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Ryan Howard v. Jeff Francoeur

Ryan Howard versus Jeff Francoeur.  As much as Willy Taveras is having a season that makes speed freaks in the media drool and Zach Duke and Robinson Tejeda have dazzled in their limited innings, the NL Rookie of the Year race is going to come down to the Phillie first baseman and the Brave right fielder.  With two and a half weeks left to play, there's enough time for each to change the face of the race, but it's worth looking at where they stand in relation to one another right now. And it's worth explaining why I think Ryan Howard will be the 2005 NL Rookie of the Year.

Both were called up from AAA by their team to replace aging veterans beset by midyear injury. Francoeur was called up in early July to replace Brian Jordan; Howard was called up twice, once in May and once in July, both times to replace Jim Thome. Since their callups, the two have shown they belong in the major leagues. Given who votes for the post-season awards, the stats that are going to matter come November stack up like this (through Wednesday):

           AVG     HR      RBI     Team
Francoeur       .322    12      39      probable NL East champ
Howard          .282    17      46      possible NL Wild Card entry

While Howard has shown more home run power, Francoeur has a significantly higher batting average. Probably even more important for the baseball writers, his team is likely to win its 1,563rd consecutive division title, and his offensive fireworks have been a large part of the team?s second half success. Howard?s 17 home runs will probably be discounted a bit because of his home park (where he?s hit 10 of his 17 home runs), and the Phillies are getting very little national attention, even with the incredible NL Wild Card race they currently co-lead.

But, is this advantage for Francoeur borne out by a deeper look into the numbers? Without even getting into advanced performance metrics, Francoeur is indeed having the better season. Looking at some more numbers:

           OBP     SLG     OPS     K/BB    Defense
Francoeur       .358    .599    .957    43/8    12 assists, 2 errors
Howard          .352    .536    .878    87/26   5 errors

Francoeur has almost an 80 point advantage over Howard in OPS, puts the ball in play more often (we know how much baseball writers like that), and leads the majors in assists for right fielders (even though he has played in just about one third the games of his closest competitors). Howard has much more patience at the plate compared to Francoeur?s very-noteworthy lack of plate discipline, however Howard?s 5 errors in limited time at first base are not good. Again, advantage Francoeur.

Peeling away another layer, one of the most damning pieces of evidence against Ryan Howard so far is that while he kills righties, he struggles mightily against lefties. Francoeur shows the opposite split, but his is not nearly as devastating. Francoeur is Barry Bonds against lefties, posting a 1.394 OPS; against righties, he has more difficulty, but his .792 OPS is right about league average. Howard, on the other hand, posts an excellent 1.031 OPS against righties, but hits like a lifelong American League pitcher against lefties, posting an incredible .279 OPS. (No, that?s not a typo.) Howard?s struggles (a very kind word in this context) against lefties put his team at a serious handicap when facing southpaws.

Advanced baseball metrics confirm Francoeur?s edge over Howard. Looking at a few of the most important metrics from Baseball Prospectus, here?s how they stack up:

           MLVr            PMLVr           VORP            VORPr
Francoeur       .365            .353            22.9            .452
Howard          .218            .164            19.9            .306

Translated into English, the first column, MLVr, indicates the additional number of runs per game each player contributes to a lineup that otherwise consists of average offensive performers (league average MLVr, by definition, is zero). Thus, Francoeur contributes about 75% more per game above the league average than Howard does. The second column, PMLVr, is the same stat, but adjusted for the position each player plays. Because Howard plays at the power-rich first-base position, he suffers in this metric compared to Francoeur, who plays a less offensively-dominant position. Howard?s offensive contribution is less than half of Francoeur?s, compared to each?s position. The third column, VORP, is the number of runs each player has produced above what a replacement player at the same position would contribute, and the fourth column, VORPr, is the same stat averaged per game played. Again, in both of these metrics, Francoeur has the edge, much more so in the rate stat than the composite one because Howard has more plate appearances than Francoeur.

So, right now, based on the popular stats, more in-depth traditional analysis, and the more telling advanced metrics, it?s easy to say that Francoeur is the NL Rookie of the Year. However, I'm still picking Howard as the winner. Am I just a hopeless homer given almost every measure I?ve just reviewed that points toward Francoeur?

Maybe, but the one thing I?ve left out above is the trend throughout the season. Here?s how the two players? OPS stack up in the months they?ve played:

           Howard          Francoeur
May             0.660           did not play
July            0.894           1.326
August          0.865           0.878
September       1.057           0.783

Francoeur started his major league career with a huge bang, but he?s declined since then, performing just about league average so far this month. His decline may be attributed to pitchers taking advantage of his lack of plate discipline. Howard, on the other hand, has shown the opposite learning curve. As he?s figured out major league hitting, he?s exploded. His September OPS puts him among the best in the league. During this key stretch for the Phillies, he?s hit 6 home runs, driven in 10, and scored 10. Now, part of his improvement is that Charlie Manuel has stopped playing Howard against lefties, which improves Howard?s overall stats for the month. However, if he keeps up his dominance against righties for the rest of the month and the Phils maintain their Wild Card competitiveness or, better yet, win the Wild Card (or NL East altogether!), the advantages Francoeur has in the stats described above will narrow, Howard's already-big lead in the sexy HR and RBI stats will grow, and Howard will garner enough attention that it should put him over the top.

Ryan Howard: 2005 NL Rookie of the Year.