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The Howitzer and the Hammer

Update [2006-8-15 18:21:15 by dajafi]: Our pal Marc Normandin at Beyond the Boxscore just posted an article on Ryan Howard's hitting tendencies, including spray charts. It's a great piece--and suggests that the guy is even better than we all think. Strongly recommended.

The Phillies enjoyed probably their easiest victory of the season tonight, burying the Mets 13-0 as Pedro Martinez surrendered six first-inning runs, then left with a calf strain. Strangely, the club's best offensive player was responsible for almost none of the damage: Ryan Howard singled--on a ball Mets RF Lastings Milledge probably should have caught--and scored in the first inning, but then struck out four times. (Condolences to any Howard fantasy owner who saw the final score, got all het up, and then checked out the box.)

Even with his off-night at the plate, though, Howard has hit, in pacino's words, bats--t crazy since the all-star break. His single tonight briefly lifted his batting average over .300, and he's on a 57-home run, 148-RBI pace. The Inquirer today noted that Howard's most recent achievement put him in some historically impressive company:

Ryan Howard, who hit his league-leading 41st homer yesterday, became just the seventh player in baseball history to hit 40 or more home runs in his second season. The others: Chuck Klein hit 43 in 1929 for the Phillies, Joe DiMaggio (Yankees) hit 46 in 1937, Ralph Kiner (Pirates) hit 51 in 1947, Eddie Mathews (Braves) hit 47 in 1953, Ernie Banks (Cubs) hit 44 in 1955, and Jim Gentile (Orioles) hit 46 in 1961.

Klein, DiMaggio, Kiner, Mathews and Banks are in the Hall of Fame.

While Howard had an off-night in Monday's blowout win, the Phils' other prodigy enjoyed perhaps his best game in the big leagues. Cole Hamels threw eight shutout innings of four-hit, nine-strikeout ball, his fourth straight quality start.

I don't put any particular store by my own prognostications, and with the Phillies, any optimistic prediction feels like a risk. Even so, I'm proud to note that 20 days ago I wrote a piece on Hamels that was fairly brimming with equanimity. Since then, he's thrown four straight quality starts, going 3-1 with a 1.59 ERA over 28.3 IP, with 18 hits, 5 walks and 34 strikeouts. For the year now, Hamels is 5-6 with a 4.50 ERA... and while more bumps in the road will follow, and he won't run down Ryan Zimmerman, Prince Fielder or a Marlin to be named later to follow Howard as Rookie of the Year, I like his long-term prospects--with the obvious caveat of good health--as much as anyone's.

It seems a bit strange to think, given the Cult of Veteranness we Phans have had stuffed down our throats for the last half-dozen years, but the Phillies are a pretty young team. Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins are 27; Brett Myers is 26; Ryan Madson and Shane Victorino are 25. With a wave of young pitching starting to wash up (Mathieson, Castro), more on the way, and (presumably) some money to spend, there's no reason why 2007 should be a lost year--whatever the GM might have said.