Ryan Howard's Future Isn't Sunny in Philadelphia

The Philadelphia Phillies may have finally reached the breaking point with Ryan Howard.

For Phillies fans who watched Ryan Howard terrorize Major League Baseball from the time he entered the league as a rookie in 2005 until his ill-fated Achilles injury in Game 5 of the 2011 NLDS, these are tough times.

Howard, one of the heroes from the team's 2008 World Series winning squad, and an integral piece in the team's mini-dynasty from 2007-2011, is struggling. He's struggling mightily. And while the struggles have been constant and consistent since coming back from the Achilles injury in 2012, they have apparently reached the breaking point.

Howard wasn't in the lineup on Wednesday night, and as CSN Philly's Jim Salisbury reports, manager Ryne Sandberg appears to be shopping for a new first baseman.

“As far as the lineup, that will be a day-to-day thing,” Sandberg said before the game. “It's about wins and losses out here. When the game starts, it's about winning the game and being productive and chipping in and doing the part and doing something to help win a game. If that means playing somebody else there and there's production right away - that's trying to win a baseball game.”

Apparently, Sandberg is serious, as evidenced by the fact that Howard was also not in the lineup for this afternoon's series finale against San Francisco starter Tim Hudson. Howard has killed Hudson in his career to the tune of a 1.112 OPS against with 7 home runs, 12 walks and 11 strikeouts in 67 career at-bats.

Darin Ruf will get the lion's share of the opportunities at first to start, but the team could also look to get Triple-A prospect Maikel Franco some at-bats as a September call-up as well, and he could join the team even sooner than that if Ruf struggles.

Taking playing time away from Howard is tricky. He's still owed at least $60 million over the next three years, and is currently the highest-paid position player in baseball. The Phillies would certainly be willing to eat a lot of Howard's salary if they could get another team to trade for him. But if you look at his numbers, you can see why even picking up half his salary may still be too much for teams to take a chance on him. They are just ugly.

The Regression

In 417 plate appearances this year, Howard is hitting .224/.305/.377 with 15 homers and 60 runs batted in. His nERD is -0.69, meaning a lineup full of Ryan Howards would score 0.69 runs less than a lineup full of average players over the course of a 27-out game. That ranks 307th in all of baseball. And while his batting average and on-base percentage are clearly a problem, it is his slugging percentage and his isolated power (ISO) that are the most troubling.

His slugging percentage ranks tied for 119th out of 161 qualified Major Leaguers and 61st out of 76 qualified National League batters. Ben Revere, who has just one career home run, has a slugging percentage of .354, just .027 points below Howard's. And his ISO of .154 is tied for 72nd in the Majors and tied for 42nd in the NL.

CSN Philly's Corey Seidman crunched the numbers, and noted that Howard has hit one home run in his last 121 plate appearances (spanning 27 games since June 19), and he has just three doubles in his last 52 games played, going back to May 22. And yet, Howard has continued to play every day at first base and continued to hit cleanup every single day.

It just couldn't continue.

Disappearing Power

When you look at some of his other peripherals, it's clear this is not the same player who hit 31 or more home runs every season from 2006 to 2011.


Howard is hitting about the same number of fly balls, ground balls and line drives that he always has, but the number that is drastically different is his home-run-to-fly-ball rate, which is down 11% from his career average. That would indicate that he hasn't been able to generate the same kind of power from his swing, likely as a result of his leg problems from the last few years.

Oh sure, Howard can still get hot here and there, and if he's on your fantasy team, trying to plug him into the starting lineup during those stretches is like trying to detect flame spurts in the Fireswamp.

From April 13th to 21st, Howard hit four home runs in seven games. Then, from May 26th to June 1st, he hit four home runs in six games. And then he had a nice little blitz where he hit three in four games from June 16th to 19th. When you catch Howard in one of his little mini-hot streaks, it's a nice week-long run. But those week-long runs are too often followed by three-to-four weeks of prolonged power droughts.

To Platoon Or Not Platoon

Much of the talk now centers around platooning Howard. And while that strategy should have been employed years ago, especially late in games against tough left-handed relief pitchers, having him hit solely against right-handed pitchers may not be as beneficial now. Here are his splits this year and for his career against right-handers:


And against left-handers:


Incredibly, Howard's splits are actually reversed this year, with his failures against right-handers a staggering departure from what he has done historically. A platoon, where Howard only faces right-handed pitching, doesn't seem like it would help a whole lot.

However, even given all these troubling numbers, it's still hard to fathom the Phillies releasing Ryan Howard. It certainly won't come during the season. And maybe there is a team out there that would be willing to take on half of Howard's salary in the hopes that he bounces back and reverts to something close to his 2011 self, when he hit 33 home runs with a .488 slugging percentage.

But the fact the Phillies are even considering eating $60 million of salary just to be rid of him shows their patience may be at an end. Howard was never the best player on his team, even while he was winning his MVP award. But he's a Philadelphia icon, a main cog in a World Series-winning team, and a former fan favorite.

Releasing the hulking slugger would be a sad, but perhaps necessary, end to what has been the greatest era of Phillies baseball in the team's 131-year history.