Ryan Howard was supposed to have an amazing year according to many projection systems. PECOTA only had him at .273/.381/.574, but ZIPS had him at .294/.406/.622, Bill James had him at .303/.419/.650, Chone had him at .279/.393/.587, Ron Shandler had him at .274/.382/.587, Marcel had him at .287/.392/.573, and I personally had him at .281/.394/.587. However, Ryan Howard so far is at .176/.297/.341. That is clearly below his projections.
Many have speculated why this is-- some think he’s rapidly declining, some think he’s hurt, some think he’s pressing because he doesn’t have a long-term deal, and some think he’s pressing because he is nervous about earning his $10MM arbitration award. Rather than guess the physical and mental reasons he’s doing so poorly, I’m going to focus on what exactly is happening that is leading to such poor output.
Howard’s walk rate in his career is 14.6%, and this year he is at 15.0%. Clearly, he is not really walking any less. However, of his 15 walks, 6 are intentional (though at least one was a 3-1 count that the pitcher decided to give up on).
Howard’s strikeout percentage (with respect to plate appearances) this year is up at 33.7%. His career strikeout percentage is 28.6%. Is this is a significant difference? Well, for 101 at-bats, the odds of being so far from your career strikeout percentage by chance is 23.2%-- in other words, it’s still quite possible that this is just an insignificant difference that happened by random chance. Usually 5% odds of a deviation happening by chance is the typical threshold for statistical significance. However, this is clearly an indication that he is doing something different.
What we’re looking at in those first two numbers is really strike zone judgment. So, instead of guessing only using those numbers, let’s have a look at another way to measure this—is Howard taking as many balls? The percentage of strikes with respect to numbers of pitches thrown to Howard (subtracting 4 pitches for each intentional walk) is 61.5%, contrasted with 60.4% for his career. This is not statistically significant at all. So my suspicion is that he’s not really striking out that much more than usual, especially not much more than last year and I don’t think that’s the source of his troubles.
His homeruns/flyball is 23.5% this year contrasted with 34.4% for his career. That is starting to approach a statistical signature difference, but it isn’t quite significant yet with 9.8% odds of it happening by chance.
What jumps out immediately is his .234 BABIP. That is .103 below his career BABIP, and clearly indicates a bit of bad luck has taken hold. However, that is not to say that it explains everything. Howard’s groundball rate is insanely high, and probably explains the source of the BABIP problem. Despite a career groundball rate of 39.1%, his rate this year is 48.1%. Despite Howard only putting 52 balls in play so far, that is already pretty close to significant, despite the small sample size—18.4% odds of that happening by chance. Especially when contrasted with the 31.5% he put up last year (well below his career norms), this number seems especially high.
I don’t have groundball/flyball splits for facing lefty/righty pitchers, but his BABIP is .275 against righties and .166 against lefties this year. Normally, those numbers are .364/.304. Clearly his BABIP is falling further against lefties than righties. There is probably something an expert on hitting could tell you about that, but I’m not exactly sure what. It seems to me that he is changing his approach in such a way that is more damaging against lefties than righties, and I wouldn’t be surprised if his groundball rate rose even further against lefties as well.
What all this means is that Howard needs to start hitting the ball in the air. He doesn’t actually seem to be missing the ball more, though it may feel like it, but it’s really that he is hitting balls on the ground, and the balls in the air aren’t going very far. So, I have to assume that is the root of the problem and that is what needs to change for Howard to be successful. I doubt that he’d put up such poor numbers even if he does not lower his groundball rate, as a .234 BABIP just doesn’t seem like something that would stick (especially since BABIP is higher on groundballs than flyballs), but it clearly is limiting his effectiveness. It seems like it’s the angle that he’s hitting the ball at instead of the frequency with which his swings hit the ball. That is probably something he can change with approach.