Baseball’s Most Overrated Star

Philadelphia Phillies fans have much to be excited about.  The Phillies not only boast the best pitching rotation in baseball (in spite of lingering injuries to Joe Blanton and Roy Oswalt), but also the best record in baseball and are serious World Series contenders (especially after acquiring Hunter Pence).  Unfortunately, I know some Phillies fans who get too excited about Ryan Howard.  I consider Ryan Howard to be baseball’s most overrated star.

Do not take this the wrong way:  I love having a hitter who can change the game with one swing of the bat like Howard; however, he is not as great as people think he is.  Adam Dunn is also capable of changing the game with one swing of the bat, and look at the miserable season he is having with the Chicago White Sox!

The fact of the matter is that Ryan Howard is not a very good hitter; he merely hits when pitchers are forced to throw strikes – which happen to be quite hittable – to him.

Ryan Howard is hitting .231 when the Phillies are behind, .230 when the game is tied and .283 when the Phillies have a lead this season

I wrote last year that Howard’s enormous contract extension was an enormous mistake, and I stand by that belief.  Frankly, Howard is not going to get better as a hitter; he is only going to get worse as he ages.

In fact, he already had been declining the past few seasons.  The 2006 season was his first season as a full-time starter; it also happens to be the greatest statistical season of his career.  Therefore, Howard’s career will not be measured against his 2006 season.

I measure Howard’s career based on his progression from season-to-season, starting with the progression from the 2006 to 2007 season.

Ryan Howard career progression
2006:  career year
AVG:  down, down, up, down, down
OBP:  down, down, up, down, down
SLG:  down, down, up, down, down
OPS:  down, down, up, down, down

No, the above is not the famous “Konami Code” which gives you extra lives in Contra and other Konami brand video games.  The above numbers are indeed Howard’s statistical progressions from season to season.  Despite playing in a hitter-friendly ballpark and having several Cy Young candidates on his team (rather than facing them), he continues to decline each season.    Howard’s limitations as a hitter will be all the more problematic as he ages and his decline continues.

Back on July 11, I compared the career numbers of John Kruk vs. Ryan Howard (which are accurate as of July 11, 2011).  At that time, Howard’s career numbers trailed Kruk in many categories.  Despite being the superior hitter, Kruk will likely never get a call from Cooperstown because he did not have the power to hit 40-plus home runs on a consistent basis.  It is tragic to see great hitters be lost in the shadows of inferior hitters who can smash a ball 500-plus feet.

Prior to tonight’s game, Howard has a career .279 AVG when the game is tied, .278 AVG when his team is behind and a .271 AVG when his team is ahead.  These are respectable numbers for his career.  He is not a good two-strike hitter, however, as he is hitting .170 in his career with two strikes against him.  Below are the career numbers of Ryan Howard and several other hitters.

Career AVG when game is tied
.330 (Ichiro Suzuki)
.317 (Derek Jeter)
.311 (Albert Pujols)
.305 (Sean Casey and Joey Votto)
.300 (Matt Holliday)
.299 (David Ortiz and Placido Polanco)
.279 (Ryan Howard)

Career AVG when team is behind
.346 (Albert Pujols)
.323 (Ichiro Suzuki)
.318 (Joey Votto)
.315 (Derek Jeter)
.310 (Matt Holliday)
.298 (Placido Polanco)
.296 (Sean Casey)
.278 (Ryan Howard)
.266 (David Ortiz)

Career AVG when team is ahead
.340 (Matt Holliday)
.328 (Ichiro Suzuki)
.327 (Albert Pujols)
.324 (Joey Votto)
.307 (Sean Casey and Placido Polanco)
.306 (Derek Jeter)
.285 (David Ortiz)
.271 (Ryan Howard)

Career AVG with two strikes
.266 (Ichiro Suzuki)
.263 (Albert Pujols)
.252 (Placido Polanco)
.234 (Matt Holliday)
.229 (Sean Casey)
.228 (Derek Jeter)
.219 (Joey Votto)
.206 (David Ortiz)
.170 (Ryan Howard)

Although Howard’s AVG is respectable in the above scenarios (with the exception of two-strike scenarios) for his career, it is taking a sharp decline in those categories this season.  Thus far in the 2011 season, Howard is hitting .230 when the game is tied, .231 when the Phillies are behind, and .283 when the Phillies are ahead.  Even his two-strike AVG is below his career mark at this time (.153 on the season).

I am pleased that fans support their teams and their players, including players such as Howard.  Supporting a team and its players is what fans are supposed to do; however, I believe fans need to also be realists and honest with themselves.  Howard is a dangerous bat who can change the game with one swing; however, he is not a great hitter and is most certainly not an MVP.  The long-term contract extension given to Howard is one of the very few bad moves made by general manager Ruben Amaro Jr.

With all due respect to Howard and his accomplishments, he is a very limited hitter who needs to be in a hitter-friendly situation to achieve.  Since the Phillies acquired Pence and stuck him right after Howard in the batting order, Howard’s hitting has improved because pitchers would rather pitch to Howard than pitch to Pence.  Since joining the Phillies, Pence is hitting .366 and Howard is hitting .272 in the past 10 games.

When I replay last season’s NLCS-ending strikeout in which Howard stared at a Brian Wilson fastball right down the middle of the plate, I find myself remembering how much I wished Polanco were up to bat in that situation.  Fans can say what they want about Howard’s home runs and RBIs and how much it helps their fantasy teams and they can say what they want about Howard’s RISP numbers; the fact remains that the hitters who do the little things such as hitting with the bases empty or hitting with two strikes against them – and doing these things well – are the hitters who ultimately win baseball games for your team.

Christopher Wenrich is a senior fantasy baseball contributor for BaseballDigest.com and can be reached at philliesmuse@yahoo.com.  You can follow him on Twitter @DuggerSports.

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4 comments

  1. Andrew

    As a Phillies lifer, I have heard for some time the arguments about Howard’s limitations, and though I’m deeply skeptical about the notion that driving in runs is less sign of skill than it is a result of circumstance, I think these arguments are based on relatively sound statistical analysis. However: Of the players mentioned above, only three (Pujols, Ortiz, and Jeter) have at least one WS ring and at least one other WS appearance. With the exception of last year’s LDS, Howard has played a significant role in all of the team’s postseason series victories. (And, conversely, Chase Utley came up way, way, way smaller than Ryan Howard in last year’s LCS, where Howard went .300/.400/.500. Yet, no one talks about how overrated Chase is. Why is that?)

    Further, if you had asked any sabermetrician last November whether they would want Jayson Werth for the next six years or Ryan Howard, a vasty majority of them would have said Jayson Werth, because of his superior OBP, base-running, and right-field defense. And how’s the reality of that playing out so far?

    You can argue that it’s an unfair comparison, given all of the advantages that Howard has in terms of players hitting in front of him and the starting pitchers on his team, but Howard has kept this team afloat offensively while Werth has been the lodestone in DC. To wit: Chase Utley missed the first 40-plus games of the season, Jimmy Rollins and Raul Ibanez are off the pace of their best years, Placido Polanco has either played injured or been out most of the season, Werth was gone, and the Ben Francisco/Domonic Brown experiments were unsuccessful. And still, Howard drove in runs at an impressive rate long before Pence arrived. It’s hard to make the argument that driving in runs is less a sign of skill than circumstance when the OBP of the players hitting in front of Howard are mediocre to poor (as are the slugging percentages of the players hitting behind him). If anything, Howard has overperformed this season, given all of these handicaps.

    You all study this way more than I do and I defer to your expertise, but in the actual moments–as opposed to the theoretical ones, where you imagine the average Triple A player performing exactly as Howard would were he in that situation–it’s the Big Piece at the plate coming through. Isn’t that what we should be recognizing and valuing–actual performance?

  2. Christopher Wenrich

    Thank you for the intelligent and constructive response. I wish more readers like you would participate.

    In regards to Howard’s performance vs. other Phillies: Howard is no doubt an integral part of the offense; however, my feelings remain the same in that I believe the odds would be stacked in the Phillies’ favor if other certain hitters were up to bat in certain scenarios. But that is beside the point of this piece.

    I like Howard and acknowledge that he is a dangerous bat in the lineup and a key component in the Phillies lineup; however, my disgust with Howard comes when I hear certain fans place him on par with the likes of Albert Pujols and some other great hitters. With all due respect to Howard and his accomplishments, there are many hitters (sluggers as well) who are superior to him in virtually every facet of hitting.

    I have no problem with fans saying that Howard is a key component in the Phillies offense; however, I do not take kindly to fans saying they would rather have Howard as opposed to having Votto and Pujols (both are much better hitters and much better defensive players). I still maintain that Howard’s enormous contract extension was a big mistake, for I feel his decline will continue. Furthermore, first base is a very deeply talented position in baseball and there are always youngsters on the rise at that position as well.

    In the grand scheme of things, I’m saying that fans are to appreciate Howard for what he brings to the table; however, they should also be realists and understand that he is not as great as they make him out to be. As for Utley and his postseason numbers: regardless of what Utley’s numbers or Howard’s numbers were in any specific postseason year, Utley has demonstrated throughout his career that over the course of the year (when healthy), he is more capable than Howard of getting the job done.

    For example, Barry Bonds had horrible postseason numbers for much of his career; however, I would still rather have Bonds up to bat than someone like Andy Van Slyke. Bonds proved over the course of a a season year after year that he is capable of getting the job done. I frankly do not judge players by their playoff statistics as much as others do; my reason for is that the playoffs are always a small sample size compared to the rest of the season. Nevertheless, I know that a hitter like Placido Polanco would more than likely swing at the ptich Howard stared at to end the NLCS.

    The beauty of baseball is that it is a game entirely of situations/scenarios. If all I need is a base hit, I would hope to see Utley or Polanco up as opposed to Howard. If I need a hail mary three-run home run, then I would want to see Howard up to bat.

  3. Christopher Wenrich

    As for Jayson Werth, I still would rather have him for five or six years than to have Ryan Howard. Werth is beginning to turn his season around. I doubt he will ever repeat his Philadelphia numbers (Washington is a lower quality team); however, he will remain a good player.

    Luckily for the Phillies, they no longer have a need for Werth with the acquisition of Hunter Pence.

  4. rahaman

    Andrew,
    I know this is way too late but….Why are you comaparing phillies with phillies. Chase Utley’s/whoever else’s skills are declining doesn’t mean the author is wrong about Ryan. He comes up small 75% of the time. Forget the RBIs. I don’t want him to drive in runs when we are up by 5 runs, I want a home run/single with RISP when we need one run. I am sure he does that but he makes too much money not to do it more often. That’s all. And there is no argument that his skills are in decline… it’s a fact.

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