I’m not an advisor but I’m pleading for everyone to just settle down. We’re arguing about the 2014 payroll. Yes, the 2014 payroll. Ryan Howard’s five-year, $125 million extension kicks in before the 2012 season, but his salary won’t escalate until 2014.
In explaining why they dislike this extension, many a sportswriter has done nothing but blast Ryan Howard, outlining only his deficiencies. Deficiencies, that, unbeknownst to many of them, have been vastly improved upon.
(None of this is directed at Paul Boye, who penned one of the few impartial analyses of the Howard extension.)
Do you know how many people still consider Howard a fat, slow, poor fielder? First impressions are lasting impressions, sure, but if your job is to watch, analyze, and write about baseball, you would think that a formed opinion would be based off of who a player is, not who you perceive a player to be. When did we all turn into Joe Morgan? When did the necessity to prove a point cease in the name of hyperbole and generalization?
The Sam Perlozzo Effect
Ryan Howard lost 40 pounds prior to the 2009 season. He worked with Sam Perlozzo that offseason and learned how to better man the first base bag, embarrassed about his display in the field during the World Series season.
Howard still struggles making the throw to second base, but his range and ability to scoop the ball has improved greatly over the years. He is no longer a one-dimensional player. The Big Piece can now field his position with effectiveness, and, while he will not match the defensive wizardry of Albert Pujols or Adrian Gonzalez, Howard is no longer a defender to be laughed at.
In addition, The Sizable Portion’s new body-type has allowed for more speed and athleticism. It is ironic that this article will post on the day after a humiliating non-hustle play that saw Howard thrown out at second by Giants rightfielder Nate Schierholtz, but that play was more a result of Edgar Renteria deking Howard than anything else. This used to be a guy that could not score from first on a double to the right field corner. But not anymore; Howard now moves well for a man of his stature, as hard as that may be to grasp.
The Sam Perlozzo Effect enabled Phillies management to feel better about doling out $125 million from 2012-16. Howard wasn’t getting progressively fatter, or slower, or worse defensively. He was improving in all three categories. Ryan Howard is not Mo Vaughn. I don’t care how closely related the two are on Baseball-Reference.
Placing the Blame
If you’re going to argue against the extension, it makes little sense to place the bulk of criticism on Ryan Howard. If you have to point fingers, point them at the front office that emptied its pockets. Cherry-picking stats that speak negatively of the player makes little sense.
- Wanna talk about how Howard cannot hit left-handed pitching? In his career, Howard’s OPS vs. lefties is .750. Adrian Gonzalez’ is .739. Carlos Pena’s is .761. It’s not as if this is a huge flaw that Howard has and others do not.
- Wanna say that Howard isn’t as valuable as a slick-fielding slugger like Gonzalez? Well, Howard has been worth over two more wins above replacement than Gonzalez over the past four seasons, while playing fourteen fewer games! WAR is a stat that encompasses hitting and fielding.
- Speaking of defense, Howard’s UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) was 7th best in the bigs last season for first basemen, better than Gonzalez and Mark Teixeira. Granted, UZR doesn’t translate as well to first basemen as it does to other positions, but his UZR still exceeded that of two notoriously effective fielders. We’re not imagining Howard’s improvement with the glove.
This brings us to…
This will not impact the Phillies until 2012 at the earliest, but the salary will not escalate until 2014. Right now, in 2010, do you really care about how the rest of the roster will shake out in 2014? From an organizational standpoint, the future should always be considered, but from the perch of a fan or anyone enjoying the Golden Age of Phillies baseball, is the 2014 payroll really a major concern?
Think logically. The Phillies were not going to be able to re-sign Jayson Werth anyway, and Howard’s extension has no bearing on that fact. Werth is arguably the best free agent outfielder of the 2010/11 class, and he will command $15-17 million a year for four or five years.
That is out of the Phillies’ price range. They are already committing $135 million to FIFTEEN PLAYERS in 2011. $135 million. Fifteen players. That is four million less than what the entire roster is making this year! You really think they can afford to make that $150 million to sixteen players?
There is no connection between Howard’s extension and the pipe-dreams of re-signing Werth because the problem with Werth returning is a short-term issue, not a long-term issue. If it were a long-term issue and Howard’s $25M salary in 2014 prevented Werth from returning, a legitimate gripe would exist.
But one has nothing to do with the other, so we can end that debate right now.
With the Werth Debate out of the way, let’s get to the Worth Debate. Was Ryan Howard worth $125M over five years, or $179M over eight when you consider his current contract? Is he deserving of the game’s second-highest annual salary?
Well, he’s not the second best player in the major leagues. There is no way to say he is. Even when you consider run production and eye-test value, a number of players come to mind before Howard in the discussion of “Who’s the Best?” But the Phillies chose to reward him as if he were, and they are certainly in the financial position to do so.
Keep in mind that the Phillies will sell out mostly every game between now and 2014. This team will remain competitive. It will remain exciting. It will house one of the best rosters from top-to-bottom every year. Therefore, it will maintain the high revenues that will allow it to spend money in other areas.
The flipside to that is, yes, they will maintain high revenues, but they could use that $25 million a year in other places come 2014. You’re right, they theoretically could, but the point of this entire argument is that WE ARE TALKING ABOUT 2014! And when you consider that Howard is an integral part of the Phillies lineup that will maintain that competitiveness, excitement, and talent, locking him up was a necessity, not a sufficiency.
The Psychology of a Slump
A ton of things could go wrong. But a ton of things could…not go wrong. If Ryan Howard were hitting .388 right now, as he was two weeks ago, the amount of complainers would be cut in half.
The fact that the timing was off – that the contract extension was announced in the midst of an infamous Ryan Howard Cold Spell – caused more of an overreaction than it would have if he was still in the middle of a torrid streak (that we all know is unsustainable, but) that we have yet to see regress.
I’m not saying every “Extension Opposer” is guilty of letting Howard’s last few games creep into their despise of the contract, I am merely saying it is unwise to ignore that particular bias completely.
The RBI Debate
I am a saber-minded writer. I embrace the amount of information my generation has at its disposal and think it would be ridiculous to dismiss any new metric that betters our ability to judge and evaluate an athlete. I love stats because they allow us to tell stories and prove points.
I love WAR becauses it takes fielding into account as well as hitting. I love FIP because it removes the components that are out of a pitcher’s control. I love the more complex stats that I won’t bore you to death with in this space because any time you can back your stance up with cold, hard facts, that stance becomes stronger.
But just because I embrace more advanced evaluation systems does not mean that many basic baseball stats should be thrown out.
It has become an internet trend to say that RBIs mean nothing. This is an overstatement. RBIs are not and should not be the sole criterion of judging a player’s worth, but they also should not be completely discounted or deemed to prove nothing.
The argument against RBIs is that it is a stat based on context and opportunity (i.e. Ryan Howard has more of a chance to compile more RBIs hitting behind productive hitters like Rollins, Victorino/Polanco, Utley, than Adrian Gonzalez does batting after Jerry Hairston Jr. and David Eckstein.)
This makes logical sense – the better the players are that precede you, the better chance you have of putting up high RBI totals, as Howard has done. But that does not take away from the fact that Howard actually produced in those opportunities, driving in 572 runs over the past four seasons – an average of 143 per season.
3-Run HR > Single
Could any sweet-swinging first baseman step in and do that in this lineup? No.
Fellow writer Nick Staskin and I debated this very topic on Twitter, where he mentioned that Kevin Youkilis and his .362 batting average with runners in scoring position may have driven in 200 runs in this lineup.
But there is a difference between a single with first and second and a three-run homer. Youkilis may have had a RISP batting average of almost 100 points higher than Howard in ’09, but Howard had a RISP slugging percentage greater than Youk, even with the much worse average.
62% of Howard’s hits with runners in scoring position were extra-base hits. Fifteen of those hits were homers. Only 35% of Youk’s hits with RISP were extra-base hits. Like I said, there is a difference between a single and a three-run homer.
How about Joey Votto? He hit .336 with RISP in a much worse lineup than the Phillies or Red Sox. Does that tell us that he would have driven in as many runs in ’09 as Howard?
The answer is similar: no, because, while the average may be higher, only 40% of Votto’s hits with RISP were XBHs and only four were homers.
Conclusion: The RBI totals are not simply opportunity-based for Howard, the production also plays an integral part. When Howard comes through, it’s in a BIG way. It usually is not a single that loads the bases, it’s an extra base hit that knocks in multiple runs and significantly impacts a game.
That’s what he is: a game-changing player. Yes, RyHo has a ton of RISP opportunities, but he also makes the most of many of those opportunities and has produced some of the most memorable moments in Phillies history.
As Paul Boye noted, you pay for production you expect, not what you have received. So, a decline is a scary thing. Based on his perceived body type and his Baseball-References relatives, Howard could decline during this contract.
But he could also not decline and produce a ton of runs from now until 2016. He could just as easily continue to put together mammoth Septembers and lead the Phillies into many more Octobers.
Previous players have declined in the 34-36 age range, but they have lacked the overall combination of talent, work ethic, commitment to improvement, and relative good health that Howard has exhibited. Mo Vaughn? Richie Sexson? Really?
The extension ensures that the most prodigious power hitter in team history will remain in a Phillies uniform until he’s damn-well ready to call it quits. The timing and sense of urgency may have been a bit odd, but the intentions were pure.
It’s $125 million to keep us hopeful. To keep us confident. And to keep us all on the edge of our seats.