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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.