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September 19, 2012

Pebble Hunting

Ryan Howard Laughs Last

by Sam Miller

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Buzz Hannahan was inserted as a pinch runner for Wooten. The Bisons brought in ace lefty Cliff Bartosh to face cleanup hitter Ryan Howard. The Red Barons' first baseman delivered a clutch hit - a towering ground rule double that bounced over the center field fence. August 6th, 2004

***

Things could be going better for Ryan Howard. Since he returned to the Phillies' lineup, on July 6, he has played 62 games. Eleven Phillies with at least 100 plate appearances have a better OPS than Howard does this year, and 18 National League first basemen—Lyle Overbay, Travis Ishikawa, Jeff Baker, etc.—do, too. He has struck out in a third of his plate appearances—not at-bats, but plate appearances—which, even for him, is outlandish. On the road he’s even less useful; against lefties he’s hilarious; in September he’s been worst of all. It’s the first year of his $125 million contract.

But there’s one thing. With Ryan Howard, there’s always one thing, which makes you wonder about that one thing:

  • With nobody on: .205/.256/.402
  • With RISP (80 PA): .344/.463/.623

He has 46 RBIs, in 62 games. Over a full season, that would be 120 RBIs. Over 150 games, it would be 111 RBIs. I know it’s probably been a while since you spent much time with RBIs, but there’s some chance 111 RBIs would lead the NL this year. Only two NL players have driven in more runs per game than Howard, even though he's terrible and the lineup around him is nothing special. I can’t believe I’m spending this much time on RBIs. RBIs!

But RBIs are such a part of the Ryan Howard story, who has the same career WARP as Aaron Hill, and who has still finished in the top 10 in MVP voting each full season he has played. I, personally, find this annoying. Ryan Howard probably finds me annoying. And, somehow, Ryan Howard is going to end up winning this argument, at least to a point.

Because of 80 plate appearances with runners in scoring position? Nah, not because of 80 plate appearances.

  • Career with nobody on: .260/.333/.519
  • Career with RISP (1,493 PA): .284/.416/.562

But that’s probably mostly just because of intentional walks? And the fact that sacrifice flies don’t count against his average and slugging percentage?

  • Career BABIP with nobody on: .310
  • Career BABIP with RISP : .342

Huh.

Matt Schwarz addressed this split in 2009, when he was competing in BP Idol.

Due to the location of first base (the right side of the infield), teams employ large shifts for left-handed power hitters when it is possible, frequently placing three infielders on the right side of the diamond. However, when there are runners on base, it is more difficult to position infielders in such a way that minimizes the hitter's chance of hitting safely if he hits the ball in play. The result is that for a given batting average, a left-handed power hitter is actually more likely to get those hits when runners are on base. These are naturally higher leverage situations in general. Hence, a given batting line for a left-handed power hitter is more valuable than the equivalent batting line for right-handed power hitters.

The MLB cumulatively had a BABIP .006 better with men on than when bases were empty in 2008. … Thanks to the ways teams use the shift (and without any voodoo or secret sauce from Joe Morgan), Ryan Howard is clutch.

Is this enough to explain Howard? Six points of BABIP and 32 points of BABIP are tremendously different. Especially when we consider that the shift is actually not a simple toggle between bases empty and runners on. It’s more of a spectrum, which is applied a bit differently from situation to situation. There are eight possible ways for the bases to be filled, partly filled, or empty. Looking over the past couple weeks of games, we can see how defenses (in general*) play Howard in each of those states. And, looking only at BABIP, we can remove the distorting effects of intentional walks and sacrifice flies on a slash line.

Bases empty: Full shift.

*

Runner on first: Modified shift with < two outs, full shift with two outs. Three infielders pulled over, but second baseman playing at a normal position.

*

Runner on second: Full shift.

*

Runner on third: Basically, a full shift

*

Runners on first and second: No shift

*

Runners on first and third: No shift with less than two outs, full shift with two outs.

*

Runners on second and third: No shift.

*

Bases loaded: No shift

***

To turn this into a table, then. 

Split SHIFT BAbip
--- FULL 0.310
1-- PARTIAL/FULL 0.329
-2- FULL 0.333
3 FULL 0.333
12- NONE 0.346
1-3 NONE/FULL 0.337
-23 NONE 0.438
123 NONE 0.306

Our sample sizes aren't what we would like them to be at this point—some splits as low as 80 balls in play—so we won't conclude anything. But we can tease Howard's splits out a bit further and divide these generally into three categories: Nobody on base (shift), runners on base (no shift), and runners on base (shift). And here's how that goes: 

Nobody on base (shift): .310 BABIP
Runners on base (shift): .324 BABIP
Runners on base (no shift): .342 BABIP

So if these numbers mean anything, or if they suggest anything, without concluding anything, then they suggest that Howard benefits from "clutch" situations when the defense can't shift. But that, even when there is no shift, he gets more hits with runners on. Fascinating! Or just one of those things!

What's important is that Howard is still doing it. In the middle of a terrible year, in which he has become a very poor hitter, he is still doing the thing that got him paid in the first place. So there are three possibilities here.

1. Ryan Howard is "clutch," by which we mean he somehow manages to be a better baseball player when there are runners to drive in. 
2. Ryan Howard is particularly difficult to defend when runners are on base, which is just as useful as the first possibility, if less mystical. 
3. Ryan Howard is a statistical outlier who flipped heads a whole bunch of times in a row. 

If it's the first one, Ryan Howard gets to laugh at us all, or at least at me. If it's the second one, shoot, I'm fine with Ryan Howard laughing at us all, or at least at me. And if it's the third. Well, if it's the third, we'll probably never convince anybody otherwise at this point. Because he's still doing it, and it looks like he'll probably run down the clock before the math can catch up with him. Ryan Howard may not be great. He may even be bad. He may get booed for the final four years of his contract. But Ryan Howard will never have to give back those RBIs. 

*Shifting tendencies vary from team to team, and sometimes even from game to game, or even pitch to pitch. So this piece is, given the scope of our inquiry, assuming only general tendencies based on observation of about 10 games. 

Thanks to Bradley Ankrom for research assistance.

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

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