There are three broad categories of exit interviews. First, there's the story about a player who is coming back next year. This story is not really an exit interview, since the player isn't leaving the team. It's just about this last year, with more to come. Second, there's the story about a bit player who is no longer with the Phillies, but no one really cares that much about it. The exit interview is really an exit interview -- the guy isn't on the team anymore -- but like the first kind, it's just focused on the player's year because there's not much more to it.
But then there's the third kind of story, the real exit interview. This one is about a player who has become a fixture on the team but is not going to be back next year. This exit interview is the real deal. We're saying goodbye to someone we've become attached to, while also trying to give some perspective on the guy's 2016.
And in this category of real exit interviews, it's probably safe to say that this is the realest of them all. Saying goodbye to Ryan Howard is hard. Now, if you've really only watched him or the team over the past five years, you won't understand this. But there really was a time when Ryan Howard was not a laughing stock and was in fact a true threat in the middle of the order. For 6 years in a row, he was in the top 10 in MVP voting (2006 through 2011), winning it in 2006. And in 2005 he was Rookie of the Year.
But even that doesn't do him justice. The best I can explain it is this way. Growing up, I watched the Phillies day-in, day-out. In the middle of the lineup that I watched was Mike Schmidt, the best third baseman to ever play the game (I won't listen to arguments to the contrary, never). What made Schmidt so amazing was that we all knew that every 9th batter, something special could happen at the plate. Even the most boring and meaningless game could still have something extraordinary occur.
After Schmidt retired, I realized that something was missing when you don't have that kind of player in the lineup. From 1989 through 2005, the Phillies didn't have that same level of individual excitement in their lineup. Not to say they didn't have great players -- after all, this blog started because of our love for Bobby Abreu, probably the best pure hitter in that era -- or that the team didn't have success (1993!). But, that same kind of Schmidt-level intrigue four or five times a game wasn't there.
When Howard came along, all of a sudden the Phillies' lineup had that guy again. Yes, there was also Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley, but for the power-lovers among us, they were not the same as what Ryan Howard and Mike Schmidt offered every time they were at the plate. No matter the score, all of a sudden you could be watching something special. Howard gave that to us fans for a good chunk of his career. And he did it with a smile, a seeming love for Philadelphia, and a joy that few athletes have in this town.
As much as it was a no-brainer for the team to refuse to pick up his option this off-season, I will miss him being a part of this team and look forward to our next superstar providing that jolt in the middle of the lineup.
But enough of the sappy stuff and onto Howard's 2016. By many measures, the season was another failure for Howard. He couldn't hit the Mendoza line, finishing with a .196 batting average. Despite playing part time, he struck out in 114 of his plate appearances, walking only 27 times. He had a career low .257 on base percentage, worse than even Freddy Galvis (.274) and had only 30 singles in 362 plate appearances. His fWAR for the year was an atrocious -1.0. Beyond these stats, when he was at the plate, he often looked completely over-matched and incapable of doing much at all.
Despite this, Howard's season wasn't all a loss. In fact, there may be just enough of a glimmer of hope there that a team might take a chance on Howard next year. He struggled, yes, but he still hit 25 home runs over the course of the year, tied for 14th among major league first basemen. That's not flashy, but it's also not something that can be ignored.
Moreover, once Tommy Joseph was firmly ensconced in a platoon with Howard, the Phillies seemed to figure out how to get the best out of him. Not only did they sit him against almost all lefties, but they also seemed to smartly pick which righties to play him against.
In fact, from June 19 forward, Howard was pretty dominant. Overall, he had an .875 OPS over 180 plate appearances. But, even better were his stats against right-handed pitchers. Against lefties in that stretch, he had 18 plate appearances for an atrocious .285 OPS (yes, OPS!). Against righties, it was a story of rejuvenation. In 162 plate appearances, his line was .264/.327/.615, for a .942 OPS. Sure, he could have had a bit more patience at the plate and struck out less (46 Ks to only 14 BBs), but his overall production against right-handers left nothing to complain about.
He clearly still has what it takes against right-handed pitchers. For the right team with the right personnel and the right mindset, Howard may be a nice pickup in the off-season. I, for one, hope he finds that team and still has another year or three in him.
After that, I do hope he comes back to Philadelphia and stays involved in his local charities and maybe even moves into the broadcast booth. Because Ryan Howard is the kind of player that we need to have stay connected to this team.