Ryan Howard has become a productive member of the Philadelphia Phillies once again.
You would not have been wrong to be skeptical that this could ever be the case again. After all, last year, in 648 plate appearances, Howard hit a lowly .223/.310/.380 with a 29.3% strikeout rate, a .156 isolated power (ISO) and a weighted runs created (wRC+) of just 93.
And despite hitting 23 home runs (his most in a season since 2011), he still ended up with an fWAR of -0.3, making him one of the least productive first basemen in all of baseball.
But much to the delight of everyone who wanted to see a little bit of the "old" Ryan Howard return, The Big Piece has done that so far this season.
Make no mistake, that was a monstrous home run.
Ryan Howard with a 454-foot HR at Coors Field, the longest there this season, his longest since a 465-foot HR in August, 2011— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 21, 2015
In Wednesday night's 4-2 win over the Colorado Rockies, the team's 7th win in their last 8 games, Howard went 3-for-5 with that homer and two runs scored, raising his average this year to .257. But what's been the most pleasing thing about Howard's turnaround has been the return of his power.
Last night was Howard's 8th home run of the year in his team's 42nd game, putting him on pace for 30.8 homers this season. That would be his most since he hit 33 in 2011.
His slugging percentage is .507, the highest it's been since it was .571 in 2009. And his isolated power of .250, the purest reflection of his power, is also the highest it's been since it was .292 in '09.
That .250 ISO is good for 10th in the National League, and his slugging percentage is 15th. Not bad for a guy who most considered was dead.
And now, time for some fun with arbitrary end points. In the month of May, Howard is hitting .328/.377/.609 with a .986 OPS, 4 HRs and 10 RBIs.
Ryan Howard is hitting .295 (28-for-95) with 8 HR, 4 2B, 1 3B and 18 RBI in 27 games in the last month (since April 21).— Ryan Lawrence (@ryanlawrence21) May 21, 2015
So, with Howard once again providing a modicum of offensive production, the trade rumors will undoubtedly begin to swirl, or at least they should. American League teams in need of a designated hitter should certainly making inquiries, especially when you consider how DHs have fared so far this season.
While Howard's batting average and on-base percentage are below the league average for American League DHs, his power numbers are better, and in some cases, far better. There are really only two questions AL teams have to ask themselves when it comes to trading for Howard.
First, can we trust this? Is Howard's power truly back? Well, here's a good start. Howard is hitting fewer ground balls that he has at any time since 2007. Just 34.0% of his batted balls have been hit on the ground, compared to his career average of 39.3% and last year's number of 40.6%.
In its place, he's increased his line drive rate this year to 25.8%, up from 22.1% last year. And his fly ball rate is also up to 40.2%, from 37.2% last year. That's important, because his home run-per fly ball rate is also way up from recent seasons. This year, 20.5% of all fly balls Howard has hit have left the yard, compared to 16.1% last year and 14.9% the year before.
Those are all encouraging signs.
The other question is, how much will he cost? In terms of prospects, probably not much. The big issue will be how much of Howard's contract the Phils are willing to pick up. At the start of the season, Howard was owed $60 million, including a buyout, that takes him through the end of next year.
It had been reported the Phils may have been willing to eat as much as $50-55 million of it, making Howard a $5-10 million risk. Given his start to the season, that risk looks a lot better now than it did two months ago.
Perhaps the only worry is a drastic decrease in Howard's walk rate, just 5.4% this year, down from 10.3% last year and a career average of 11.4%, although he has paired that with a slight decrease in his strikeout rate, 26.5%, down from 29.3% last season.
Howard is not a perfect player, and any AL team that is thinking about looking at him should be thinking about DH only. Keep him off the field defensively.
But based on what we've seen so far, Howard certainly appears to have played himself into a viable trade chip for the Phils.