Ryan Howard just might be the most important member of the Philadelphia Phillies in 2014.
2013 Stats: 80 G, 317 PAs, .266/.319/.465, OPS .784, wRC+ 111, 11 HR, 43 RBI, 95/23 K/BB, fWAR 0.4
Steamer... 113 G, 491 PAs, .245/.323/.451, OPS .774, wRC+ 110, 21 HR, 66 RBI, 143/47 K/BB, fWAR 0.7
Oliver........ 143 G, 600 PAs, .236/.308/.419, OPS .727, wRC+ 97, 22 HR, 78 RBI, 181/52 K/BB, fWAR -0.6
Contract: You likely have this embedded in your brain by now, but Howard is signed through 2016 for $75 million, with a $23 million team option or a $10 million buyout in 2017.
The fate of the 2014 Phillies relies more on the production of Ryan Howard than probably any other position player. No hitter is more important to this lineup. Not Chase Utley, not Jimmy Rollins, not Domonic Brown... no one. To wit, even though Howard's numbers have declined the last two years, the Phillies have gone 77-63 when he was in the lineup and 77-107 when he was not.
Certainly, other factors are at work there. But it seems pretty clear the Phils need a healthy and productive Ryan Howard if they hope to contend in 2014.
Ryan Howard is now 34, three years older than when he had his last fully "healthy" season in 2011, and he finished that year with a bum leg that eventually led to his devastating Achilles injury in the NLDS. What are the chances Howard will return to being the healthy, productive bat that anchors the Phillies lineup again?
Speaking to reporters in Clearwater last week, Howard said his legs are 100%.
"I feel like I can play 162 games," he said a week ago. "My whole offseason was dedicated to trying to play all 162, plus trying to make it to the playoffs. My goal isn’t to come out here and try to play 120 games. That’s not why I play baseball.
"I’ve got two legs," he said with a smile. "Basically I’ve been playing on one leg" the last two seasons.
One big question is whether Howard can be counted on to play every day against both left and right-handed pitchers even if he is healthy. It's no secret Howard has struggled mightily against left-handers the last few years, and the downward trend has been continuing since 2009.
Since 2009, Howard's wRC+ against left-handed pitching is 80. The average number is 100. Hitters with a similar number to Howard during that time include noted sluggers Daniel Murphy, Eric Hosmer, Justin Smoak, Jason Kubel, Justin Morneau, Juan Lagares, Carl Crawford and Michael Brantley.
Sure, much of Howard's radical decline against lefties the last two seasons (wRC+ 44 in 2013 and 59 in 2012) can be attributed to injuries. But what about his 74 figure in 2011? The 2010 season was the last one for Howard in which he posted an above average wRC+ of 121 against lefties.
Still, Howard doesn't think he's going to need to be platooned this year.
"Being able to now have two legs and being able to be a little more stable in the box, it will allow me to stay back a little bit longer and kind of see balls," he said. "When my legs are going good and everything is going well I can hit lefties. It’s just a matter of being able to be stable in the box."
As a healthy hitter in 2009, Howard's wRC+ was 71 against lefties. In 2008, it was 89. So, it's more than just about having healthy legs.
Another big question will be how much time Howard will be given in order to prove he can hit left-handed pitching adequately enough to stay in the lineup against them. Certainly manager Ryne Sandberg will give Howard the occasional day off against a tough lefty starter. Heck, even Charlie Manuel used to do that.
The major indication that a true platoon is imminent is if Sandberg pinch hits for Howard late in a game against a tough left-handed reliever for someone like Darin Ruf. If Ruf even makes the team, you could say that's an indication the Phils are not sold on Howard's ability to be a true everyday player.
But even if Howard only marginally improves against left-handed pitching, if he can start mashing right-handed pitching on a more consistent basis again, perhaps he can be the big HR/RBI man he thinks he can be.
"Am I capable of hitting 40-plus home runs? Absolutely," Howard said. "If I doubt myself, nobody else will believe in me. I feel I’m capable of hitting 58 home runs. I did it once. I feel that I’m capable of doing that every year. It’s just a matter of going out there and letting the game come to me. You never know what may happen."
Howard's career numbers against right-handers are outstanding, .295/.390/.606 with an OPS of .996 against righties in his career. Even last year, in a down year where he battled injuries, he hit .302/.357/.522 with an OPS of .878 against them, although with only eight home runs in 230 PAs.
As noted by TGP's Joe Catz last October, Howard has still been one of the most effective hitters against right handed pitching over the last two-plus years, even with his injury problems.
Among first basemen with a minimum 1000 plate appearances vs RHP since 2010, Ryan Howard ranks:
5th in ISO, 7th in OPS.
If you open that up to ALL PLAYERS? he's 10th in ISO, and 20th in OPS.
And he did most of that ON ONE LEG.
So to recap. On one leg, sapped of power, over the past four years, Ryan howard has still been one of the most elite hitters in the game vs. right handed pitching...
...Against righties Howard is still and will continue to be a beast.
Ryan Howard hasn't been bad. He's been hurt, he's been unlucky, and he's been horribly misused because he makes so damn much money. Look, I loved Charlie Manuel but one of the biggest things that led to his demise was his stubbornness. And with Howard he was stubborn.
Hopefully, Howard's health, and a willingness to invest time watching video and listening to hitting coaches more (something Ryne Sandberg admitted he needs to do more of), will pay off in more home runs and fewer strikeouts. And having a manager that hopefully won't try to force a square peg into a round hole will help get a more productive bat into the game against left-handers, both starters and LOOGYs.
The bottom line is that Ryan Howard has weaknesses in his game, and the Phillies should forget about the size of his contract and stop using him in situations for which he is not ideally suited. He has a tough time defensively, doesn't run well at all, and has gotten even worse against left-handed pitching the last few years.
The Phils can help Howard, and themselves, by using him more intelligently this year. Hopefully, Ryne Sandberg will do that.
There is no player I root for more than Howard, and frankly, there is no more important a position player to the Phillies this year than Ryan. He is a good guy, a good teammate, and if you can't root for Ryan Howard to succeed and prove the doubters (like me) wrong, there's something wrong with you. But I'm skeptical he can get the 40 HRs he says he can hit.
One thing is for sure, though. If the Phillies are going to win anything this year, Ryan Howard is going to have to compete for Comeback Player of the Year in 2014.