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September 23, 2008

Player Profile

Ryan Howard

by Marc Normandin and Eric Seidman

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Ryan Howard has had himself quite the September, helping to boost a season line that had been a lot lower than what we're used to seeing from the Philadelphia slugger. In spite of the recent hot streak, his age-28 season has been the least productive of his career thus far, which brings up the question: What happened to Howard in 2008, and what can we expect from him going forward?

Ryan James Howard attended Missouri State University before he was selected by the Philadelphia Phillies in the fifth round (and 140th overall) of the 2001 amateur entry draft. He was signed by long-time Phillies scout Jerry Lafferty, who saw in Howard, "Athletic presence with power potential." Howard's draft stock had fallen after he struck out a school-record 74 times, a problem that still hasn't gone away yet as he approaches his own major league strikeout record, set last year. Howard was sent to the New York-Penn League to play first base for Batavia, and performed well for a fifth-rounder, hitting .272/.384/.456 while displaying the patience he has been known for, though without the power that has become his signature skill.

The Phillies would move Howard to Low-A Lakewood in the Sally League for his first full season, and there he would perform much the same: .280/.367/.469 with 19 homers and 47 extra-base hits overall, along with 145 strikeouts in 493 at-bats. This performance would earn the big lefty the attention of Baseball America, who would rank Howard the eighth-best prospect In the Phillies organization heading into the 2003 season. They felt that the large ballparks in the Florida State League would be a solid test for Howard's blossoming power, and that if he were to shorten up his swing-because Howard was susceptible to breaking balls, which helped to make his swing long at times-he would deliver massive power. Howard passed this test with his 2003 season, having the most productive year yet of his short professional career: a .304/.374/.514 season with 23 homers and 56 total extra-base hits despite the move up to a more difficult league and an unfriendly ballpark. Granted, there were some things to worry about with Howard, as he was 23 years old and hitting for solid yet unspectacular power at High-A, but that didn't stop Baseball America from subsequently ranking Howard the third-best prospect in the Philadelphia system. Baseball Prospectus 2004, on the other hand, felt that because of Howard's age and the fact that he led the FSL in strikeouts that he was not exactly setting himself up for stardom. Both viewpoints were valid, as Prospectus took the cautious approach of avoiding excitement over a 23-year-old beating up on younger competition, while Baseball America saw the little improvements Howard made towards becoming a more complete power hitter.

The argument would be put to rest during his 2004 campaign, as Howard moved up to Double-A Reading and hit .297/.386/.647 with 37 homers in 374 at-bats. He earned himself a call to Triple-A for 111 at-bats, where he continued to rake at a .270/.362/.604 clip while belting another nine homers. His 2004 season would end with a stint in the majors, where he would hit .282/.333/.564 with a pair of homers over 39 at-bats. Howard's combined total of 48 home runs tied for the most in professional baseball with then-Dodgers third baseman Adrian Beltre. Not too shabby a breakout for a 24-year-old former fifth-rounder.

It's tough to be ignored after a performance such as that, so at this point Howard was far from flying under the radar. He was named the 27th-best prospect in all of baseball heading into 2005 by Baseball America, and Baseball Prospectus 2005 had some words of praise for him as well:

You can read the stat lines as well as we can-Howard has big-league power and then some…He could stand a half-season at Scranton to improve his pitch selection-his walk rate is not that high for someone who gets pitched around so much-but he's close to as good as he's going to get… Howard's PECOTA comparables list is interesting. The list is headlined by some unflattering names: Sam Horn, Daryle Ward, and Franklin Stubbs to name a few. But just a bit further down are encouraging comparisons like Carlos Delgado and Derrek Lee, players who improved their walk rates and became very dangerous hitters. It's a potent mixture of about one shot boom and two shots bust.

The Phillies would indeed hold Howard back for a bit at Triple-A in order to get him some additional seasoning, but an injury to Jim Thome meant that the big guy was going to get his shot at a starting job in '05. He certainly learned some lessons during those last 210 at-bats in the minors, or at least taught them to the opposition: Howard hit .371/.467/.690 with 16 homers, though he still managed to strike out 66 times. His production did not stop with his move to the majors, as the rookie hit .288/.356/.567 over 312 at-bats, slugging 22 homers and taking home the Jackie Robinson Award at season's end. During the offseason, the Phillies did something surprising; instead of dealing Howard, as had been previously considered, it was instead Thome who was sent packing, to the White Sox. Baseball Prospectus 2006 warned that Howard's bat speed wasn't the greatest-it wasn't, and still isn't, as evidenced by his increasingly ridiculous strikeout rates-but he did have tremendous power that could be unleashed on opposing pitchers.

Unleashed it was in 2006. In a year where the talking heads sought to depose records set by Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds, Howard was the beacon of PED-less hope as he approached Roger Maris' former record of 61 homers. Although he fell short with 58 at season's end, Howard was excellent on all fronts, with a quality batting average, excellent plate patience, and incredible power all rolled into one. Unfortunately, that was the last time anyone would see that version of Howard over the course of an entire season. In 2007, his batting average plummeted, and his strikeout rates, always high, shot up even further, all the way to nearly 38 percent of the time. This resulted in a .268/.392/.584 "down" year, akin to the kind of production you expect to see from Adam Dunn. That still made Howard one of the game's top hitters, but he wasn't the kind of guy you throw into a production fight against Albert Pujols.

His "down" 2007 has been followed by an even lower 2008, as he's hit .247/.336/.533; that's a .286 ISO, closer to the numbers he was putting up during the earlier portions of his career than the ones we saw in his breakout. This makes sense, especially when you revisit Baseball Prospectus 2007's comment on the Philly first baseman:

Ryan Howard is a big, really big, reason why the Phillies need to go for broke in the short term. Historically, players like Howard, big-bodied guys with limited defensive skills such as Mo Vaughn and Boog Powell, tended to have high but brief peak periods. Their legs just couldn't carry that much mass for very long, and around 30 their defense plummeted, their playing time dropped due to nagging injuries, and their singles dried up and disappeared. The Phillies should have a three-year window in which they can expect this kind of production from Howard, but should not plan beyond that. He'll be fun to watch in the meantime.

Howard has lost around 40 hits per year from his 2006 season. That's partially due to the massive uptick in his strikeout rate: Howard struck out nearly one-third of the time this year, which sadly enough represents an improvement on the previous season. This year he also lost a chunk of his plate discipline, as he walked roughly 12 percent of the time instead of the totals of 16 percent or better the previous two seasons. He's not making contact as often as he used to, by about three percent, and he's also not swinging at as many pitches within the strike zone, another reason for the jump in punch outs.

Howard's 2008 is an example of the things that can go wrong with a player with this skill set, as he fails to hit very many singles, and is very reliant on his power to survive. You love to have those guys around, but that's when you expect them to hit like this, along the lines of the aforementioned Adam Dunn. When you expect them to hit like Howard did in 2006 year-in and year-out-remember, before 2008, it was 2007 that was the "off" year-then you're going to be disappointed. History reflects that the peaks for these players just don't last all that long. Howard's still a fantastic player, and one who seems to have picked the Phillies up on his back this past month: he's hitting homers at a pace Barry Bonds would be proud of while the Phils fight for a playoff spot. However, he's also closer to the Howard that both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus envisioned back before his 2006 breakout than the one we had an image of while lost in the moment of that season. Things may only get worse from here, as age is not kind o players of Howard's ilk, meaning that Philadelphia needs to maintain their win-now mentality in order to get the most out of their star that they can.-Marc Normandin

Performance Evaluation

In 2005, following an injury to Jim Thome, the Phillies called upon mega-prospect Ryan Howard to fill the void, and he did not disappoint. In just 88 games, Howard smacked 22 home runs en route to winning the Rookie of the Year award. In his sophomore campaign, he had anything but a slump, as 58 balls left the yard after being clouted by him, and the NL MVP Award subsequently also wound up on his mantle. Last year, he became the quickest player to reach the 100-homer mark in his career, and he hit a total of 47 on the season. Howard's batting average had dropped from .313 to .268, but he sustained his raw total of walks and still wound up with tremendous numbers, further establishing himself as the premier slugger in the senior circuit.

Expectations were high entering this season, so when April ended and Howard was hitting a measly .172/.297/.343, with five home runs, many were quick to jump on the "do not re-sign him" or "trade him now" bandwagons. Historically, the big thumper has never been a fast starter; in April he has a career line of .230/.356/.406, a 763 OPS, his lowest in any month. Additionally, with just 13 home runs in 261 at-bats, he had a very un-Howard-like HR/AB of one homer every 20 at-bats. There were reasons for his slow start, ranging from less patience at the plate to a massively lower-than-normal BABIP, but they all combined to vastly reduce his effectiveness.

Over the last couple of seasons, his batting average on balls in play has been above .330, but early this season he struggled to keep it above .260. This was begging for regression, but his plate discipline added a problem to the mix: by swinging at poorly-placed pitches, Howard was reducing his walk rate, striking out more, and giving pitchers no reason to throw anywhere in the vicinity of his wheelhouse. Even as his numbers improved, the walk rate stayed lower than his previous two seasons. In 2006, he walked 108 times; last year, he drew 107 free passes. This year, however, he is on pace for just 82-85, and a big part of what's missing is the massive drop in his intentional walk totals: he drew 37 in '06 and 35 in '07, but has only 17 so far in '08. Because of this dropoff, his raw singles, doubles, and home runs are similar to years past, but there are more outs thrown in the mix.

While he usually gets off to slow starts, you will be hard-pressed to find a more productive September hitter. Ryan seems to be at his finest in the final month of the season, which should come as a relief to most Phillies fans-myself included. Overall, in 123 September games and 503 plate appearances, Howard is hitting .315/.435/.710, an 1145 OPS, with 42 home runs to boot, which counteracts his Aprils quite nicely. This season, in 19 September games, he has a 1275 OPS and nine home runs, helping propel the Phillies to the top of the NL East.

Beyond his late kicks, his career splits suggest that Howard is at his best in situations of high importance, and this season he does rank close to the top ten in the majors among hitters with 200 or more PA in the percentage of runners on base driven in. However, it's notable that he's feasting on poor pitchers while struggling against the better ones: in 440 career plate appearances against those with a career 5.25 ERA or higher, Howard has hit 54 home runs with a 1295 OPS. The reason is not exactly rocket science-those with much higher ERAs will, more often than not, have those ERAs for a reason, therefore being more likely to make mistakes. Against a hitter with Howard's kind of power, cookies become souvenirs.

Howard is going to strike out and hit home runs, but he really needs to show more patience at the plate and give pitchers a reason to throw more than low and away sliders. While he will never be heralded for his glove work, Howard does have the potential to be a very solid fielder if he can get out of his own head. When he chases foul balls, dives around the first base bag, and makes scoops, he looks fantastic. He struggles, however, when it comes time to throw to second, or if there are baserunners and he has to make a decision where to throw, and when to throw it. Getting out of his own head may be tough to do, but if he can exercise some caution at the plate, and be a bit more patient, his offensive production should more than cover for any defensive shortcomings.-Eric Seidman

Eric Seidman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Eric's other articles. You can contact Eric by clicking here

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