Thursday, July 8, 2010

Deception Island

Brady Anderson, you'll never know it was me because you'll never read this blog, but I apologize for taunting you from the stands at that Orioles game my dad and went to nearly nine years ago. You were a great player nearing the end of your career, and I was too immature and disrespectful to realize that. A thousand pardons.

Though my blog title does reference today's topic, I would like to brag that I also have been to that island on the Antarctic Peninsula. It was amazing.

Admittedly, I'm finding it harder to blog about every Phillies game because I don't want to keep spewing out the same material over and over. There's not much point if I can't touch on something original, something new that hasn't occurred to me or - if I'm really lucky - anybody else. I've got to keep this thing fresh so it continues to be a product people want to continue to invest their time in, even if my audience is just a few crazy baseball fans. It's true that Jamie Moyer picked the worst time to have another bad outing when the Braves are starting to feel comfortable at the top, but today I'd like to talk about the Big Man.

I've held off blogging about No. 6 because more than anyone else on the team, his role is clear and simple: hit home runs and drive people in. Over the past four years, no one has been better at doing that than Ryan Howard. The only other three players to put up his numbers in four straight years - Babe Ruth, Ken Griffey, Jr. and Sammy Sosa - are either dead, suspect or retired. Ryan is, dare I say, an island unto himself.

Though he's been just as bogged down by the Phillies' struggles this season as anyone else, a quick glance at his present stats does encourage a little optimism. Howard seems to be continuing on last year's track of approaching the hitting success of his rookie season. The month of April notwithstanding, it's been a long, long while since we've seen Howard's batting average at .298. He's finally starting to understand why there are always three hitters on the right side of the infield when he steps to the plate. He's hitting the ball the other way with more regularity, especially on the ground.

And therein lies the deception...

Upon closer inspection, Howard is on the track toward the least productive season of his career. No one could expect him to maintain the freakish numbers forever, and he'll still probably hit more than 30 homers and knock in and score more than 100 runs. But all around, he's not taking the same approach at the plate as in years past. Consider these numbers in a "if the season ended today" scenario:

- Though Howard is striking out less (a career-low mark of 23.1%), he's also walking a lot less, just 7.3% of the time. Pitchers would consider themselves lucky to get Howard out when he first got to the bigs, but the task is not so hard anymore.

- Not surprisingly, Howard's discipline at the plate is also wavering. While teammate Jayson Werth is presently tied for second in the league in pitches seen per at bat (4.38), Howard's 3.79 is barely a blip on the radar. He'll still see his fair share of 2-2 and 3-2 counts from less experienced pitchers who just want to stay away from him, but Howard used to work the count a lot better than he does now.

- Howard's line drive rate remains steady in the 20s, but many more of those line drives are falling in for singles. We're used to seeing much more pop from Howard. If the ball didn't go out, it would at least be caught at the warning track or crushed deep into the alleys for a double. His present extra-base hits rate of 9.6% is not the inconsistency you'd expect from your cleanup hitter. It could be the pressure to perform from his new contract or the extra weight he lost in the offseason. Whatever the reason, Howard just isn't driving the ball with the same authority.

- Relative to the rest of the league, Howard's OPS of .854 is quite respectable, but it's not the figure you want from your power-hitting first baseman and sits 100 points lower than his career average.

- Despite his higher batting average, the big man's on-base percentage is only .349. There was one season in which he got on with less frequency, and that was 2008 when he batted just .251. That year, his numbers in all the other categories I previously mentioned were markedly better than in 2010.

Of course, we're only halfway through the season, and we all know what happens to Ryan in August and September: nobody can seem to get him out. If the Phillies continue to struggle, they'll need him to step up more than ever as the postseason looms. All these singles just won't cut it.

With Placido Polanco and Chase Utley out, Howard also needs to work the count a lot more. Werth's the only one doing a good job of that in the lineup right now, and many of his counts seem to end fruitlessly with strikeouts in key situations that only build a pitcher's confidence back up. The pitcher won't even experience that good feeling if Howard battles until he gets that mistake pitch and crushes it onto Ashburn Alley. Man, I sure miss that.

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