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The Phillies' Ryan Howard and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Season

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Reviewing Ryan Howard's wild and wacky 2014, in which occasional clutch hitting, impressive RBI totals and surprising mastery of lefties were overshadowed by all-too frequent flailing at pitches and utter futility with the bases empty.

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Misguided as it may have been, there was quite of bit of hope among many of us about Ryan Howard heading into 2014. While no one in their right mind thought Howard would ever return to his peak of 2005-2009, it was widely expected that he would be the healthiest he had been since 2011 (albeit three years older), and that by virtue of having a more secure base to swing from, he might return to some semblance of the hitter he was in 2010-2011, when he posted wRC+s of 127 and 124, respectively. For example, a wRC+ of 120 was not out of the realm of possibility in this view, and so an OPS of around .775.

The projection systems that were reported at fangraphs.com didn't know or care about his health -- they looked at his recent trends, and his place on the aging curve, and predicted, on average, an OPS of .748.

As phrozen highlighted in his season-in-review for Howard (and which is demonstrated in some of the numbers below), he did come through in a number of key situations in 2014. But overall what we saw this year was much worse than even the modest estimates from the projection systems (and we won't even go into his baserunning or fielding here, both of which are well below average and further detract from his value).

Howard's 2014 was actually similar to his 2012. That year he returned in July after a long recovery from the surgery to repair his torn Achilles, made even longer by complications from a wound infection. He was still hobbled and clearly not completely healed, so while his sub-par performance the rest of that season was disappointing, it was not a complete surprise. (In between 2012 and this year, Howard had a 2013 season that was cut short by knee surgery, and which, while not awful, was helped by an unsustainably high BABIP.)

BB% K% ISO BABIP BA OBP SLG OPS wOBA wRC+
2012 8.6% 33.9% .204 .287 .219 .295 .423 .718 .303 88
2013 7.3% 30.0% .199 .349 .266 .319 .465 .784 .334 112
2014 10.3% 29.3% .156 .288 .223 .310 .380 .690 .306 93

In 2014 he walked more than he did in 2012, and struck out less, but the end result was about the same: a wOBA slightly over .300, and below the league average. The number that is perhaps most distressing in the above table is the Isolated Power of .156 -- the awesome raw power that had defined him as a hitter was absent for most of this year. Not only did his ISO continue along the decline path it had been on since his MVP season, it actually accelerated alarmingly towards the MLB average:

Power Outage

The decline in ISO was already apparent in 2007-2011, though Howard's overall hitting relative to the league actually did not decline much in those years. There was some decline, but league-wide offense was also declining at the same time, so it took somewhat less offense to get a win in 2011, than it did in 2007. His wRC+ relative to the league averaged 129 over those years, with 2007 and 2009 a bit better, and 2008 a bit worse:

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However since the Achilles injury he's been a below-league average hitter, which is not acceptable for someone at the easiest position on the diamond: Over the last three years he has hit .233/.309/.412 in 1257 PAs, for a wRC+ of 96. In 2014, out of the 23 players who qualified for the batting title and played enough first base to make fangraphs' list, Howard ranked 22nd in wOBA, and 22nd in wRC+ (Allen Craig had the dubious honor of being last in both).

Weird Platoon Splits

There were some encouraging signs in his platoon splits this year, but they were accompanied by some disturbing ones as well.

After years of decline against LHPs (with the notable exception of 2010), he seemed to solve them this year, and in fact was one of the better left-handed hitters vs. lefty pitchers. In the NL, there were 50 left-handed hitters this year who had at least 50 PAs against same-sided pitchers. Only 9 of the 50 had a higher OPS vs. lefties than Howard's .770.

In terms of HRs and RBIs vs. lefties, he even compared well to right-handed batters. Howard, the poster child for ineptitude against lefties in recent years, was tied for 5th in the majors in HRs off LHPs with 10, and tied for 2nd in RBIs with 32 (only David Ortiz had more).

However at the same time what was astonishing and bewildering was his performance against right-handed pitchers. Whereas he could always be counted to hit well (or at least, better) against righties, this year, he seemed completely at a loss:

PA BB% K% BB/K AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO BABIP wOBA wRC+ PA/HR PA/RBI
vs L 189 10.1% 37.0% 0.27 .230 .323 .447 .770 .217 .318 .339 116 18.9 5.9
vs R 459 10.5% 26.1% 0.40 .221 .305 .353 .658 .132 .279 .292 84 35.3 7.3

wOBA (red: vs. RHP / blue: vs. LHP / green: overall)

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wRC+

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Dr. Jekyll with RISP, Mr. Hyde without

Howard was able to drive in a somewhat impressive 95 runs (4th most in the NL), despite his below-average hitting. This was partly due to coming to bat with a high number of runners on base -- 471, third most in MLB, behind only Casey McGehee (481) and Justin Upton (474). All of those top three drove in about the same percentage of baserunners, around 15%. By the way, Chase Utley was 8th in MLB in baserunners when at the plate (440), and Marlon Byrd was 11th (434).

During his prime in 2006-2011, Howard not only came to bat with a lot of runners on base, but he was also among the most efficient hitters in baseball in the percentage of runners driven in. Those days are gone, and while his 15.3% of runners driven was above the league average of 13.3%, it was not close to the league leaders, who were in the 20-22.5% range.

Still, the other key reason for Howard's high RBI total, and the reason he drove in about the same % as McGehee, Upton, and Utley (and a higher % than Byrd), is that he hit much better with runners in scoring position than he did in other situations, although an .805 OPS is still not that exciting:

2014 PA BB% SO% ISO BA OBP SLG OPS
w/RISP 210 15.2% 28.6% .195 .243 .367 .438 .805
no RISP 438 8.0% 29.7% .140 .215 .283 .355 .638

Even over these last three years (2012-14), when he has struggled so much and ranks 37th in wRC+ out of the 47 first basemen with 700+ PAs, with runners in scoring position he's 17th.

And as large as the difference was in 2014 between his OPS with and without runners in scoring position, the difference was even more pronounced when comparing his PAs with men on base, with those with the bases empty:


2014 PA BB% SO% ISO BA OBP SLG OPS
Men On 345 12.8% 29.3% .189 .260 .359 .449 .808
Empty 303 7.6% 29.4% .123 .184 .254 .307 .561

Almost half of his PAs came with the bases empty, and that line of .184/.254/.307 in those at bats is just amazing. There were 234 players this year who had at least 200 PAs with no one on base. Only 8 of the 234 had an OPS lower than Howard's .561 in those situations.

[The eight who were even worse than Howard with the bases empty include Dom Brown at #6 -- Brown OPS'd .551 with no base runners, but .743 with men on, and .864 with RISP.]

Hitting better with men on base and with RISP has been typical over Howard's career, particularly since opponents began employing the shift when there were no runners past first base:

OPS

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Historically bad season for a Cleanup hitter

Despite the occasional move down to the 5th spot in the order, virtually all of Howard's PAs came while batting cleanup, where he hit .226/.315/.380 (.695 OPS). Since 1914, when the data starts, there have been 676 seasons with at least 500 PAs in the cleanup spot -- only 10 of those 676 seasons by #4 hitters produced a lower OPS than Howard's anemic .695.

If we limit the list to those with 600 or more PAs in the cleanup spot (Howard had 603), there have been 318 seasons (only about 3 per year), and Howard's .695 ranks 316th. Only Wally Pipp in 1917 (eight years before he would famously be replaced by Lou Gehrig), and Orlando Cepeda in (notorious pitcher's year) 1968, ever recorded a lower OPS in more than 600 PAs in the cleanup spot.

As has been discussed in comment threads recently, it doesn't make much difference whether a particular batter hits 4th, or 5th, or 6th (i.e. a few runs per year most likely), but the comparative ranking of Howard's 2014 does highlight how unusual it's been for a hitter who struggles as much as Howard did this year to occupy the cleanup spot throughout a full season.

Historically bad 95-RBI season

But, some may say, thanks to his better hitting with men on base, and in particular with runners in scoring position, he did drive in 95 runs, and that's not insignificant.

There is some truth to that, just as there is in praising a pitcher's low ERA when he may have benefited from better-than-average strand rates. While the results may not be predictive, they do matter, and getting those runs in in those situations did help the team win some games. But obviously batters need to produce, and help their team win, in whatever way they can in all sorts of situations, including with the bases empty.

When we look at Howard's overall hitting, whether we use OPS as the metric, or wOBA, his 2014 was one of the worst hitting seasons ever to accumulate 95 RBIs. Since 1900 there have been 2,175 player seasons of 95 or more RBIs, and out of those 2,175, Howard's 2014 had the 7th lowest OPS, and the 9th lowest wOBA. Put another way, 99.6% of those seasons were better overall in terms of wOBA, and 99.7% came with a higher OPS:

7th lowest OPS:

Name Team Season PA HR RBI BB% K% ISO AVG OBP SLG OPS wOBA wRC+ WAR
Walt Dropo Tigers 1953 645 13 96 4.5% 10.7% .124 .248 .289 .371 .660 .300 72 -0.9
Tony Batista Orioles 2003 670 26 99 4.2% 15.2% .158 .235 .270 .393 .663 .284 71 -0.1
John Mayberry Royals 1976 690 13 95 11.9% 10.6% .109 .232 .322 .342 .664 .308 94 1.7
Ruben Sierra Athletics 1993 692 22 101 7.5% 14.0% .157 .233 .288 .390 .678 .290 79 -2.6
Joe Carter Padres 1990 697 24 115 6.9% 13.3% .159 .232 .290 .391 .681 .295 80 -2.0
Joe Carter Blue Jays 1997 668 21 102 6.0% 15.7% .165 .234 .284 .399 .683 .295 72 -1.4
Ryan Howard Phillies 2014 648 23 95 10.3% 29.3% .156 .223 .310 .380 .690 .306 93 -0.3

9th lowest wOBA:

Name Team Season PA HR RBI BB% K% ISO AVG OBP SLG OPS wOBA wRC+ WAR
Tony Batista Orioles 2003 670 26 99 4.2% 15.2% .158 .235 .270 .393 .663 .284 71 -0.1
Ruben Sierra Athletics 1993 692 22 101 7.5% 14.0% .157 .233 .288 .390 .678 .290 79 -2.6
Joe Carter Padres 1990 697 24 115 6.9% 13.3% .159 .232 .290 .391 .681 .295 80 -2.0
Joe Carter Blue Jays 1997 668 21 102 6.0% 15.7% .165 .234 .284 .399 .683 .295 72 -1.4
Pedro Feliz Giants 2006 644 22 98 5.1% 17.4% .184 .244 .281 .428 .709 .300 75 1.6
Walt Dropo Tigers 1953 645 13 96 4.5% 10.7% .124 .248 .289 .371 .660 .300 72 -0.9
Tony Batista Expos 2004 650 32 110 4.0% 12.0% .215 .241 .272 .455 .727 .304 76 -0.5
Joe Pepitone Yankees 1964 647 28 100 3.7% 9.7% .166 .251 .281 .418 .699 .304 92 0.2
Ryan Howard Phillies 2014 648 23 95 10.3% 29.3% .156 .223 .310 .380 .690 .306 93 -0.3

Hitting by Field

The first graphs below show the percentage of balls that Howard has hit to each field, and his batting average on balls in play on those by field.

There has been a general sense among many fans that Howard used to hit to the opposite field much more than he has in recent years. Based on the baseball-reference numbers shown below, since 2007 the % of balls hit to the opposite field has actually stayed fairly steady, and if anything, gone up slightly. He has been pulling more, in particular in 2013-14, but that's more at the expense of balls up the middle.

As for BABIP, I would have expected more of a drop from his initial years on balls pulled to the right side, as the shift was used more and more against him, but that doesn't seem to be evident in the numbers:

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(click to enlarge)

Next, below is the overall OPS he gets on balls hit to each field, as well as the power he generates by field.

On balls he hit to the right side in 2014, Howard hit .236/.236/.321, with only 2 pulled home runs the entire season.

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Finally, below are Howard's home runs by field in each year -- in raw numbers, and then the percentage by field:

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Hittin' Weather?

Whereas in the past Howard's OPS could be counted on to climb from what it was in the early part of the year, that was not the case in 2014. Through June 26th (78 team games), he stood at an almost respectable .246/.318/.427 (.745 OPS), or essentially his preseason projection.

Based on his career history, one would have expected that he would be able to maintain that level, and probably even increase it. But no, not in 2014. From June 27th on, in the 321 PAs that remained (about half his season), he hit .199/.302/.330 (.632 OPS). Isolated power in particular dropped from a decent .201 in the first 78 games, to only .131 from that point on.

OPS by date in 2014, and his average in 2006-13 (and then the detail by year)

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Walks and K's

Lastly, while it would be great if Howard walked more, and struck out less, and either or both of those would without a doubt make him a better hitter, those were not his biggest issues in 2014 (see power outage, and hitting vs. RHPs above).

He has walked more in some past years, but that was largely due to the high number of intentional walks he was issued, especially in 2006-2007. And even many of his non-intentional walks in those years, and continuing through 2011, were pitch-arounds, or "non-intentional intentional walks".

Even so, and without being pitched around much, in 2014 his non-intentional walk rate was 9.3%, above his career average of 8.9%:

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That's also in an environment in which walks are becoming somewhat more scarce than they used to be...

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He struck out at a 29.3% rate in 2014, above his career average of 28.1%, and more to the point, above the 26% range that was his norm in many of his better seasons:

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But that also needs to be viewed in the context of rising K rates:

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His ratio of walks to strikeouts was essentially at the league average:

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Having said all that, now that he's getting older and losing bat speed, it would certainly behoove him to develop some "old player" skills and learn how to take more walks.

Summary

Overall, Ryan Howard was one of the worst-hitting first basemen in the majors in 2014, and that's before even considering his well below average baserunning and fielding.

He did drive in 95 runs, through a combination of large numbers of runners on base when he came to bat, but also better hitting with men on base and with runners in scoring position.

However it was one of the worst seasons ever by a player with 95+ RBIs, with the 9th lowest wOBA and 7th lowest OPS out of over 2,000 such seasons. It was also one of the worst years ever by a player who spent most of the season in the cleanup spot.

Despite his high strikeout total, he did display some plate discipline this year, and he will need to develop that further if he is to regain some semblance of effectiveness.

But what was most distressing this season, and which will be a focus of interest wherever he plays in 2015, was a) the significant decline in power, particularly in the second half of the year, and b) his inexplicable struggles against the right handed pitching that he used to feast on.