"You're talking about an evaluation process of where you've gotten to see players this year play. And you'll have another opportunity to see those same players play again next year and I won't be here. So, for me, I just want to play. I don't necessarily think it's right or fair, considering this is my last month here, but it is interesting."
"Interesting" is the word that nice guys use to describe things that are more "irritating" than they are "interesting."
From day one, Ryan Howard has been defensive about his playing time this season. In a year in which we’ve all followed the narrative that he is on his way out, while younger, better players are on their way in, you can’t blame him. Back in February, at the prickliest of press conferences, he aired some grievances with the media and didn’t seem to care about what statistics indicated about his ability to hit lefties (He’s hitting .133 with 1 HR in 30 AB vs. LHP this season).
Nevertheless, "platoons" were all the rage back then, and Howard and Darin Ruf were going to combine into a single starting first base unit for the Philies in 2016. Howard, at 36 years old, would get his playing time, and Ruf would get a version of the extended look that people kept swearing he’d never had. This likely didn’t sound ideal to either of them, but, I don’t know, check the numbers. One of them could (theoretically) hit righties, one of them could (theoretically) his lefties. Splits like that are probably the reason why Barnabus J. Platoon first invented the concept.
Howard outlasted Ruf on the roster, as the 30-year-old Ruf hit .158 with 0 HR and 19 SO in 31 games. By the middle of May, with Tommy Joseph doing what he was doing at Lehigh Valley, swapping one first baseman out with a younger one having a far better year at the plate seemed exactly like the common sense the Phillies have avoided in the past. But this time, they pulled the trigger, and Howard’s new competition became the 25-year-old Joseph, who’d been hitting .347 in 27 games at Triple A. Joseph featured a hot bat and an underdog story, making any success in the big leagues—and he found some—a huge development. What if the Phillies actually had a first baseman of the future?
Who the Phillies are playing at this point in the season has raised some questions already. Pete Mackanin was not very gentle in his waving-off of Rule 5 pick Tyler Goeddel the other day, despite the option behind the struggling Goeddel being veteran and future non-Phillie Jimmy Paredes. What the Phillies think they’re gaining by giving Paredes at-bats and holding back Goeddel, who factors more plausibly into the near future, is confusing.
Obviously, the reverse is happening with Howard, but the wild card here is that Howard hit .314 in August with a 1.070 OPS. Suddenly, whispers of trade value could be heard (but never grew very loud). Playing more Joseph looks like the right thing to do, despite Howard’s surge, except if you’re the player who because of the decision stands to lose playing time in his final month of the season and whose job security for next year is less certain.
This is a guy who has had literal garbage thrown at him this season; it’s good to see him surprise people with his bat. And I like that Howard remains so vigilant of his playing time, despite the somewhat obvious benefits from the Phillies seeing as much of Joseph as possible moving into the future. Howard’s been playing in front of Philadelphia his entire career; he knows if he doesn’t stand up for himself, nobody else necessarily will. What’s the harm in popping off a little in the papers? What are the Phillies going to do? Bench him?
Even though he and Ruf had been competing for the same spot, Ruf always said they respected and liked each other. Howard will, as he often has, get his point across in a way that avoids sowing discontent in the locker room. At the time of Ruf’s demotion, Howard wasn’t doing much better than his counterpart, hitting .174 (he hit .101 in 69 AB in May). By June, Howard had remained "a model teammate" despite his struggles. However Howard feels about a situation, he is the gentlest, most likable of malcontents. He’s being victimized by the business side of baseball, and it’s not fun.
So it’s funny (to us) that things have wound up this way; Joseph having put up encouraging, but deflating, numbers after being called up; Howard catching fire in August; and Ruf, reappearing on the roster as a lackluster September roster expansion. Now, the Phillies have all three first baseman looking for playing time. What a fun month at first base this will be.