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Is Ryan Howard Figuring It Out?

Howard's 8th inning walk on Thursday was the most important at-bat of the game, but his improved plate discipline has been going on all season. Is he starting to figure things out?

Howard's plate discipline has been much improved this year.
Howard's plate discipline has been much improved this year.

The move raised some eyebrows, for sure.

With the Phils and Braves tied 0-0 in the bottom of the eighth inning on Thursday afternoon, Ryne Sandberg made a curious move. With a runner on second and two out, and left-hander Alex Wood holding the Phillies at bay all day, Sandberg brought in his left-handed slugger, Ryan Howard, in to pinch-hit.

His reasoning was simple. Despite Howard's historic struggles against left-handed pitching, he brought up his best RBI man anyway, even with right-hander Carlos Ruiz and switch hitter Freddy Galvis available to hit from the right side.

It was a risky move and, had Howard struck out, would have been one the manager would have had to answer for after the game.

But Howard did what he has been doing all year. He saw a lot of pitches, put together a solid at-bat, and drew a walk on a 3-2 pitch. During the at bat, Howard laid off breaking pitches away as well as cutters down-and-in. He didn't go out of the strike zone. He took what the pitcher gave him and gave the next guy in the lineup the opportunity to deliver the game-winning hit.

And, on cue, Ben Revere hit an RBI single, propelling the Phillies to their 1-0, series-salvaging victory over Atlanta.

But it was Howard's at-bat, against a tough left-hander, that was the real difference in that inning. How many times have we see an overly aggressive Howard strike out in that situation? How many teams have we seen him failing to see the ball well enough to lay off the low-and-away breaking ball or the cutter down-and-in?

Lots of times. LOTS of times.

But we've seen a different Ryan Howard so far this year. We haven't seen the guy who doesn't look like he has a clue what's being thrown to him. We haven't see the guy who looks utterly lost against left-handers. We've seen a player who is more disciplined, is seeing more pitches, and isn't swinging and missing at so many balls out of the strike zone.

His walk percentage so far this year is 16.1%, far above his career average of 11.8% and the 8.6% and 7.3% of the last two years. And even though he's swinging at a similar number of pitches out of the strike zone overall (35.2%) as he has in years past, he's making more contact on those pitches, a career high 54%.

Howard has walked a team-high 10 times so far this year, and is just three walks behind the NL-leader, Jay Bruce, who has 13. And while Howard has struck out 18 times in 2014, the walks have helped give him an on-base percentage of .355, despite a .231 batting average.

Improved plate discipline can only help Howard see more fastballs in the strike zone as the season goes on, which should improve his slugging percentage and homer totals as well.

But, most importantly, improved plate discipline simply prevents Howard from making an out. And on Thursday, it prevented him from making the third out in the eighth inning against the Braves, allowing Revere to be the hero.

Sometimes, all a hitter can do is take his walk and move the order along. In recent years, it didn't seem as if Howard understood that.

So far in 2014, Howard has had far more good at bats than bad ones. And that can only be really good news for an offense that has been up-and-down so far this year.