$158 Million Mistake

In the 2010 season, Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. signed first baseman Ryan Howard to a contract extension.  The signing generated plenty of excitement within the Phillies fan base, as they were glad to have an elite power hitter signed to a long-term contract.  Unfortunately for the Phillies, this contract will come back to haunt them.

Ryan Howard contract extension
2011:  $20 million
2012:  $20 million
2013:  $20 million
2014:  $25 million
2015:  $25 million
2016:  $25 million
2017:  team option of $23 million or buyout of $10 million

With all due respect to Howard, he is one of baseball’s most overrated and overpaid players.  A man who struggles to hit left-handed pitching, struggles to hit with the bases empty, cannot run the bases well, has little to no range on defense and cannot hit the ball to the opposite field should never have a whiff of $20 million, let alone $25 million in a single season.

“But Howard hits a bunch of home runs and drives in runs,” you might say.  That is true; however, Hower’s statistics show he hits best when runners are on base and pitchers are forced to throw strikes – in other words, very hittable pitches – against him.

Howard is a great fantasy baseball player, but a great baseball player he is not.  What does Albert Pujols have that Howard does not have?  A mastery of doing the little things which do not show up in your box scores, and doing them consistently.

 

 

As you can see from the numbers (click on the image to enlarge it), Howard is a terribly easy out once he has two strikes against him.  Frankly, he is usually an easy out anytime the pitchers get ahead of him in the count.  In the 2010 season, Howard hit only .172 in two-strike counts.  In any count in which he fell behind the pitcher, Howard hit only .182 in 2010.

Although you might find it unfair to compare Howard to Pujols, who is widely regarded as the best player in baseball, the fact remains that Howard’s numbers in these situations are downright terrible.

Despite his penchant for smashing home runs, Howard always was and always will be a strikeout machine.  To date, Howard has 1,035 strikeouts and 465 walks in his career.  For his career, Howard is striking out at an alarming rate of 191 times per 600 at-bats, dwarfing Pujols’ 67 strikeouts per 600 at-bats.

This means Howard would strike out around 12 times in 50 at-bats whereas Pujols would strike out roughly five times.  That means in 50 at-bats, Pujols will likely have seven more opportunities than Howard to help his team win the game.  Those seven at-bats may very well be the difference between winning or losing a playoff series.

From 2006 to 2009, Howard hit no less than 45 home runs and 136 RBIs in any season.

In 2010, Howard hit 31 home runs and 108 RBIs while posting OBP, SLG and OPS marks that were significantly lower than his career averages.

Year after year, Howard’s power numbers dipped slowly; however, 2010 marks the first sharp drop in power in his seven-year career.  Each year, he is needing more at-bats to hit a home run.

Ryan Howard at-bats per home run
2006:  10.0
2007:  11.3
2008:  12.7
2009:  13.7
2010:  17.7

In the 2010 postseason, Howard failed to hit a single home run; in fact, Howard failed to drive in a single run in the entire postseason.  He also set a dubious NLCS record for most strikeouts.

Howard’s numbers clearly indicate that he is on the decline.  It is foolhardy enough to issue such a long and expensive contract to a “great” player who struggles in many areas of the game; it becomes more foolish when you issue such contracts to aging power hitters who are beginning to show signs of their power fading.

I am by no means saying Howard will not hit home runs.  You can still chalk Howard up for 30 home runs and 100 RBIs on a consistent basis; however, the decline in his power numbers over the years clearly show that his power will continue to fade and his statistics will not live up to the incredible expectations that come with his high-paying contract.

Although he is paid to hit for power, Howard's power steadily decreased year after year before finally dropping sharply in 2010. Nevertheless, he remains a dangerous bat who can change the game with one swing.

In addition to making Howard one of baseball’s most overpaid players, his contract also hurts the Phillies’ chances of retaining other stars.

Although the Phillies are not penny-pinching Scrooges, they also are unlikely to participate in spending sprees which rival the Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Angels, New York Mets and New York Yankees.

Howard’s contract will make it very difficult for the Phillies to keep outfielder Jayson Werth, who is a free agent for the 2011 season.  Werth is the Phillies’ only right-handed slugger at this time, and he can conceivably command $12-16 million on the open market (Jason Bay makes $16 million).

If the Phillies are unwilling to spend in Yankee-like fashion, then Howard’s contract will greatly hurt their chances of becoming a potential World Series dynasty.

Amaro has nobody to blame but himself for committing over $20 million on an annual basis to a hitter who is being paid for his hitting as his power begins to fade and he continues to struggle (he always had) in situational hitting.

In the next feature I write, I will discuss the contracts of other players and what those contracts mean to the Phillies’ title hopes beyond 2010.  If Werth indeed leaves the Phillies, this may mean more playing time for the likes of top prospect Domonic Brown and/or Ben Francisco.

Christopher Wenrich is a fantasy baseball contributor for BaseballDigest.com.  E-mail him at philliesmuse@yahoo.com.

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