When the Phillies traded for Hunter Pence, many believed the move to be just as necessary for Ryan Howard as for the right field hole. The theory goes that since Pence hits behind Howard, Howard will see better pitches, which leads to better swings and better numbers. Protection.
The idea of “protection” looks at the wrong thing though. The benefit of having Pence in the lineup is adding a solid right-handed bat to a lefty-heavy lineup–not to help Howard see better pitches.
So what explains the fact that Ryan Howard has a 1.101 OPS since Pence arrived, as opposed to a .796 OPS prior?
It could be a coincidence or a hot streak, but I think it is somewhat of a placebo effect. You see, with the media drilling the idea of “protection” into Howard’s head, Howard could be buying into it. Perception is reality, and if Howard thinks it helps him–it helps him. He could be feeling more comfortable at the plate, leading to a better, more relaxed approach. He may not feel the pressure with a good hitter added to the lineup.
Think of Pence as a sugar pill, and Howard as a person with a cold. The person takes the pill, and immediately the symptoms improve. It had nothing to do with the pill, it had to do with the perception that the pill helped. The symptoms improved because the person was under the impression that the pill would make them improve.
That’s what I think may be happening–to an extent–with Howard and Pence. Howard isn’t seeing “better pitches” or anything like that, he’s gaining confidence, which is a powerful thing for a hitter.
Pence may not be tangibly helping Howard, but there could be an underlying effect of the Phillies new 5-hole hitter.