“On offense, your most precious possessions are your 27 outs.” -Earl Weaver, Hall of Fame class of 1996
I usually refrain from giving out advice to players. I know a few people with scouting or playing backgrounds for whom critiquing mechanics is a strong suit. I’m not one of them, so I usually focus on strategic considerations. I’ll break from that form here to propose a change in hitting approach for one Ryan Howard: namely, that he leave the bat on his shoulder.
I’ve been sarcastic in this space before, and people seem to have missed the joke. This is not one of those times. I’ve suggested that Ryan Howard do unorthodox things at the plate before, and been met with derision. But Ryan Howard needs to swing at fewer pitches, and here’s why.
First of all, let’s dispense with this “the Phillies’ offense sucks” nonsense. They’re 18th in MLB in wOBA, 20th in OPS, and 19th in runs scored…okay, that’s actually quite poor, considering the offensive juggernauts this team fielded for the second half of the 2000s, but “sucks” is going too far. “Average-to-below average” is a better characterization. It’s a subtle distinction, but one that I think is important, especially considering the number of plate appearances that have been given to the likes of Wilson Valdez, Pete Orr, and Dane Sardinha.
Ryan Howard, for his part, is one of the few Phillies who is actually hitting, for the most part, up to expectation. Sure, his rate stats are down from his career averages, but he’s one of only four Phillies starters with an OPS over .700, so let’s not cast aspersions. Part of the reason the Phillies’ offense has been the convalescence of Chase Utley, the aging of Jimmy Rollins, and the departure of Jayson Werth. Since his MVP season in 2006, and because of his impressive power numbers, Ryan Howard has been painted as the Phillies’ offensive engine room, the straw, to quote Reggie Jackson, that stirs the drink. Of course, that has not been the case: from 2007 to 2009, that straw was Chase Utley, and in 2010 it was Jayson Werth. Of course, with Utley out and Werth in Washington, the facts finally fit the narrative.
Which brings us back to the original point. The Phillies are a team of very impatient hitters. Shane Victorino is a hacker. Wilson Valdez is a hacker. Polanco is a hacker but gets away with it because he never strikes out. Jimmy Rollins used to be something of a hacker but, to his credit, has learned some patience the past couple seasons. Raul Ibanez used to be a hacker, then had a very patient first two years with the Phillies, and now swings at everything and hits nothing.
That leaves Ben Francisco and Carlos Ruiz–neither of whom have hit up to their usual standards, but have continued to take walks and get on base–and Howard who actually take walks. This all adds up to an 8.3% walk rate for the Phillies, good enough for 18th in the major leagues. This seems strange on its surface. Back in 2007 and 2008, the Phillies were one of the more patient teams in the majors. Not only was Howard walking more (and being intentionally walked more) but Werth, Utley, and Pat Burrell ranked as three of the most patient hitters in the game, in a class with Nick Swisher and Kevin Youkilis for willingness to bleed a pitcher. Now, the reverse is true.
So what can Howard do about it? Keep the bat on his shoulder. Howard, who is able to hit a fastball harder, higher, and farther, perhaps, than any other player in the game, has not really been able to fight on his terms in years. Consider the following: since 2008, Ryan Howard has seen a lower percentage of fastballs than any other hitter in baseball: he and Hunter Pence are the only hitters to have seen fewer than 50% fastballs. Howard has seen the fourth-most sliders and second-most curveballs in that time. Since 2008, only nine major league hitters have seen fewer pitches in the strike zone, as a percentage, than Howard. Yet he still swings, for his career, at more or less the league average. And that’s not even taking into account the Ted Williams Shift.
Do you want to know why it always seems like Howard either has the big hit or makes the big out to end the inning, and not Chase Utley? Because Chase Utley isn’t afraid to take a walk in a clutch situation. Remember the “Get Me To the Plate, Boys” game in 2009? Utley walks with a runner on and two outs and his team trailing in the ninth. Or how about the game that ended last season? Utley walks with a runner on and two outs and his team trailing in the ninth. That’s only two instances, but while Utley doesn’t get the game-winning hit himself in those cases, it’s better than him trying to do too much and getting himself out.
The point is, Ryan Howard may be losing the bat speed that made him one of the most feared hitters in baseball and staked him to 200 career home runs in fewer games than any player before or since. He’s also, in Burrell and Werth, lost some valuable teammates in the same time. With Placido Polanco hitting in front of Howard and some combination of Raul Ibanez, Ben Francisco, and John Mayberry hitting behind him, if I’m an opposing pitcher I wouldn’t throw Howard anything even resembling a hittable pitch-as of right now, he’s the most dangerous person in the Phillies lineup by far.
If that’s the case, and Howard isn’t able to hit on his terms, he’d be best-served by not hitting at all. If a pitcher throws him a hittable pitch, Howard can crush it. If not, let it go, even if it’s a strike, and especially early in the count. If a pitcher wants to walk Howard, let him. If Howard is trying to hit every pitch out of the park because of some media-constructed aura of offensive heroism, he’ll do, more or less, what he’s done for the past three years: hit a lot of home runs, but strike out a lot and hit a ton of pop-ups and double play grounders. If he takes a more patient approach, those pop-ups and double play grounders turn into walks, conserving outs and allowing other batters to come to bat with runners on. I bring this up because, last night, the Cardinals didn’t give Howard anything to hit, so he walked his first three times up, then scorched a fly ball to the warning track in the ninth when he got something to hit. No runs scored, no RBI, and I’ll take that result every time because not only is Howard not making outs, he’s getting on base for others and can be driven in himself.
And for those of you who want to bring up how irritating it was that Howard struck out looking to end the 2010 season, I agree that it was irritating, and note only the profoundly unabashed idiocy required to allow a single, isolated incident to dictate one’s opinion in the face of years of evidence to the contrary. If you want to argue that Ryan Howard ought to chase more pitches in pressure situations, I suppose that’s your prerogative.
The point is that this is the approach that has allowed Adam Dunn, Pat Burrell, Nick Swisher, and countless other power hitters to remain productive even as their 30s creep up on them. The single most important job a batter has is to not make an out, and by adopting a more selective approach at the plate, particularly with runners on, Ryan Howard could accomplish precisely that. With Utley on the mend, Rollins aging, and Werth and Burrell gone, conserving outs is more important now than ever.