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Ryan Howard -- Big Thump or Big Thud?

Editor's Note: The bulk of the number crunching in this piece came from our contributing writer Shore. Many thanks to him for his hard work.

So I had my Ryan Howard Community Projection almost done a couple weeks ago when I joined a couple of my friends at the local bar. The conversation turned, as it often does, to the Phillies. Points were raised and dissected, but it got interesting when the topic changed to Ryan Howard.

"I'm telling you, he's Kevin Maas!" Bob said.

"Sam Horn maybe?" I said. Thanks to half a pitcher of Yuengling and a lack of access to the numbers (I found to my chagrin that most middle-of-nowhere taverns in Lebanon County lack the basic amenities of baseball nerd culture, such as Wi-Fi), I didn't have much of substance to say on the point. But it did get me to thinking about our own first base phenom, and his immediate and long-term future.

Let's take some often-used comparables, and break them down:

First up, Kevin Maas: Maas, like Howard, was a left-handed, power-hitting first baseman. He made a huge splash in NY in 1990 at the age of 25, when he hit 21 homers in his 79-game debut - not unlike Howard's 88-game, 22-homer age 25 season last year. But if you look a little deeper, Maas' minor league career wasn't of the same caliber as Howard's:

Maas, pre-debut : 1505 AB, .290 / .378 / .484
Howard, pre-2005: 1678 AB, .302 / .386 / .556

Maas' .484 SLG is buoyed by two short stints (1988 in A ball, 2000 in AAA) where he slugged .694 and .582; other than those 300 Abs, he hadn't slugged over .475 in any minor-league stop. Howard, on the other hand, had the following SLG progression: .460, .514, .647, .604, .690 - all that while moving up a league each year. Maas had only managed as many as 50 extra-base hits once (52, in 1988), while Howard failed to reach 50 only once, in his Lakewood debut, and had 75+ in each of 2004 and 2005. While a solid prospect, with an excellent debut, Maas was certainly not in the same class as Howard at similar points in their careers.

Next, Sam Horn: Horn is another lefty 1B, and a little more physically similar to Howard, who probably outweighed Maas by 50 pounds. His big splash in the majors came with the Red Sox in 1987, hitting 14 homers and slugging .589 in 46 games at just 23 years old. It followed up a huge season in AAA - .321 / .386 / .649 in 94 games. That said, Horn's overall minor-league career was a lot more Maas than Howard:

Horn, pre-debut : 2045 AB, .282 / .379 / .477

Again, we have a guy who's superficially similar to Howard, but simply did not dominate the competition at every level the way Howard has to date. Horn was either very productive, or very bad, in each minor league stop - he slugged .526 or more 3 times, but his other 4 stops were .406, .425, .354, and .338 - terrible numbers for a 1B prospect. Following his banner 1987, he immediately regressed - he hit .233 and .232 the next 2 years in AAA, with a .148 cup of coffee each year. He never really hit the ball well again until 1993, with a big year for Cleveland's AAA affiliate, at age 29.

A more interesting comp might be Cecil Fielder. Laughably listed at 240 lbs in his Baseball Reference page, Fielder probably tipped the scales at 300+. He wasn't the athlete that Howard appears to be, but his minor and major league hitting accomplishments are closer than either Maas or Horn. Fielder had a couple of very brief major league exposure in both 1985 and 1986, but 1987 was the first year he didn't spend any time in the minors. His minor league totals:

Fielder, minors: 1917 AB, .294 / .367 / .523

In his 6 minor league stops, he slugged over .600 twice, and over .500 twice more. That's the kind of comp we're looking for. Fielder's 1987 major league season was similar to all of the others examined - 14 HR in just 175 AB, with a .905 OPS. Fielder was ostensibly blocked first by Willie Upshaw (oy!) and then by Fred McGriff, and 2 years later went to Japan for a season to get an opportunity to play every day. He returned to the states in 1990 for the Tigers, and smashed 51 homers. He averaged 35 HR per year for the Tigers over the course of 7 seasons, then contributed to the Yankees for a couple of years before retiring in his mid thirties.

Fielder, due to his minor league slugging dominance, and the fact that his progress was slowed by the presence of an MVP-caliber player at his position, seems like the best comp of the group, and that bodes well for Howard. I think Howard's actually better than Fielder, as he performed better in the minors, and, bluntly, isn't a big fat guy.

Finally, BaseballProspectus has Travis Hafner has his #1 comp. Hafner's minor league career was also pretty similar to Howard:

Hafner, minors: 2334 AB, .298 / .398 / .515

He, too, had his first big ML exposure at age 26, and performed reasonably well, posting an .812 OPS in 291 AB. His next two years, though, were spectacular, with a .993 and a 1.003 OPS. This is another good sign for Howard.

A Brief History of Howard

Drafted in the 5th round of the 2001 amateur draft, a 22 year-old Howard did not begin play in the Phillies system until the 2002 season in low-A Lakewood. Despite this, the Phillies (and they cannot really be faulted for this) went out and signed Jim Thome to a massive multiyear deal in December 2002. Ryan Howard was too far off, was not a sure thing, and a new ballpark was coming, so the team needed a draw, and Gentleman Jim was it.

In 2003, Howard made a run at the Florida State League Triple Crown, just falling several RBI short. The Phillies fans barely noticed, as Thome himself paced the Senior Circuit that year with 47 home runs and became a temporary folk idol in the Delaware Valley.

Ryan Howard finally burst on the scene with a vengeance in 2004 at Double-A Reading. From the very first month of the season, Howard was on track to shatter every single team and Eastern League record for home runs with 37. After busting the Reading Phillies' team mark for homers, the Phillies promoted Howard to Triple-A late that summer, where he continued his assault on helpless minor league pitchers, adding another nine bombs for a season total of 46. Now the fans noticed, and the fanbase began playing coaching staff, insisting that Howard be taught to play the outfield (or third base, which would have been hilarious seeing as Howard throws left-handed). The guy had big league potential, but was being blocked at his natural (and probably only) position by a superstar with a massive contract and a sterling reputation.

Suddenly the Phillies had a serious (although some would call it enviable) problem.

Spring of 2005 was a tense period for Howardists. Frustrated with being blocked by Thome, Howard (through his agent) publicly requested a trade to a team that could give him the starting spot that he deserved. To Ed Wade's credit, he resisted cashing in Howard. This wound up being quite fortunate, as injuries hobbled Jim Thome throughout the first third of 2005, and Howard, still lighting-up Triple-A, stepped in. The rest is history.