This concludes our 2011 Player Review series. Previous posts can be found here.
It’s tough to look at Ryan Howard objectively. The highs have been great (he’s one of only five players in major league history to win Rookie of the Year and the MVP in his first two seasons), and the lows have been dreadful. There’s a great tradition in Philadelphia sports of being able to separate the great athlete from his context. We look at Eric Lindros and see his concussions. We look at Allen Iverson and think first of his bizarre and polarizing behavior and his inability to overcome his terrible teammates. We look at Bobby Abreu and we don’t see the Phillies’ career leader in OBP and an outfield talent the likes of which the organization hadn’t seen since Richie Ashburn–we see his refusal to run into walls. We see Donovan McNabb and rather than recognizing that he’s the greatest offensive player the Eagles have ever had, we crucify him for only being the third-best quarterback in the NFL during his prime.
So, too, with Ryan Howard. But instead of concussions, or Ricky Manning, or a rap album, we see what should simply be known as The Contract. In his prime, Howard was as good a power hitter as could be found in baseball. His 2006 season was probably not as good as Albert Pujols‘, but his winning the MVP that year was hardly a miscarriage of justice. But since then, he’s slipped from those ranks. The league discovered that he was a dead-pull hitter who couldn’t recognize low off-speed pitches, and without much athleticism or defense to fall back on, Howard went from MVP candidate to pretty good in the blink of an eye.
Except Ruben Amaro, in April 2010, signed him to a contract extension that paid him like an MVP candidate through his age-36 season. And while I don’t begrudge Howard a dollar of the $125 million he’ll make over the next five years, that figure will color everything he does for the rest of his time with the Phillies.
But y’all know all this. How did he do in 2011?
In a vacuum, 2.7 rWAR, 1.6 fWAR is not what you want out of your franchise player. But here’s the thing: as Howard continues to age and lose bat speed (as everyone does after age 31), the most troubling bit of his game will only get worse. Against righties in 2011, Howard posted a .266/.370/.566 line. That’s quite good by anyone’s standards. But against lefties? That line drops to .224/.286/.347. That’s a drop of nearly 300 points’ worth of OPS. Howard’s platoon split is so severe that merely bringing in a LOOGY turns Howard from a hitter equivalent to 2010 Jayson Werth into a hitter appreciably worse than 2010 Wilson Valdez. And since he already sees more breaking balls and fewer strikes than just about anyone else in baseball.
That’s where the Achilles comparison comes in. In addition to being convenient because The Howitzer tore his Achilles tendon on the final play of the 2011 season, he’s a man blessed with talent so immense it could only be described as metaphysical. But at the same time, that late-inning lefty throwing slop is baseball’s equivalent to Paris’ arrow through the ankle. For all the good Howard does, that one weakness is certainly a doozy.
Grade: 4.8/10 In a vacuum, Howard is a pretty decent, but flawed player. But in context, where he’s making roughly the same money as Albert Pujols to be the cleanup hitter on a team with designs on another World Series title? Not so much. What you think of Howard depends on how easily you can separate him from his contract.