Everybody is talking about the improvements in Ryan Howard's game this season, particularly his defense. Also striking is that, to this point in the season, Howard has avoided the slow starts that dogged him in 2007 and 2008, and kept his season statistics in the category of "merely very good" rather than "incredible."
After 29 games in 2009:
.287/.364/.539, with 6 home runs.
Not MVP numbers by any stretch, but definitely solid. Nothing to complain about.
However, in the previous two seasons, there was plenty to complain about...
At the same point in 2007:
.204/.380/.429, with 6 home runs.
And in 2008:
.184/.303/.388, with (again) 6 home runs.
And what about 2006, his brain-bashing MVP campaign?
.317/.378/.558, with 8 home runs.
Thusfar, Howard's 2009 numbers at this point in the season most closely resemble his 2006 numbers, with a lower OBA primarily comprised of a difference in AVG, most of which can probably be attributed to the extreme shift now employed against him.
His home run swing seems to be fairly consistent from season to season at this point, before he catches fire sometime in the summer. Where Howard defines his season-end value is in his non-HR plate appearances, and he's doing a much better job there this season than in the previous two.
It's far too early in the season to draw any meaningful conclusions, but if Howard can continue his trend as a late season monster (for his career, his second half numbers are .302/.414/.637), we may very well see Ryan Howard hoist a second MVP trophy. There's a lot to overcome, of course (see: Pujols, Albert), but overall, the sky is the limit.
Now if only he could pitch...