For our first use of the expanded four factors with a real, live Major League Baseball player, let’s take a look at Ryan Howard. Howard has had an interesting season this year, posting a solid .377 wOBA despite a pretty severe drop in both power and walk rate. His ISO is down from .292 to .236 and his POWH (XB/H) is down from 1.05 to 0.81. His walk rate has dropped from 10.7% to 7.5%, but the strikeout rate (in K/PA) has also dipped, from 26.5% to 23.7%.
Basically, we see two bad signs combined with one excellent sign for Howard. Some in Philadelphia are excited to see what Howard can do making more contact, especially if the power and discipline were to return to their normal rates. Let’s take a look at what would happen for Howard if his K-rate were to decrease from its career mark of 27.4% to his current mark of 23.7%, if his power and walk rates were to return to their typical levels. For his career, Howard has posted a .393 wOBA, which the Four Factors method overshoots by 5 points, even after his career 2B/HR and 3B/HR rates are input.
Here we see why Phillies fans would be so excited about a new, relatively contact happy Howard. Howard was truly an elite hitter in 2006, putting up a .436 wOBA, thanks in large part to 58 homers as well as a 15% walk rate. If Howard were to hold his strikeout rate as low as it has been in 2010 while returning to the power and discipline numbers that he’s shown over his career, his ffwOBA jumps up to .418 from .398 – not as high as his 2006 season nor Pujols’s crazy numbers from the last 3 calendar years, but still elite and likely top-5 type material.
That said, there are legitimate reasons to worry about Howard. He has been a second half hitter by the numbers, but stranger things have happened than a player losing a significant amount of his power in his age 30 season. What if instead of the K-rate staying down, it’s the power numbers that decline. Let his career BABIP remain at .329, slightly below his rate from this season. Finally, let’s look at this decline both if the walk rate stays at 7.5%, its current rate, his career low, or if it rebounds to 12.2%, his career average. The low walk rate is in blue; the high in red.
Here we see cause for concern. If the walk rate returns but the power stays as low as it has, Howard will be around a .360 wOBA hitter, which is right around the level of David DeJesus and Vernon Wells, and it would be exceptionally difficult for Howard to justify his 5 year, 125 million dollar contract providing such little pop at the plate. If the walks and power both are gone, than Howard’s wOBA slips to .350, right in line with Daric Barton – a good first baseman, particularly with the glove, in a pitcher’s park, but that’s hardly the all-star level performance expected out of Ryan Howard.
Of course, we come now to the question of what we actually think will happen with Howard. ZiPS projects a .398 wOBA due to a spike in BB% and a jump in power to just below previous levels, along with a rise in K rate back to previous levels. CHONE doesn’t project that Howard’s walk rate will rise above 10% again. Along with a rise in K% back to previous norms and a rise in power that doesn’t quite reach its old heights, CHONE projects a .273/.344/.537 line.
Interestingly, power is the one aspect that takes the longest to stabilize. To me, that suggests that the power could easily return to 2009 levels, but the walk rates and strikeout rates may not. Howard’s ability to reach the base via the walk is extremely important, and his 2010 BB rate is merely half of what it was in that fantastic 2006 campaign. Still, the numbers here suggest that even a drop in XB/H from 1.05 to 0.95, as CHONE projects would cause nearly a 20 point drop in wOBA.
So, in summary, yes, Howard’s drop in power will be of concern unless he has another monster August/September, which, given his 153/175 career wRC+’s in those months, isn’t exactly unlikely. At the same time, Howard’s drop in strikeouts is great to see, but the projection systems don’t appear to be convinced in the slightest. Howard would likely be the best non-Pujols hitter in the league if both the drop in strikeouts persists and his power fully returns. The flip side, however, would see Ryan Howard and Daric Barton fighting it out on a yearly basis, and that would be disastrous for the Phillies. The most likely scenario, however, is the simplest: Howard returns to his old form with a slight drop in power, which would leave him as still one of the better hitters in the National League, although not quite a top-5 or necessarily even a top-10 hitter.