When yesterday's news broke about the massive five year contract extension that Ryan Howard received, the Very Important minds on the Internet quickly took sides. I started drafting this piece on Monday night, but Matt Swartz described the rift perfectly in his column this morning:
If you listened to the roar of the sabermetricians, you would think the Phillies had thrown nine figures at Juan Castro. You got to hear the same tired claims about Howard trotted out again. These include the "he’s a platoon player" argument, the "he can’t play defense" argument, and the "he’s slow" argument. You have probably already read analyses comparing Howard to Mo Vaughn and Cecil Fielder, and predicting his imminent demise.
On the other hand, if you listened to the roar of the old-school writers, you would think the Phillies had stolen an MVP off the market at a discount. The same tired statistics like runs batted in would have rung through your ears, and assertions about dynasties secured would have undoubtedly hit your eyeballs during your surfing.
I think the split comes from the fact that the "sabermetricians" are focused on 2014-16, while your traditionalists are looking at now. Frankly, they're both valid approaches.
We like to imagine our favorite players staying just like they are, producing at similar levels and being the same guys for the life of their long term deals. However, in this purported post-steroid era (bahaha), it's highly unlikely we're going to see players' performances spiking in their late 30's anymore. You lose a step, the bat slows down just enough that you can't get around on the inside fastball like you used to, injuries become more frequent and take longer to heal. On the other hand, Ryan Howard has (crossy fingers!) been a very healthy player for the bulk of his career to date, so we can remain plausibly optimistic that this will continue.
Howard's skillset is unique; no one in the history of baseball has had his prodigious opposite field power, as Swartz address above. And he'll (likely) play out the rest of his career in home run friendly Citizens Bank Park. We can forecast an awful, precipitous decline a la Mo Vaughn, but we have to take into account just how awful Vaughn's conditioning was, and just how fat he got. Howard is trending in the exact opposite direction, having lost 40 pounds in the last two years while vastly improving his defense. It's a bad comp, and it's lazy. The list of Baseball Reference comparable players is hardly destiny.
Ryan Howard is by all accounts one of the model citizens of baseball. A good-natured, kind and decent person, with a great sense of humor, any franchise should be proud to have him in their clubhouse. As much as we, on the outside, can't see it, it's hard to imagine that the players around the league don't see how the different teams treat their players, and hear about the make-up and quality of a team's clubhouse, and that these reports that we are rarely privy to do not somehow influence decisions with regard to free agency and trade requests. The Phillies really take care of their players. The Phillies have clearly become a destination team, and are among the mega-franchises now. Quite a change from ten years ago.
There's little doubt that the signing of this contract will be seen as a fulcrum point in a few years -- if the Phillies continue to have success, and Howard thrives, it will be deemed a masterstroke; if they get old, and Howard struggles, things will get ugly.
My sincere hope (as usual) is that the fans don't take it out on Howard. Would you turn down that money?