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One Final Oddity in Howard’s Phillies Odyssey

Ryan Howard’s career has been punctuated by extremes, and 2017 provided one more example.

New York Mets v Philadelphia Phillies
Howard makes a curtain call and waves to the crowd after being removed during the ninth inning of a game against the Mets at Citizens Bank Park on October 2, 2016
Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

The 1961 Phillies were an awful team. They scored the fewest runs in MLB, and allowed the second most. They would win just 47 games, and lose 107, 10.5 games worse than any other MLB team that year, and 17 games behind the second worst NL team. They compiled a .305 winning percentage, and in the 55 years since then only two teams have had a worse one: the 1962 Mets, and 2003 Tigers. Those ‘61 Phils were very young — the closest thing to a grizzled veteran among the position players was 29 year old utility infielder Bobby Malkmus. Johnny Callison (22) and Tony Gonzalez (24) showed promise, but were still developing.

We’re talking about that team because their catcher was 24-year-old Clay Dalrymple, who had played part-time the year before and had shown enough to earn the starting job, hitting .272/.343/.411 (107 OPS+). The start of the ‘61 season was rough for young Dalrymple though, and while the Phils stuck with him, at the All-Star break he was hitting .152/.197/.217, a woeful .414 OPS.

The break did him wonders apparently, and he went on to hit .294/.369/.378 in the second half, for a quite respectable .747 OPS. That raised his full season’s OPS to a somewhat less embarrassing .575.

Baseball reference calculates an index called tOPS+, which compares a player’s OPS in a split (such as first half or second half) to the player’s overall OPS for that season. And Dalrymple’s .747 OPS in the second half translates to a tOPS+ of 160, the highest ever recorded by a Phillie in a half-season.

Until, that is, it was matched by Ryan Howard in 2016:

Two players, 55 years apart, and at opposite ends of their careers: Dalrymple would go on to be the Phillies’ catcher for virtually the entire decade of the ‘60s, but he was in his first half-season as a starter. Howard was in the final half-season of a tumultuous 12 years with the team — but they are linked by this one statistical oddity. The common factor between these two teams is they were in lost seasons and could afford to let a player struggle — both teams were rebuilding, and additionally the 2016 team was interested in letting a franchise icon go out on his own terms, even if that meant letting him work his way out of a deep slump.

Despite a decent first few games (.883 OPS on April 15), Howard’s OPS was .684 by the end of April, and he followed that with a nearly unimaginable .421 in May, and still awful .585 in June. When the All-Star Break rolled around he was sitting at .154/.214/.353 (.567 OPS). Even this was a slight improvement from a nadir of .530 OPS in late June. The calls for him to be benched (and, increasingly, to be released), which had been growing year-by-subpar year since the 2011 achilles injury, were now at a fever pitch.

A look at his batted ball stats though indicated that he wasn’t hitting the ball that much worse than in recent years -- i.e. while he still wasn’t hitting the ball like an above-average major league first baseman, he should have been getting better results than he did up to that point.

But even that kind of review couldn’t foresee a .932 OPS in the second half: .262/.324/.608, with 13 home runs in 142 plate appearances.

Howard’s career has been marked by extremes: The highs (58 home runs, astronomical RBI totals, postseason success), and then after the achilles injury, the lows. For example in 2014, a season in which fortune shone on his hitting vs. lefties, for once... (from The Phillies' Ryan Howard and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Season)

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.

And now, he caps off his Phillies career with one more extreme: a second-half surge that is unsurpassed in franchise history.

Word is that Howard is hoping to play in 2017, and so here’s hoping that his second half gives some team enough of an incentive to take a look at him this Spring.

Random Notes

A couple of observations from the list of half-seasons above:

First, Steve Jeltz’ lowly .679 OPS in the first half of 1988 appears on this list because it was so much better than what would come in the second half: .137/.214/.154 (.368 OPS). His tOPS+ of 156 is the highest any Phillie has recorded in the first half of a season.

Secondly — and also in 1988 — Mike Schmidt started very slowly, hitting only .232/.315/.349 (a .663 OPS). But he got hot after the break and was putting up a .950 OPS a month into the second half when he was sidelined for the rest of the season with a rotator cuff injury. He got off to the same slow start in 1989, and was hitting .203/.297/.372 (.668 OPS), when he decided to retire. Could he have gotten hot again if he stuck it out? Probably not, but we’ll never know.