Ryan Howard’s Odd Decline

We want to welcome a new writer to the fold today – Pat Andriola has joined the team, and will be contributing daily in this slot.

Ryan Howard certainly has not produced as Phillies fans would like this year, amassing only 0.2 WAR while the Philadelphia offense has found itself struggling over the last few weeks. However, Howard, who is thirty years old and turning thirty-one this November, is not hitting as a typical “declining slugger” is expected to. Because Howard is a homer-hitting first baseman with a large build, as he declines we should project an increase in strikeouts (K %) and a decrease in power (SLG) and ability to make contact (Contact %), along with more of a reliance on eye (BB %) to maintain offensive value.

Instead, we find ourselves looking at a player who is seemingly attempting to change his game midway through a fantastic career. Here are Ryan Howard’s relevant statistics, along with the difference from last season:

K %: 25.6% (-4.6)
SLG: .454 (-.117)
Contact %: 69.7% (+2.6)
Z-Contact %: 85.6% (+7.3)
BB %: 7.6% (-3.1)

While all of the numbers are surprising, maybe none is as shocking as Howard’s walk numbers for the year. Considering his lack of power, which was predicted by most of the projection systems preseason (although not at this current rate), Ryan should be looking to generate offense via the walk, which we all remember from the David Justice experiment in Moneyball is one skill that sticks for aging players. A drop of 3.1% is huge, and is a good amount less than half of his 2007 rate. We can see below how serious the walk decline has been, with the blue line being the major league average walk rate, and the green line being Howard:

Thanks to a BABIP that’s .10 points above his career average, Howard’s OBP has stayed afloat at .338, although his ISO of .174 is a drastic career low.

We also tend to see aging sluggers swing and miss more often, a result of declining bat speed. However, Howard has actually been making contact more often this season, and his contact in pitches in the zone has seen a significant jump. But most shocking has been Howard’s decrease in strikeouts, which currently sits over 10% less than what it was in 2007. Against lefties, Howard has struck out 32.1% of the time in 2010, compared to a career rate of 39.1% against southpaws.

Nothing is concrete, and sample size issues abound. However, while Ryan Howard’s new strategy may be appealing to those who hate strikeouts, his overall performance has been down. He’s produced a wRC+ of just 108, a full thirty-one points below his career average. With the decrease in power/walks/strikeouts and increase in contact, Howard is looking more like Shane Victorino than his usual self. If Howard is making a conscious adjustment, he may want to revert to his old ways. While the strikeouts and lack of power are a scary thought for an aging slugger, they are typically inevitable (ignoring those aided by illegal substances), and can be mitigated by a solid walk rate. At the least, the Phillies have 125 million reasons to hope to see the old Ryan Howard.



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Pat Andriola is an Analyst at Bloomberg Sports who formerly worked in Major League Baseball's Labor Relations Department. You can contact him at Patrick.Andriola@tufts.edu or follow him on Twitter @tuftspat


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Caleb W
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Caleb W
6 years 22 days ago

Howard’s ability to draw walks is down even further than that, since he has drawn 5 IBB this year, proportionately far more than last season. His UIBB rate is actually at 5.5% as compared to 9.6% last year. Scary.

Some diagnostics: he’s seeing way fewer fastballs (42%, as compared to 45% last year and 51% the year before), and he’s swinging at 5% more pitches outside the zone and 6% fewer pitches in the zone. The fact that his contact rate is up doesn’t pass the sniff test to me, and indicates that the small sample size must be allowing some serious noise into the system.

AB
Guest
AB
6 years 22 days ago

He’s been chasing out of the zone too much so far, creating more ground ball contact into the shift. O-Zone swing percentage is 6% over his career high. His raw power/bat speed is still fine, he has just been pressing/ slightly overaggressive in the early going (much like the entire middle of the lineup). He’ll lay off more of those borderline pitches as we go on and still end up with his 40 bombs like always

chel
Guest
chel
6 years 22 days ago

welcome Pat

don
Guest
don
6 years 22 days ago

Howard appears to be standing a lot closer to the plate this year than before to stop getting beaten so easily on breaking balls away.

I’m not sure his instinctive map of the strike zone has caught up. He never had a great eye but he’s swinging at a lot of balls this year.

isavage
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isavage
6 years 22 days ago

Howard’s walk rate in May was 10%, while his strikeout rate was 30.8%. Both of those are very close to his career averages. His power was ok in April (.211 ISO) , and exceptionally off in May ,(.127) Basically, he had one odd month where he struck out and walked less than normal, and one odd month where he hit with less power than normal. Howard’s always been a very streaky hitter. He could have a June like May of ’09, when he put up a .357 ISO with 10 HRs, and all would be right in the world of Howard.

Dan
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Dan
6 years 22 days ago

Glad to see another Jumbo writing for Fangraphs!

Wilsonian Democracy
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Wilsonian Democracy
6 years 22 days ago

Welcome and congrats Pat!

Yeah, I’d agree with some of the above sentiment here. Two months is at least two months too few to be drawing conclusions about a great slugger changing his offensive approach as such, and isavage’s noted April/May splits should reiterate this point. Howard sees less fastballs than any other hitter in baseball, and that number has plummeted further this season to an outrageously low 42%. Howard’s career first/second half OPS split is .867/1.041, which suggests a player who thrives on making adjustments over the course of a season. If he’s still hitting like the Flyin’ Hawai’ian on September 25th maybe we can have this conversation, but until then there’s really no reason to suspect anything other than a statistically anomalous month.

Gomez
Guest
6 years 22 days ago

A colleague of mine made an astute observation when I discussed this piece with him, namely the fallacy of seeing walks as the only benefit of improve plate discipline and patience.

Sure, walks are a benefit, but part of the benefit of being selective is that you save your swings for better pitches, which will come if you’re taking more pitches out of the zone and getting more counts in your favor. This increases the likelihood of a challenge meatball right in your wheelhouse.

There’s definitely something to Howard swinging at more pitches out of the zone. But my colleague and I did agree that aggression isn’t his problem so much as his selectivity in when to be aggressive. A bit more patience may help him not so much to draw more walks (and really, does a slow, overpaid slugger really help you standing on 1st base?) as to get more pitches he can drive, especially if he takes more outside pitches and gets a good count that will force the pitcher to pound the strike zone.

Rich
Guest
Rich
6 years 20 days ago

“A bit more patience may help him not so much to draw more walks (and really, does a slow, overpaid slugger really help you standing on 1st base?)”

Of course it does. If he’s standing on first, he didn’t make an out.

essman
Guest
essman
6 years 21 days ago

A few weeks ago, one of the announcers mentioned that Howard did a Barry Bonds drill of hitting off a tee and aiming the ball at a chair. I’m not sure what the goal was (maybe increased contact rate, lower K rate), but I believe it damaged him.

BR
Guest
BR
6 years 21 days ago

For what it’s worth Howard has generally been a slow starter over the vast majority of his career. And his walks generally come in large bunches, even in his best years he was a guy who would walk 10 times one month, and then 25 times in another month.

I don’t think you can draw any statistical analysis off of Ryan Howard’s first two months, especially when he has a career 2nd half split .200 points higher than his 1st half.

Joe R
Guest
Joe R
6 years 21 days ago

Hey Pat, welcome to fangraphs, read some of your stuff in the past at THT.

I did notice Howard’s stats were incredibly odd in 2010, it’s good to see them in words. Says something about a contract when it looks disastrous almost 2 years before it starts, though

Patrick
Guest
Patrick
6 years 21 days ago

I want to reiterate what other commentors have said about Ryan being a “slow-starter”. Remember 2008 when he was batting sub .230 through the end of June? The power will come, it’s just a matter of when.

Dan
Guest
Dan
6 years 20 days ago

His SLG in May is the real outlier. Howard has always been very predicitable in his power numbers. He will be bad in April, very good in May, decent in June/July and nuclear in Aug/Sept.

The lack of May HRs is extremely disturbing and I have yet to find a reason for it. His only May where he did not hit double digit HRs was 2007, and he still had 6 HR and 15 RBI for the month after spending a stint on the DL and only getting 40 ABs. He has been the premier slugger in MLB (non-Pujols category) since 2006.

Perhaps the month is just an outlier and the next 4 months will be vintage Howard. I’m just a bit nervous, however.

M.Keller
Guest
M.Keller
6 years 17 days ago

Pre-eminent platoon player

LMack
Member
LMack
6 years 16 days ago

Can this approach change fully negate the fact that he’s some ~14% off of his carrer HR/FB ratio?

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