I drive a five-year-old Toyota Corolla. I bought it used when I had a little bit of money, and knowing that I’d be a broke grad student for the foreseeable future, I was willing to pay a little more up front to purchase a car that would require a minimal investment for the next five or six years. My car is just fine–it gets great mileage, it seats four comfortably, it handles, accelerates, and brakes responsively, if not sportily. I like it and find it useful, but I don’t love it. And while I would probably buy the same car if I had it all to do over, I wouldn’t call mine a great car by any stretch of the imagination.
A new, similarly-equipped Corolla would run you about $19,000, which is solid car money. For that money, you should get honest, reliable, comfortable transportation. If you’re paying in the neighborhood of $20,000 for honest, reliable, comfortable transportation, I think you’re doing okay. But if you’re paying upper-end BMW money for that, say $80,000 or more? You’ve got a problem.
I began to think of Ryan Howard as a Toyota Corolla priced as a BMW M5 when I was wondering how, exactly, the Phillies were planning on fitting Howard, Jonathan Singleton, and Larry Greene, Jr., in the same lineup five years from now. Howard, despite his elite reputation and power numbers, has not been an elite first baseman for years now, because of his defense and slipping on-base skills. That is not to say that Howard isn’t a good first baseman, a shoo-in for at least 35 home runs and an OPS around .850 or better who will be in the lineup every day and crush mistakes. The issue, going forward, will not be Howard’s production in a vacuum as it will be his production compared to his salary and the expectations that come with it.
Let’s get this out of the way, for those of you who are still reading and haven’t jumped to the comments after the first controversial statement–I am a big Ryan Howard fan, if not in an analytical sense than in a red-hat-wearing, “Chooch!”-screaming sense. I think the Phillies can win another World Series with Howard at first and hitting cleanup; teams routinely win World Series with first baseman worse than Howard. The issue is how much they’ll be paying him going forward.
Howard, who is already in the decline phase of his career, begins a five-year, $125 million contract extension next season. That is, to tie together the metaphor, BMW money for a Toyota Corolla. If you drive home in a new Corolla, your neighbors will say, “Oh, he got a new car. That’s a nice car, that Corolla.” But if you drive home in a new Corolla and your neighbors know you’ve paid 80 grand for it, they’ll call you what you are: an unabashed, mouth-breathing, feces-throwing simpleton. But despite being a stone dullard, your having overpaid for a car doesn’t diminish its quality.
There’s a school of thought that says, “It’s not our money, so why complain if the Phillies are overpaying for Howard?” On one level, that’s absolutely right, and we shouldn’t care. That $25 million a year doesn’t come out of our pockets, except through ticket and merchandise sales, the prices of which would probably go up anyway, plus no one’s forcing you to buy anything from the Phillies in the first place. From the simplest, most rational standpoint, how much Ryan Howard makes is of absolutely no importance to us.
But what makes being a fan fun? From my understanding, the fun of being a fan comes from 1) sharing a communal desire for a certain on-field outcome and 2) the history and mythology of our past and the anticipation of things to come. In simpler words, 1) wearing a hat and screaming like a moron and 2) playing armchair quarterback. I enjoy them in roughly equal parts, though that percentage certainly varies from fan to fan. Regardless of how that percentage falls for you, these are the reasons you ought to care that the Phillies are paying BMW money for a Toyota. First, it impacts negatively their ability to field a competitive team. Even if Howard produces $10-15 million worth of value a year, that’s $10-15 million the Phillies have spent on him that could be used elsewhere. For a team with finite resources (even if those resources are vast, they are still finite), that’s a huge and wasteful expenditure. From the hat-wearing perspective, Howard’s contract represents an impediment to that desired outcome. From the armchair quarterback perspective, the Howard extension represents precisely the kind of high-profile move that begs to be second-guessed.
It’s a shame that Howard’s legacy as one of the all-time great power hitters in franchise history will eventually be sullied by a payroll number. After all, we can’t fault him for taking the best deal he could find. But while the extension, which could hurt the franchise deeply in the coming years, may turn into an albatross, I hope that Howard will still keep his reputation as a good player, even if he is being paid like a great one.