Ryan Howard Could Be Headed for a Bounce-Back Year
As Obi-wan Kenobi told Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi, “Many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our point of view.”
From Ryan Howard’s point of view, the last four years have not been so bad, as he has been paid $90 million to play baseball. Yes, his on-field struggles have surely been difficult, but he has at least been well compensated for them.
From the Phillies' point of view, these struggles have helped make the last four years disastrous. During this span, Howard has been worth 1.3 Wins Below Replacement, making him the eighth-least valuable player in the big leagues in terms of fWAR during this span. The Phillies would have had slightly more success had Howard stayed home and given way to a typical Quad-A player. Instead, he has not only played but also cost them those $90 million.
Fortunately for them, the end of this albatross of a contract is near, as Philadelphia can decline Howard’s $23 million option for 2017 (though even this will not come cheaply, as Howard would then be owed a $10 million buy out).
It’s been a sad drop-off for a fan favorite and someone who was one of baseball’s bigger stars.
Has anything changed in the first month of 2016?
On the surface, it does not appear so, as his .189/.256/.514, 91 wRC+ line is roughly on par with his .232/.300/.421, 95 wRC+ from 2012 to 2015.
There are, however, a few indicators that Howard’s process has been better than his results.
While the shroud of the sample size clouds everything in April, there may still be good in him.
Walks and Power
If there are any stats this early in the season that might have meaning going forward, walk and strikeout rate top the list. These stats are among the most consistent and stabilize quicker than most others.
Unsurprisingly, Howard is still striking out a ton, as his 27.9% strikeout rate is right in line with his 28.0% career rate. In his prime, though, Howard was able to compensate for his low strikeout rates with power and solid walk rates.
Over the past four seasons, his 8.1% walk rate was above average but not nearly high enough to offset all the whiffs.
In his 43 plate appearances this season, though, he has drawn a free pass 9.3% of the time, above the big league average of 8.5%.
On its own, it’s not worth stopping the presses for, but it does look more impressive given how opposing pitchers have been pounding the zone against Howard.
52.0% of the pitches Howard has seen have been in the strike zone, according to FanGraphs, which is well above the big league average of 48.8%. It stands to reason that it is more difficult to draw walks if you are not being thrown many balls.
Howard has done so anyway, thanks to a shift in approach in pitches out of the zone. Per FanGraphs, Howard swung at 34.6% of all pitches out of the zone from 2010 to 2015 (the MLB average hovered around 30% or 31% during this span).
This season, he has only offered at 27.0% of the pitches he’s faced out of the zone, and the result has been his second-highest walk rate since 2011.
Howard is also hitting for a ton of power, posting a .324 Isolated Power Rate (extra base hits per at-bat), which is 17th in the Majors. His 2.7 Power Factor (total bases per hit) is second, behind only Trevor Story.
While some regression is probably in order, both statistics are comparatively consistent, which is good news for Howard and the Phillies.
Plus, Howard has posted the underlying hard-contact numbers we would expect for a player with a high ISO, as his 51.9% hard-hit ball rate is tied for third in baseball (per Baseball Info Solutions, via FanGraphs). Hard-hit rate and ISO have a very strong relationship, as the Hardball Times found they are correlated at 0.84.
Line Drives, Hard Contact, and BABIP Regression
So given Howard’s above-average walk rate and elite power thus far, how is he still producing at a below average level overall?
The strikeouts are certainly a problem but only tell part of the story. The rest is explained by Howard’s microscopic .130 BABIP.
No matter what your opinion of Howard is, we should expect this to improve going forward. For all his struggles over the past few years, he still ran a .294 BABIP from 2012 to 2015.
Even if the only two pieces of information we had were Howard’s 2016 BABIP and the stabilization point for BABIP (820 balls in play according to Baseball Prospectus’ Russell Carleton), we would calculate his “true talent” BABIP at .289 (we arrive at this point by adding 820 batted balls worth of league average BABIP to Howard’s 27 balls in play with his .130 BABIP).
While anyone with a BABIP so low has probably been unlucky, this seems especially true for Howard, given his hard-hit ball rate and the fact that he is tied for the fifth-highest line drive rate in the game (37.0%).
The Hardball Times piece cited earlier actually also found that hard-hit rate hardly has any correlation with BABIP but did find that line drive rate has a decent correlation with it (roughly 0.40).
In any case, line drives go for hits at a higher rate than both ground balls and fly balls, and big league hitters are hitting .703 on line drives this season (with a .695 BABIP, due to the fact that 11 home runs have been line drives this season).
Poor Ryan Howard (though given his salary, I only mean this in the most figurative of senses) is only 2-for-10 on line drives. This is despite the fact that Howard has absolutely smoked these pitches, to the tune of a 96.5 mile per hour exit velocity, according to Baseball Savant.
It just so happens most of them have been hit at fielders….
Line drive rate does tend to be pretty unstable (Carleton found it does not stabilize until 600 balls in play), so even as we anticipate more of his liners going for hits, we should expect his overall line drive rate to drop.
Still, if Howard can sustain his walk rate while keeping his power numbers at an above average level, the BABIP regression we would expect should yield above average offensive output.
It almost certainly won’t be enough to justify Philadelphia picking up his 2017 option and probably also won't equal $25 million worth of production (that would take about 3 WAR). But, if Howard can come close to sustaining his early-season process, it could result in a respectable ending for his Phillies career.
Search your feelings.
You would love that to be true.