When talking about early season slumps, it's a common refrain for analysts to note that the slump is magnified by it occurring early in the season. After all, if a player goes through a tough month in July, he'll have April through June numbers to "absorb" the July slump. But, if a player slumps in April, all he'll have is April numbers, and he'll look awful.
With that nugget in mind, I investigated Ryan Howard's awful start to 2008. 36 games into the season, Howard's triple-slash numbers are a miserable .165/.285/.331. His OPS is a Nunez-esque .616. He's striking out to the tune of .34 Ks per plate appearance and homering only .040 times per plate appearance.
But has he struggled like this before over the course of 36 games but we've just not been able to see it because it's been in the middle of a season instead of the start? The very clear answer to that question is no. What we're seeing from Howard is a unique slump in his major league career. Details if you follow the jump....
Batting Average: Prior to this year, his worst batting average over a 36-game span was from September 27, 2006, to May 26, 2007, when he hit .200. Of course, he was also injured at the start of the 2007 season, so that accounted for some of his problems. Still, he hit thirty-five points better in that 36 game stretch than in this one.
On-Base Percentage: Prior to this year, Howard's worst on-base percentage for a 36 game span came in the very beginning of his career. From September 13, 2004, through July 15, 2005, Howard's on-base percentage was .295 (still higher than his current .285). In only one other 36 game stretch was Howard's OBP lower than .300, and that was the 36 game stretch three games after his .295 stretch. Howard rarely walked early in his career, and his low OBP in these times is indicative of that, as his batting average in those times was in the low- to mid-.200s (not the mid-.100s we're seeing now).
Slugging Percentage: Howard's previous worst 36-game slugging percentage was .392, from September 24, 2006, through May 7, 2007, right before he went on the disabled list. His current .331 SLG is far below his previous worst stretch.
OPS: Howard's .616 OPS is over .100 lower than his previous worst 36-game OPS. Last year, from August 9 to September 16, Howard's OPS was .732. Obviously, this is closer in time to now than his previous struggles in other categories, so maybe there's been a carry over? But, the numbers for the rest of 2007 don't bear that out. He finished 2007 with a final-36-game OPS of 1.090.
Strikeout Rate: Some theories are that Howard's horrible stretch now is because he's striking out more than he ever has before. But that's not true. In the middle of last year, from June 8 to July 20, Howard struck out .365 times per plate appearance compared to .338 this year. During that stretch of striking out last year, Howard hit .295/.377/.664. His strikeout rate clearly wasn't too much of an impediment then.
Homerun Rate: This year, Howard is hitting a home run once every 25 plate appearances. This is not his worst rate, however, as he struggled in this department at the end of 2006, carrying over into 2007. His worst stretch was from September 10, 2006, through April 24, 2007, although he had many 36-game stretches around that time with rates worse than this year. The difference, though, is that he was still hitting doubles then, unlike now, giving him a slugging percentage higher than he has now.
So, although Howard is not striking out as much as he has at other points in his career, this 36-game stretch is his worst performance yet as a major leaguer. His batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage are far below any of his previous 36-game lows. And his on-base plus slugging is in the same territory. What we're seeing from Howard now is sui generis.
An interesting endnote: What was Howard's best 36-game stretch? It was his MVP-year August and early September. From August 4 through September 10 of that year, Howard had an unreal 1.422 OPS. If only that guy were playing for the Phillies now.