Matt Gelb of the Philadelphia Inquirer has an interesting post up today on his blog, wherein he drops some quotes from Ryan Howard on his perceived (or real) lack of power production in 2010.
“It’s funny to me because everyone talks about my power numbers,” Howard said. “‘Oh, Ryan, your power numbers were down.’ I think everybody forgot I was out for a month, that I was hurt. I was right there with everybody on the leaderboard in home runs and RBIs. I don’t really think that was an issue.”
Gelb notes in the next paragraph Howard’s drop in slugging percentage from before (.528 in 407 AB) and after (.441 in 143 AB) the injury that cost him time.
Was Howard just unlucky; victim of a one-off fluke that shouldn’t hamper him in 2011? Is it a result of being pitched differently? Or, pessimistically, is Howard just declining, as early-30s sluggers are wont to begin doing? Dissection after the jump.
In the middle of last season, about two weeks prior to his injury, I noted that Ryan Howard’s power seemed diminished. Yes, even though he was slugging just below .540 at the time of that post, something seemed off. Indeed, when your career slugging percentage is closer to .600, these are the criteria by which you are judged.
It’s true, as Gelb notes, that Howard was putting more pitches in play that weren’t going over the fence. Howard has always had a particularly high BABIP, in spite of the shift, so last year’s .332 BABIP holding hands with his .276 average doesn’t necessarily foretell a tremendous drop in batting average.
One thing that does appear to be a trend, however, is the falling rate at which Howard’s fly balls are reaching the seats. Per Fangraphs, here are Howard’s home-run-to-fly-ball ratios, from his MVP campaign in 2006 through last season:
- 2006: 39.5%
- 2007: 31.5%
- 2008: 31.8%
- 2009: 25.4%
- 2010: 21.1%
Is it that he’s not squaring up the ball as well, preventing him from getting the proper charge in a pitch? Is it the the drop in fastballs seen since 2006, and the consequential rise in sliders? Using the BaseballAnalytics heatmap tool, there seems to be another potential culprit lurking.
Take a look at Howard’s slugging percentage on balls in play by the location in the strike zone at which Ryan made contact from 2008-2010, and the corresponding plots of his hits.
The two most notable holes that seem to have developed over the past two seasons are pitches middle-in, and those down-and-away. Howard built a reputation on having extraordinary opposite-field power, being able to launch outer-half pitches into the left field bleachers with such casual effort that it was almost a bit stunning. The past two years have seen a drop in those hits.
See what I see? Not only has the pure volume of homers to left dropped – understandable, given the lower total in 2010 with little help from the injury – but the spray has a more distinct pull feel to it, as well. That’s subjectivity at its finest, so if you don’t necessarily see the hit plots the way I see them, that’s understandable. To compensate, an interesting number I derived from the same Analytics tool: on pitches on the outside half of the plate and in the strike zone, Howard’s in-play slugging went from .852 in 2008 to 1.043 in 2009 to .796 in 2010, across a fairly consistent – if still small – sample of 137 to 159 pitches in that area those years. It’s also worth noting that, prior to his injury, Howard was slugging .784 on those outer-half pitches. Those are all big numbers, and a near-.800 SLG on anything is good, but a drop-off is noticeable.
Is it too soon to cite decline? Maybe. It could be that Howard is trying to compensate his approach to attack the shift, trying more to exploit the left side of the infield than the left side of the bleachers (an approach I prefer less than whichever one he used to help him hit 58 home runs). It could be, again, that 2010 was a one-off fluke, and Howard still has a couple of years of good power left in his bat.
Or, worst of all, Ryan Howard could be dead red in decline, with a year to go before his five-year, $125 million extension kicks in.
Let’s hope it isn’t that.