Ryan Howard is Really, Really Good at This One Thing, and It Isn't Striking Out

Ryan Howard has had an awful season, but he's done one thing well this season.

Ryan Howard is good at is striking out. But for the sake of keeping this post positive, Howard is also very good at driving runs in.

Before you cut me off and say that runs batted in are just as much reliant on the runners on base as they are on the hitter, it doesn’t change the fact that Howard is successful at doing so.

Howard currently has 92 RBI for the season, which is tied with Albert Pujols for the 13th most in baseball. However, Howard only ranks in the top-30 in one other offensive category, that being home runs, as his 21 are tied for 30th. (For strikeouts, however, he is tied for the fourth most in baseball with 169, and his strikeout percentage of 28.6% places him at eighth “best.”)

Amazingly, he’s the only player in the top-78 ranked by RBI with a negative wins above replacement (fWAR) at -0.5. Jay Bruce and his 60 RBI rank 79th and his fWAR is -1.0, joining Howard as the only two players in the top-80 for most RBI with negative fWARs. This isn’t surprising as Howard is hitting just .223/.308/.379, his weighted runs created plus (wRC+) is just 91, and he has the worst defensive WAR among first basemen.

So if Howard is having such a terrible season, how has he been successful at driving in runs?

The offense for the Phillies has been bad all year and they currently rank 19th in runs scored as a team. The three hitters that have hit in front of Howard this season have been Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, and Ben Revere. Rollins has scored 78 runs this season, Utley has scored 67, and Revere has scored 65, which are good for 28th, 59th, and 70th best in baseball, respectively.

While these players aren't prolific run scorers this season, they all are getting on base at a decent clip - above league average - which is more important when determining why Howard has been successful at driving in runs. Utley leads the way with a .343 on base percentage (OBP), while Revere has a .323 OBP, and Rollins’ is .323. Even though Howard has three guys that are all above league average at getting on base, he still needs to have a positive at-bat if he is going to drive them in, and looking at his line, he’s finding more failures than victories. So what gives?

Many teams choose to use a defensive shift on Howard when they are able to, usually moving an extra infielder on the right side of second base, with the second baseman playing in shallow right field. However, when there are runners on base, the shift is often not a choice, as fielders are needed in their normal positions in case there is a play at their base, among other reasons. Judging by Howard’s spray chart of batted balls this season, we see that he hits basically all of his ground balls and a fair share of line drives to the right side, right where the second baseman is playing in a shift, likely resulting in an out and not a run batted in.

So we know that Howard hits a lot of balls to the right side. Let’s look at Howard’s splits with no men on base versus when hitting with runners on and see if anything stands out.

Bases Empty.183 (173).549 (170)
With Men On.260 (115).812 (63)
W/ RISP on.253 (115).839 (53)

Looking at the chart above, Howard’s batting average and his on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) are listed in three different situations, with the MLB rank in parenthesis. His batting average with the bases empty is terrible at just .183, and his OPS is not much better at .549. These numbers both improve when Howard hits with runners on base and with runners in scoring position (RISP), with his OPS jumping 290 points to .839 with runners in scoring position. Based on these splits, it’s safe to assume that Howard takes advantage of hitting against a normally aligned defense, as opposed to one that is in a shift. While his batting average ranks in the low 100’s with runners on, his OPS is fringe top-50 with RISP, which is likely why he is able to drive is so many runs while posting such poor numbers elsewhere.

Even though Howard is on pace to drive in 100 runs for the seventh time in his career, he isn't a valuable player to the Phillies, as evident by his negative fWAR. Since 2009, Howard hasn’t posted a fWAR of better than 1.5, and his career best fWAR of 5.8 came way back in 2006. His isolated power (ISO) of .156 this season is the lowest it’s been in his career, and is only the second time it’s been below .200 for a season (it was .199 last year).

Howard is owed $50 million over the next two seasons, with a club option for $23 million in 2017. Even though he has been successful at driving in runs, it might be worth it to the Phillies to cut him loose and eat the money, as this one-trick pony is causing his team more harm than good. Long story short, Howard is more effective when hitting with runners on base because he doesn't have to hit into a shift, not because he's a "clutch" (for lack of a better word) hitter.