as he isn’t the recipient of a lucrative contract (like Pat Burrell) where production is expected. With just a $900,000 salary this season, and with a well-stocked trophy case, Howard has earned the patience of the Philadelphia fans, but I am looking at the calendar, thinking of the date when the town turns against him as they did to Burrell and almost every other big-name Philadelphia athlete (see: McNabb, Donovan; Abreu, Bobby; Rolen, Scott; Schmidt, Mike).

Of course, Howard could just bust out of that slump by altering his approach at the plate and/or his mechanics. “FTN,” a poster at a Phillies forum called Back She Goes, had done some tremendous in-depth analysis of Howard’s mechanics and at-bats from July 25 to August 3. He notes:

Looking at the snapshots of Howard’s AB’s, I see a guy who had some good AB’s early in this “streak”, but then a guy who began to just guess at the plate and wasn’t really seeing the ball. Some of the AB’s deep into this run he just looks like he has no clue what’s coming, even though the sequence is obvious at the time. High-Low-High-Low, or High-High-Low-Low. There isn’t a whole lot of trickery here, except for Eyre coming up with a completely different gear the second time he faced Howard in relief. Howard chased a lot of pitches out of the zone, and in some AB’s, the best pitch of the AB was the first pitch, which he more times than not just let go for a strike. It seems like he’s pressing, that’s probably obvious, and he hasn’t been the same since Utley went down. When he presses, he gets over anxious and tries to do too much with pitches he can’t pull, especially pitches on the outside corner, and he’s vulnerable to the high and inside pitch.

I think at this point, he’s still very conscious of that high and inside hole in his swing, and he’s been setting up very open to try and pull that pitch and not get tied up. As a result of this, his stance is wide open, and when he does his toe tap/load up, he’s still too far open and pointing toward 1B. This forces him to not see the outside pitch, and even if he picks it up, he’s trying to pull it instead of just dumping it into left field.

FTN was also thorough enough to do some mechanical analysis, using some footage of a game against the Florida Marlins last season, and of a game against the Washington Nationals from July 26 of this season. He draws the following conclusions:

Looking at these two swings, I see two real big problems.

1. His stance is way too crouched right now. When you’re bent in that manner, you have to raise yourself back up to make contact, which creates more movement in the swing. His head position is key, as his head remains very steady on the left frame, but moves quite a bit to the right. When trying to pick up spin on a baseball, if you move your head, your eyes obviously are going to move, and it will make it more difficult to pick up spin.

2. He’s very conscious of the inside pitch. In the pitch by pitch sequences above, pitchers are starting to throw him inside more, and he isn’t handling the pitches well. Last year, pitches kept pitching him away and rarely exploited the high/inside quadrant, but that has changed this year. The compensate, Howard is cheating and opening up quicker, trying to pull around on that inside pitch. When he’s doing this, he’s losing his balance, his head is moving, and he’s not seeing the ball.

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Since Chase Utley was injured on July 26 (21 games), Howard has hit just 4 HR and 13 RBI and an OPS of .697. He is neither getting on base (just 13 walks in 95 plate appearances) nor hitting for power. Additionally, he’s been increasingly unable to hit left-handed pitching, which was a staple of his success in 2005 and ’06.

July 27 vs. John Grabow (PIT): Grounds into double play to the second baseman in a two-pitch at-bat. (0-1)

July 28 vs. Shane Youman (PIT): Grounds into fielders choice to the pitcher in a two-pitch at-bat; singles to center field in a three-pitch at-bat; walks on a five-pitch at-bat. (1-2, BB)

July 29 vs. Damaso Marte (PIT): Strikes out swinging in a five-pitch at-bat. (0-1, 1 K)

July 30 vs. Ted Lilly (CHC): Strikes out swinging in a five-pitch at-bat; doubles to right field in a two-pitch at-bat; grounds out to shortstop in a three-pitch at-bat. (1-3, 1 K)

July 31 vs. Will Ohman (CHC): Singles to center field in a three-pitch at-bat. (1-1)

August 1 vs. Rich Hill (CHC): Strikes out swinging in a three-pitch at-bat; strikes out swinging in a seven-pitch at-bat; doubles to center field in a one-pitch at-bat. (1-3, 2 K)

… vs. Scott Eyre (CHC): Strikes out swinging in a five-pitch at-bat. (0-1, 1 K)

August 2 vs. Sean Marshall (CHC): Singles to right field in a two-pitch at-bat; pops up to third base in a five-pitch at-bat. (1-2)

… vs. Scott Eyre (CHC): Strikes out swinging in a five-pitch at-bat. (0-1, 1 K)

August 5 vs. Manny Parra (MIL): Walks in a four-pitch at-bat. (0-0, BB)

August 8 vs. Dontrelle Willis (FLA): Walks in a six-pitch at-bat; pops up to third base in a six-pitch at-bat; flies out to left field in a two-pitch at-bat; singles to left field in a nine-pitch at-bat. (1-3, BB)

… vs. Taylor Tankersley (FLA): Strikes out swinging in a three-pitch at-bat. (0-1, 1 K)

August 9 vs. Taylor Tankersley (FLA): Strikes out swinging in a four-pitch at-bat. (0-1, 1 K)

August 10 vs. Chuck James (ATL): Sacrifice flies to left field in a three-pitch at-bat; flies out to center field in a one-pitch at-bat; grounds out to second base in a one-pitch at-bat. (0-2)

August 14 vs. Ray King (WAS): Grounds out to second base in a three-pitch at-bat. (0-1)
August 17 vs. Tom Gorzelanny (PIT): Pops out to third base in a six-pitch at-bat; pops out foul to third base in a two-pitch at-bat; strikes out looking in a four-pitch at-bat. (0-3, 1 K)

… vs. Shane Youman (PIT): Strikes out swinging in a four-pitch at-bat. (0-1, 1 K)

August 18 vs. Paul Maholm (PIT): Singles to right field in a five-pitch at-bat; grounded out to first base in a four-pitch at-bat; struck out swinging in a five-pitch at-bat; struck out swinging in a five-pitch at-bat. (1-4, 2 K)

That is an aggregate 7-for-31 (.226) with three walks and only two of those hits going for extra bases. In addition, 12 of his 24 outs (50%) have been strikeouts, which indicates that Howard probably isn’t seeing the ball well, and backs up FTN’s conclusions.

So, kudos to FTN for some excellent analysis which appears to be entirely correct. I’d be interested in seeing some screencap-analysis of some of his more recent at-bats (I would but I’m not a MLB.TV subscriber).

Some other interesting analysis similar to that done by FTN from The Hardball Times:

Chamberlain or Hughes: Who’s Got Better Mechanics?

The Four Greatest Homerun Hitters of All-Time: A Video Analysis of Their Swings

The D-Train’s Mechanics

In other Phillies news…

– Ed Wade gets stuck in a tree. [ABC]

– The Philadelphia Daily News’ Marcus Hayes rips proponents of Sabermetrics. [The Good Phight]

Sabremetrics [sic] are the bastion of wannabes who never could quite figure out which hand the mitt went on, a false industry created and fueled by people whose association with the game always will be vicarious, and, frankly, pathetic.

– Mike Zagurski becomes the latest Phillies casualty — a pulled hamstring. [Phillies.com]

The list of Phillies to have seen time on the disabled list this season:

  • Rod Barajas, 1 year/$3M , plus $5M 2008 club option
  • Michael Bourn, 1 year/$380,000
  • Adam Eaton,in first year of 3 years/$24.51M contract, plus $9M 2010 mutual option, earning $6.875M in 2007
  • Freddy Garcia, $10M/1 year remaining on 3 years/$27M contract
  • Tom Gordon, 3 years/$18M ($4.5M club option in ’09), earning $7M in 2007
  • Ryan Howard, 1 year/$900,000
  • Jon Lieber, $7.5M/1 year remaining on 3 years/$21M contract
  • Ryan Madson, 1 year/$1.1M
  • Scott Mathieson, 1 year/$380,000
  • Brett Myers, In first year of 3 years/$25.75M contract, earning $5M in 2007
  • Francisco Rosario, 1 year/$100,000
  • Chase Utley, In first year of 7 years/$85M contract, earning $4.5M in 2007
  • Shane Victorino, 1 year/$410,000
  • Jayson Werth, 1 year/$850,000
  • Mike Zagurski, Major League minimum ($380,000)

That is $48,375,000 worth of Major League talent on the disabled list. The Phillies went into the 2007 season with a $89,428,213 payroll. The injuries make up for 54% of the total payroll. And yet the Phillies are still 8 games over .500.

Lohse, Branyan Make Gillick Look Crafty

Mere days removed from an awful start by Adam Eaton — a free agent signed by GM Pat Gillick to a three-year, $24.5 million contract — Kyle Lohse and Russell Branyan, the former a trade-deadline acquisition, the latter a waiver-wire pickup, turned in performances worthy enough to send the Phillies to a come-from-behind 3-2 victory on the road against the Washington Nationals.

Going into the series-opener, the Phillies led the National League in many offensive categories, and were among the top in the others, but tonight, they were shut down by Shawn Hill. In six shutout innings, Hill and his sinking fastball allowed only one hit and one walk, and struck out seven.

Lohse was nearly as effective going into the seventh inning. In the six innings prior, Lohse had shut out the Nationals on just two hits and three walks, while striking out four. Unfortunately, the Phillies offense hit a wall and couldn’t find him any run support in his six and two-thirds innings of excellent pitching. In the seventh, Lohse allowed two infield singles to second baseman Tadahito Iguchi (to Iguchi’s credit, they were tough to field), and a well-hit double to left field off of the bat of pinch-hitter Tony Batista.

Cue “Gillick’s Guys.”

As many teams have found out this season, the Phillies are capable of a comeback at any time, and the Phightins proved it once more tonight. After Greg Dobbs harmlessly popped out, Jayson Werth hit a broken-bat grounder that should have been the second out of the inning, but third baseman Ryan Zimmerman airmailed it to first baseman Robert Fick, allowing Werth to advance to second.

The next hitter, catcher Carlos Ruiz, appeared anxious at the plate as usual, but still had a decent at-bat and took advantage of the deep positioning of the Nationals outfielders, dumping an RBI single to centerfield.

And that brought up Russell Branyan, king of The Three True Outcomes (strikeout, walk, and homerun) for his first at-bat as a Phillie. As they say, you have only one chance to make a first impression, and Branyan only needed two pitches in his first at-bat to make a great impression on his new teammates and his new fanbase in Philadelphia. Branyan launched Nationals reliever Jon Rauch’s fastball well beyond the right-field fence for a lead-changing two-run homerun, and, not to sound cliche, but yes, it would have gone out of Yellowstone.

With the Phillies now staked to a 3-2 lead, Tom Gordon came in and held the Nationals scoreless on one hit in the bottom of the eighth. The ninth inning had the bottom of their lineup facing closer Brett Myers, who quickly closed the door by striking out the side — the second time he’s done so in a week (August 8 against the Marlins).

Fangraphs.com game graph 08/14/07

A “Gillick’s Guys” recap…

Lohse: 6.2 IP, 5 H, 2 ER, 3 BB, 4 SO (a quality start).

Branyan: 1-1, 1 HR, 2 RBI (game-tying and go-ahead RBI’s).

Tonight’s win, even though it was against the lowly Nationals, was almost satisfying enough to forgive Gillick for bringing Adam Eaton back to Philadelphia. But that league-worst ERA is ugly.

Let’s have a look at Gillick’s work this season (all statistics prior to tonight’s game).

Pre-season

Antonio Alfonseca: 116 ERA+
Rod Barajas: 87 OPS+ (injured)
Fabio Castro: 36 ERA+ (sent to minors)
Greg Dobbs: 109 OPS+
J.D. Durbin: 108 ERA+
Adam Eaton: 70 ERA+
Freddy Garcia: 76 ERA+ (injured)
Wes Helms: 77 OPS+
Francisco Rosario: 67 ERA+ (injured)
Matt Smith: 40 ERA+ (injured, sent to minors)
Jayson Werth: 96 OPS+
The line: 11 players, 3 performing at least at a league-average (100) level. And only 6 have stayed healthy and in the Major Leagues.

Mid-season

Russell Branyan: 2-run go-ahead HR in first at-bat. 100 OPS+ prior to joining the Phillies.
Tadahito Iguchi: 125 OPS+
Kyle Lohse: 4.50 ERA, team is 3-0 when he pitches
Jose Mesa: 177 ERA+
J.C. Romero: 356 ERA+
The line: 5 players, 4 performing at least at a league-average (100) level.

Total: 15 players, 7 performing at least at a league-average (100) level.

Tonight’s win definitely makes Gillick look good, and, based on last year’s trade and waiver-wire pickups, he is adept at quickly patching up holes with whatever he finds in the trash bin. But, as the last two months of the season play out, it’s likely that Gillick’s acquisitions (Eaton, namely) end up costing the Phillies more than they help them.

The Smallest Violin Plays for the Atlanta Braves

As the Atlanta Braves often do following losses to the Phillies, they whined after tonight’s 5-3 loss to Jamie Moyer and the Phillies. The Braves love to whine about the Phillies, usually for their own imagined reasons.

July 2005: John Smoltz says of Citizens Bank Park, “I’ve played a long time, and some of the balls that are leaving there–it’s not right. It’s a joke.” [Link]

At the time Smoltz said that, Citizens Bank Park was only one and a half seasons old. The CBP homerun tally between the two teams in 2004 and 2005: Braves, 26; Phillies, 16. And the Braves enjoyed an 11-8 record against the Phillies in Philadelphia.

Flash forward to the bottom of the fifth inning in tonight’s nationally broadcast game (meaning the game comes with complimentary terrible commentary by Jon Miller and Joe Morgan) when Atlanta starter Buddy Carlyle starts off the inning with a walk to Jimmy Rollins. Carlyle got the next hitter, Tadahito Iguchi, to hit a ground ball to second baseman Martin Prado, who quickly flipped the ball to shortstop Yunel Escobar for the force at second base. Escobar got off a nice throw to first that was a hair too slow to get Iguchi at first base.

As soon as Escobar released the ball to first base, he caught the umpire’s “safe” motion and threw his arms up in the air as if he was accused of first-degree murder. To add insult to injury, Iguchi was called safe at first, so that was a huge double-whammy for Escobar. And replays showed that Escobar didn’t even come close to touching second base. He was trying to get the throw off as fast as possible with Jimmy Rollins heading full-throttle in his direction.

Bobby Cox came out to argue to no avail, and no, he wasn’t ejected. As a Phillies fan, I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing, considering he’s on the precipice of managerial history in terms of ejections.

Pat Burrell popped out on the seventh pitch of the at-bat, and made way for Ryan Howard, who had a walk and a strikeout to his name at that point.

In his first at-bat, Carlyle stayed away from him low and away, and walked Howard on five pitches. Howard wasn’t so fortunate in the third inning, when Carlyle grooved a fastball high and outside for a called strike three.

Carlyle wasn’t so fortunate on Howard’s third try. He tried getting him high and outside again, but Howard was a step ahead of him and drove the pitch 391 feet to left-center for a three-run homerun, staking the Phillies to a 4-2 lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

Keep the homerun distance in mind, as it is an important fact that the Braves will conveniently ignore in their post-game whining.

Hit that fast-forward button again to the bottom of the ninth inning. Phillies closer Brett Myers easily retired Andruw Jones and Brian McCann, leaving the Braves’ hopes with pinch-hitter Willie Harris.

Myers threw Harris five straight fastballs, all at least 94 MPH, and all but one were low and outside. The last pitch, a 96-MPH called strike three on the outside corner, elicited some barking and gesturing from Myers at Harris and the Braves’ dugout, who didn’t take very kindly to his actions.

As Michael Radano notes on his blog,

If you saw the final strike of the night, you may have seen a little extra showmanship from Brett Myers.

Understand that Myers knows Braves hitter Willie Harris. The two were in the minors together and while they like to compete against one another, they have a good talking relationship.

Anyway, back in A-ball, Harris abused Myers. Always a leadoff hitter, Myers tried to overpower Harris with his fastball with little luck as Harris would slash away. Finally, Myers decided to “**** with him” and threw him a curve to start a game that Harris more than struggled with.

According to Myers, he faced him once this year and threw the curves, prompting Harris to challenge Myers manhood in a face-to-face.

Myers being Myers, he saw the final at bat of the ninth as a challenge. Fastball No.1 drew a smirk from Harris. Fastballs two, three and four allowed Myers to look in and at one point, show Harris four fingers. On the fifth fastball, Harris froze and began his walk back to the dugout.

“I wanted to show him I have *****,” Myers said with a grin.

That’s not it, though. The Braves were not exactly gracious losers. Some quotes, courtesy ComcastSportsNet.com.

Bobby Cox on Howard’s three-run homerun (remember the distance — 391 feet), said, “It was a little fly ball. It was out here and Cincinnati, and maybe Houston.”

391 feet is only out of Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and Houston’s ballparks? It would’ve been out of yours too, Bobby. From the Braves website, the left-field power alley is 380 feet. Howard’s homerun would have been at least 3 or 4 rows back at Turner Field.

Jeff Francoeur was a bit more subtle. “We lost on a ball that just happened to go out of the ballpark. That’s all I can say. It’s tough to lose that way.”

Just happened to go out? Was Jeff watching the same homerun the rest of the country was watching?

And just for convenience sake, a recap of tonight’s whining from the Atlanta Braves:

– Yunel Escobar’s “throw your hands up in the air if you care” routine when he clearly didn’t touch any part of the second base bag, and Bobby Cox’s subsequent argument with the umpires (both at second base and at first, as he felt Iguchi was also out at first).

– Willie Harris and the Braves’ dugout yapping following Myers’ called strike three to end the game.

– Bobby Cox and Jeff Francoeur pouting about Ryan Howard’s game-winning, 391-foot, three-run homerun that would have left any ballpark.

Can someone get these guys on The Montel Williams Show? It is so unfortunate that they have to play in such a bandbox, where the other team gets more offensive innings than they do! (For those without sarcasm detectors, the Phillies had 8 offensive innings; the Braves had 9, so they had more chances to hit “little fly balls” for homeruns.)

Kyle Kendrick, Unsung Hero

Kyle Kendrick will become a two-month old Major Leaguer on August 13. If you hadn’t just read that, you never would’ve guessed he’s just a rookie.

The kid — 23 years old on August 24 — doesn’t have dominating stuff, and he isn’t a menace on the mound like Roger Clemens or Carlos Zambrano are. He throws a high-80’s, low-90’s fastball with heavy sinking action, a change-up, and a slider. Pitching at home in the bandbox known as Citizens Bank Park, a sinkerball is an extremely effective pitch for any pitcher, but especially one who doesn’t strike anyone out. His ground ball rate is extremely high.

Kyle Kendrick

In Kendrick’s 11 big-league starts, 8 of them have been quality starts and his quality start percentage ranks 18th in the Majors. Add to that his 119 ERA+ (for comparison, Cole Hamels’ is 122), and you have yourself a quality Major League arm.
Remember, this kid is not even 23 and has a Major League tenure just nearing two months. He was in AA Reading at the time the Phillies called on him, and not much was expected of him. The Phillies had already suffered blows to the starting rotation with the season-ending injury to Jon Lieber, and the potentially season-ending injury to Freddy Garcia.

Everyone in Philadelphia would have been pleased with Kendrick as long as he didn’t turn in Adam Eaton-esque performances. Instead, he’s pitched his way into the team’s 2008 starting rotation most likely (you never know with the Phillies, as Chris Coste earned a spot on the opening day roster for this season, but he started in AAA Ottawa and didn’t get called up until May 14, then was sent back down on May 24).

Looking ahead, here’s what the Phillies’ 2008 rotation could look like:

Cole Hamels

Adam Eaton

Jamie Moyer

Kyle Kendrick

Free agent/Trade/Brett Myers/J.D. Durbin/J.A. Happ

That’s not that bad, is it?

Thank you, Kyle Kendrick, for not only stabilizing the Phillies’ starting rotation for 2007, but also for 2008.

Iguchi Earning His Phillies Pinstripes

Tadahito IguchiTadahito Iguchi, the first Asian to ever don the Phillies’ red pinstripes (Bruce Chen was Panamanian, mind you), has hit safely in 10 of his first 11 games while temping for the injured Chase Utley.

He has 19 hits in 49 at-bats. In 58 plate appearances, he’s been on base at a .481 clip, which would be second in the National League if he had enough at-bats to qualify. No one expected any power from him, but he has even surprised in that regard with a .530 slugging percentage.His defense has been flawless as well, as evidenced by his 1.000 fielding percentage. His .842 RZR would rank fourth among National League second basemen if he had logged enough defensive innings to qualify.

They say that even a broken clock is right twice a day, and Pat Gillick — wrong on so many occaisions, from Alex Gonzalez (not the one in Cincinnati), to Ryan Franklin (whose doppelganger is producing a Rolaids-worthy season in St. Louis), to Wes Helms — finally made a great trade in acquiring Iguchi from the Chicago White Sox for next to nothing: Michael Dubee (ironically, the son of Phillies’ pitching coach Rich Dubee). Why the White Sox were willing to give up on Iguchi boggles the mind, but it all works out for the Phillies.

When Utley recovers from his broken hand some time in September, Iguchi’s presence creates a logjam in the infield. Utley, obviously, will reclaim his spot at second base. Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard aren’t going anywhere. The only viable option, then, is third base for Iguchi. But Pat Gillick quickly put the kibosh on that, saying, “I would say it’s a very remote, remote possibility. It’s a different position third base in that you have longer to read the ball at shortstop and second base as opposed to third base which is a reaction position. A lot of times people that can play the middle of the diamond have a tough time moving to the corners.”

Great.

Third base is currently being manned by the trifecta of Greg Dobbs, Wes Helms, and Abraham Nunez. Helms has been underwhelming in his four months in Philadelphia; Nunez has a roster spot only for his defense; and Dobbs can play positions other than third base. Why not give Iguchi a shot at the hot corner?

Offensively (as of Aug. 9 prior to the Marlins game):

Dobbs: 109 OPS+

Helms: 76 OPS+

Nunez: 66 OPS+

Iguchi: 148 OPS+ as a Phillie (96 overall).

Defensively:

Dobbs: .706 RZR

Helms: .700 RZR

Nunez: .748 RZR

Iguchi: .842 RZR as a Phillie.

The Phillies had a similar situation with Placido Polanco. Chase Utley had earned the starting job at second base as a rookie (I believe he still qualified as one) in 2004. They had Rollins at shortstop and Jim Thome at first base, who obviously were not going anywhere, so the only logical place to put Polanco was at third base. But they liked the “veteranosity” of David Bell, who had produced only two seasons with an OPS+ over 100 in his 9-year career at that point. Polanco, prior to 2004, also hadn’t put up many high OPS+ seasons, but his were closer to league-average than Bell’s, and put up a 112 OPS+ in the season prior. Also factor in his superior defense and his less-expensive salary, and it’s a no-brainer what then-GM Ed Wade should have done.

Hindsight is 20/20, but it is noteworthy that, since leaving Philadelphia, Polanco has put up an OPS of .850 in 86 games in Detroit in 2005; .693 in an injury-shortened 2006; and .859 in 2007, earning his first All-Star nomination — as a starter, no less.

Gillick, apparently, is no fan of history, as he appears doomed to repeat it. Iguchi is a free agent at the end of the 2007 season, and with a weak free agent market, Iguchi will be heavily sought and will probably land a decent contract. The Phillies would be wise to jump the gun and offer him a multi-year deal to play third base for the next three years.

The infield would be set, and with Aaron Rowand likely moving on to greener pastures, Gillick can focus on getting another outfielder (Mike Cameron, perhaps) and shoring up the bullpen.