Ryan Howard seems well on his way to completing the lamentable Philadelphia sports journey from savior to scapegoat. He’s now in his 30s, his numbers have fallen off pretty sharply from the great heights of a Rookie of the Year award in his first season and an MVP in his second, and he strikes out a lot. What’s really likely to put him in the crosshairs is that starting in 2012, he’ll be working on a mammoth contract that’s been prejudged by smart baseball writers like Joe Posnanski and Rob Neyer as maybe the worst in baseball.
It’s true that the contract might well prove disastrous. Howard’s body type isn’t the sort that ages well, and the deal could be a triple whammy in that it expends far more money than Howard’s production is likely to justify, exerts an opportunity cost for spending elsewhere on the roster and fills a position at which offensive production can come cheap. (Imagine if, in August 2013, the Phillies are trailing the Nationals or Braves by three games, Howard’s hitting .250/.330/.440, and Jon Singleton is laying waste to the International League… for another team’s affiliate.)
In 2011, however, Howard is having a much better season than you’d think just given his relatively pedestrian numbers (.257/.353/.475). And—sorry, One-Chair—his RBI total doesn't have much to do with it.
Let’s start with the walk rate. Much was made of Howard’s new contact-centric approach last season, in which he cut his strikeouts from 186 in 2009 to 157 (in 83 fewer plate appearances, but still). Some of us thought this wasn’t totally a good thing, though, given both the dropoff in power production, from 45 homers in '09 to 31, and especially, given how opposing pitchers often work around Howard, walks (75 to 59). His OPS, OPS+, and Wins Above Replacement (the dreaded WAR) all fell sharply too, and his pitches per plate appearances dropped from 4.08 in 2009 to a career-low 3.9 last season.
Cut to 2011 and Howard’s patience has come back. He’s seeing an average of 4.04 pitches per plate appearance, exactly matching his career rate, and he’s drawn 47 walks in 393 plate appearances, or about 12 percent of his plate appearances, up from 9.5 last year and his highest rate since 2007. Meanwhile, his K rate is pretty close to what it was in 2010—a bit lower, in fact. This goes a long way toward explaining why Howard's 2011 WAR (as calculated by baseball-reference.com) is 1.9, already almost matching his 2010 mark of 2.0.
So why are his other numbers down even further from 2010? It basically comes down to one (non-)word: BABIP.
In his Rookie of the Year season, Howard hit a lusty .354 on balls in play. That went up to .356 in his MVP year. By 2007, opponents were starting to play the shift against him, with a corresponding drop in BABIP to .325; in 2008, it fell to .288 (largely explaining the career-low .251 batting average he put up that year). Howard was somewhat hit-lucky in 2010, with a .332 BABIP; this year, it’s back down to .303, well below his .325 career average.
There are a couple other things in the batted-ball data that suggest he might be due for some positive regression, starting with a home run to fly ball ratio of 18.4 percent, the lowest since his rookie season. (To be fair, this stat could be the leading indicator of his long-term decline; the trend has been ominous for a couple years now. But let's check back in October before we reach that conclusion.) And while Howard always has been less potent against lefties, I can’t buy that his power against them has totally disappeared: his career slugging percentage vs. LHP is more than a hundred points higher than his 2011 mark, while his batting average facing left-handers is actually a good bit higher this year.
Still, you get the sense the Phillies will take the entirety of the performance. Howard’s defense, already markedly better in the last couple seasons, seems to have taken another step forward in 2011 (notwithstanding a couple conspicuous lapses right before the break). He’s made just four errors, down from 14 in each of the last two seasons (and 19 in 2008). He’s had a series of solid at-bats against lefty relievers late in games, including some game-winning hits. And with the exception of one brutal hitless week in mid-May, he’s avoided the long stretches of seeming offensive helplessness that have marred his past seasons despite going for much of 2011 as the only serious offensive threat in the Phillies lineup.
With abundant talent in the NL at the first base position, it wasn’t shocking to see Howard miss the all-star team this season. But a strong case can be made already that he’s been the Phillies’ positional MVP—it’s Howard or Shane Victorino—and if he approaches his usual second-half numbers (.295/.401/.616), he’ll likely find himself back in the league MVP discussion too.