I spent a lot of time trying to come up with a rationale for the Phillies' decision to commit $125 million to Ryan Howard's ages 32 through 36 seasons 20 months before a decision point on doing so. The ones I see fall into two categories: soft factors, such as keeping a perceived key player happy, fending off two years of stories about Howard's impending free agency and showing the fan base that the team will keep its most popular players in Philadelphia; and poor player-evaluation skills: using runs batted in as a primary measure of player value, not taking into account the career path of players with Howard's skill set and badly misreading the replaceability of players like him.
No combination of these factors can justify the contract. Howard is a good, not great, player, a mix of obvious skills — his ability to hit for power and against right-handed pitching — and obvious flaws — a contact rate that limits his ability to reach base, middling defensive skills, terrible problems against left-handed pitching. The package makes him an asset as he moves through his prime, and he has been a key contributor to the Phillies' success since 2006. He has never been the best player on his team, and now, he is no better than the third-best Phillie, and could be rated lower depending on what kind of years Jimmy Rollins and Jayson Werth have. The Phillies have missed badly on Howard, committing maybe 20% of their payroll down the line to a player who will be contributing, at best, 70% of the time at the plate and not at all in the field.
Watching last night's Phillies/Giants game, just hours after the deal was announced, was interesting in that it showed off so much of why this contract happened, and why it shouldn't have. Howard came to the plate four times last night, and every time he came up there were two runners on base. During his second PA, the Giants' broadcast flashed a graphic showing, well, the Phillies' entire scouting report during their negotiations:
What was missing was two lines that would have put those numbers into context.
ROB 509 501 483 500
Rank 2 7 8 4
Just as he did last night, Howard has come to the plate with more runners on base than any player alive since the day he joined the league. That $125 million? That's Chase Utley and Shane Victorino and Jimmy Rollins getting on in front of him, getting into scoring position, making those RBI counts skyrocket. Howard couldn't do anything with those eight baserunners last night, because he wasn't a $125 million player in last night's game. No, with the Giants starting Jonathan Sanchez, this guy:
…wasn't in the ballpark. This guy was:
Howard flied to center in the first, drew a five-pitch walk in the third, and struck out swinging in the seventh. He swung five times, missing on three of them. His one solid contact was a deep fly to center on an awful breaking ball, a hanger by Sanchez in the first. We've been over this time and again, and it's worth repeating now that Ryan Howard is set to be one of the five highest-paid players in baseball: Ryan Howard doesn't hit lefties well enough to be an asset against them. He would have been platooned 25 years ago, when teams carried 15 batters. Nowadays, he's just a problem, a .730 OPS guy batting cleanup with more runners on base than any man alive. Not that that's an important job.
Facing Sanchez isn't the problem, though. There are many more right-handed starters than lefty ones, and 75% of the time, Howard is going to be getting three or more cracks against the guys he crushes. He's a ridiculously valuable player against righties, maybe the only player in baseball you'd pick to face one other than Albert Pujols. No, the problem was illustrated later, in the top of the seventh, when with two men on and one man out, Howard had to come to the plate against Jeremy Affeldt. With the Phillies down three runs, they want to be sending $125 million and a .656 career SLG and a homer every ten-and-a-half ABs up…and they can't do that. Howard is too easily neutralized by left-handed relievers to be paid that kind of money. He isn't Barry Bonds. He isn't peak David Ortiz. He isn't Prince Fielder, who handles lefties fairly well and might be the happiest person about this deal outside of Howard's family. Howard certainly isn't Mark Teixeira, who he'll be out-earning by $2 million a season.
Howard doesn't bring a lot of value defensively, either. The weight he's taken off has helped his mobility some, but he remains something shy of smooth around the bag and he's maybe the worst-throwing first baseman since Frank Thomas. There were a couple of similar plays in last night's game that showed his limitations. Andres Torres laid down a drag bunt in the fifth that got past the mound but was a bit too close to first base to be truly effective. Howard charged the ball but was unable to tag Torres diving past him to the bag. The key was in the transition from playing the ball to chasing the runner: a left-handed first baseman should be able to scoop and move, grabbing the ball as he's changing directions. Howard came to almost a full stop, fielding the ball cleanly before moving back to his left. That lack of fluidity is one difference between a good defender and an adequate one. The same action was evident on a grounder by John Bowker later in the game. Howard gets to the ball, comes to a stop, fields it, then continues the play. If he's merely a competent, and at that stilted, defender at 30; it's unlikely he'll be adding value there as he ages.
None of this is really new information, but it was interesting to follow Howard through a game on the night of the deal and see just what the Phillies are getting.
What bothers me most about the contract, though, isn't any of that. This blog is nominally about the process of me working on my first book, a mix of old work and new, so let me dip into the archives for one of the most prescient statements I've ever made, back in December of 2006 from the winter meetings in Orlando:
Of the other moves that actually happened, the big news was the Cardinals extending Chris Carpenter almost to the teens, reaching agreement on a deal that will pay him $65 million through 2011, with a club option for 2012 worth $12 million.
Where I question the deal is the timing. Right now, Chris Carpenter is one of the best pitchers in the NL, and as such, is a decent bet to be a good pitcher through 2007, and even 2008. But given his background and the age range we're talking about here, the Cardinals have assumed a lot of risk. They've bought Carpenter's age 34-36 seasons at $17 million per without yet knowing what he's going to be at 32 and 33. Given the attrition rates of pitchers, that's a major risk.
It's one thing to have to overcommit to a player's probable decline phase in an effort to win a competitive process; that tradeoff is at the core of every single major free-agent signing. To make that overcommitment when it's not necessary to do so, and when you're 400 innings away from the first pitch covered by the new deal? That's just asking for trouble.
I made these same arguments when David Ortiz signed his extension with the Red Sox. Like Carpenter, Ortiz is a key contributor to a championship team and one of the best players in the game. Also similar to the Carpenter contract, Ortiz's deal was reached two years before a possible decision point, with the player likely to be declining when the new contract kicked in. The contract reflected something other than a dispassionate evaluation of the player's on-field contributions and his likely performance going forward.
I didn't like the Ortiz deal, and I have to say that I've changed my mind on the Carpenter deal for the same reasons. In fact, because of the specifics with Carpenter-he's a 32-year-old pitcher with an injury history-I may like it even less that the Ortiz deal. It's hard enough to predict what a pitcher's health and performance will be next year; making a $50 million bet on what it will be three, four and five years out is basically wishcasting.
It's not just that the Phillies have mis-evaluated Howard at a potential cost of tens of millions of dollars and God knows how much potential revenue foregone if the decision ends up costing them on the field. It's that there was no need to do so at this time. The Phillies could have played out Howard's current deal and had a much better idea of what his value is, both in a vacuum and relative to the market, in the winter of 2011. Given how much they're overpaying him — $2 million a year more for the same ages as Mark Teixeira without open-market bidding? — the downside risk there was minimal. Now, they've assumed a huge commitment to what will be a declining asset without having sufficient information about that asset.
I had actually forgotten that I'd mentioned the Ortiz extension in the above piece, but that contract, effectively a $38-million extension for Ortiz's 2008 through 2010 seasons (ages 32 through 34), should have been a huge warning sign for the Phillies. That deal, reached just over four years ago, came at an almost identical point in Ortiz's career as Howard is in his: early in his age-30 season, coming off three huge seasons in which high RBI counts drove high MVP finishes that overstated the player's actual value. Ortiz didn't have Howard's problems against lefties, but he was also a full-time DH. For the next two years, Ortiz was a force of nature; when the extension kicked in, at age 32, he fell off a cliff, and hasn't been anywhere near worth the money in the three seasons of the deal.
Now, the argument is that had Ortiz been a free agent after 2007, he would have done even better for himself, which is at least some of the Phillies' rationale here. They're trying to protect against having to pay even more for a Ryan Howard hitting the market coming off a monster season. Then again, think about where the market went, and has continued to go, for bat-only players. Even two big seasons from Howard wouldn't be likely to get him the kind of contract the Phillies have handed him. The industry understands defense, aging, monodimensional players versus multidimensional ones, replacement level and, most of all, that RBIs aren't value.
Chris Carpenter should have taught teams about unnecessary commitments to risky assets prior to a decision point. David Ortiz should have taught teams about the career paths of bat-only players. Perhaps Ryan Howard will consolidate those lessons in a way that the next generation of GMs learn a bit better than Ruben Amaro Jr. has.