See, Ryan, But Don't Swing Away – Phillies Nation

See, Ryan, But Don't Swing Away

“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.

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  1. Andrew From Waldorf

    May 17, 2011 at 2:43 pm

    Its simple.
    They arent going to intentionaly walk him.
    So you selectively pitch around him like last night.

    I wonder how many times hes gotten himself out in those situation swinging at pitches in the dirt when its a pitch around.
    If he acquired plate discipline hed be Barry bonds minus the PEDS

    The 1993 Phillies walked thier way to the world series. I love walks. They do so many positive things. Against the other teams pitchng staff.

    • Jeffrey

      May 17, 2011 at 5:04 pm

      To say that Chase Utley and Jason Werth were the “straws that stirred the drink here in Philly is obserd. In 2010 Jason Werth had one of the worst batting averages in the league with runners in scoring position. Granted, he did supply atleast the appearence of protection behing Howard on our line up. As for Utley, while I love Chase, even when he gets hot, he doesn’t carry the team. Howard is and has been the “Straw”! when Howard gets hot, the Phils go on winning streaks. Its no coencidence that come September, when Howard gets hot every year, the Phils usually go on a big winning streak to sure up the division. I agree he needs to make the pitcher throw decent pitches by swinging at garbage less, but its just important that they get a big bat behind him in the line up!

  2. Lefty

    May 17, 2011 at 2:48 pm

    It’s funny you mention the “Ted Williams” shift. I heard a story about a year ago, by a guy named Frank Howard, an old MLB player for the Washington Senators in the 60’s early 70’s. He was a power hitter that struck out a ton and walked very few times. Ted Williams at one point, became his manager and called him into his office and asked him this “How is it that a guy that puts fear into the opposing team like you never gets walked?” Long story short, he began to give him the mandatory take sign frequently, and it apparently lengthened his career and upped his obp./slg.

    • Andrew From Waldorf

      May 17, 2011 at 2:52 pm

      Ted was actually a pretty good manager. But he just couldnt do it long term becuase he was so frustrated that the players couldnt see the things that were so obvious to him.

      • Andrew From Waldorf

        May 17, 2011 at 2:58 pm

        wow Lefty.
        Ted Williams became the manager in 69. Look at the change in the stats. You really nailed that. Very interesting
        You nailed that one. I just dont know if you can give Howard a take sign now. 1969 players were different. If Howards homers went down his agent would be up in arms.

        By the way the 69 Senators won 21 more games than the 68 team and Williams was manager of the year

      • Lefty

        May 17, 2011 at 3:04 pm

        The great Ted Williams nailed it, not me. I just heard a podcast interview one day 🙂

      • Phylan

        May 17, 2011 at 3:19 pm

        That Ted Williams fella seems like he has a good head on his shoulders

      • Frank Riccard

        May 17, 2011 at 3:45 pm

        Yeah, even in the face of adversity, that Ted Williams could always keep a cool head. I mean, despite some of the controversy that surrounded him later in life, and now well past his death, that’s what he’s most remembered for–keeping his head cool. You might even say he always kept his head on ice.

  3. TheDipsy

    May 17, 2011 at 2:50 pm

    Wow, thats not the advice I would give him. Normally, if a marquee power hitter were surrounded in a lineup by at least a few other good hitters, I would agree with you. That way he would at least have a chance of scoring if he were to take a walk. In this lineup, if he walks, and especially without the speed to steal, he will remain on base after the third out of the inning is recorded. Conversely, when he bats when there are guys on base in front of him, if he doesn’t knock the run in, nobody will. So, there you are. I would love to see Ryan become more selective so the pitchers will start to pitch to him.

    Would you like him to be more like Bobby Abreu and walk, walk, walk when what we really need is an RBI? If you look at late 90s Barry Bonds, you will see where all those walks got him. He should have scored 170 runs a year but since he had dreck in back of him and he came nowhere close. IMO, RBI guys need to be willing and able to swing at something less than “their” pitch. Thats not to say that they should swing at slop, which Ryan does sometimes.

    Until there is someone else to help shoulder the load Ryan has to work with a more expansive strike zone, by necessity.

    The Dipsy

    • Michael Baumann

      May 17, 2011 at 2:57 pm

      In 8 1/2 years with the Phillies, Bobby Abreu had a .416 OBP, generated 46.6 rWAR and a 139 OPS+, and scored 891 runs, mostly in lineups worse than this one. Yes, I’d like him to be like Bobby Abreu if at all possible.
      Of course I’d rather have Howard hitting doubles and homers than taking walks with men on base, but that’s not necessarily the choice we’re faced with. I’d rather have him take the walk and be on base than try to do too much and make an unnecessary out. That’s all.

    • Phylan

      May 17, 2011 at 3:02 pm

      I would love to get Abreu level (.300/.400/.500) production out of Howard. That’s not going to happen though.

      It’s true this lineup is less than desirable outside of Howard and Polanco right now, but Howard staying as aggressive as he is isn’t going to help that. The hitters below Howard make a lot of outs. That’s obviously a bad thing, as it reduces your offense’s opportunity to score runs. Being the “clock” of baseball, outs are extremely costly, more so than I think many realize. Howard, with his tremendous power, would surely walk quite a bit if he were only more patient at the plate, which would raise his on base percentage. That, by definition, reduces the number of outs this lineup is making, which in turn will increase the run production. It’s true that Howard won’t always be driven in, and sometimes runners ahead of him will be left stranded by the likes of Valdez, et. al. But the fundamental necessity for an offense is baserunners, and avoiding outs. The more baserunners and the less outs you have, the more runs you will score, period. It couldn’t be more simple. And beside, the pitches Michael is wishing Ryan would take here are the sorts of out of the zone/fringe pitches with which Howard would likely not be able to make very good contact with anyway. So you’re trading mostly outs for walks, not hits for walks.

  4. Manny

    May 17, 2011 at 3:03 pm

    It’s scary that we’re asking him to walk more when he still has 5 or 6 years left in his contract. Yikes.

    • Publius

      May 17, 2011 at 4:04 pm

      Yup, yikes indeed. It’s almost like…..the extension was a hideous overpay?!

      • Don M

        May 17, 2011 at 4:58 pm

        If that’s the going-rate for a power hitter, which I would say every team needs… is it smarter to lock him up, or let him walk… “overpay” is what happens in sports now, unless you lock up a guy before you need to (which could also be considered an “overpay”). The trend is that salaries keep climbing, so who knows what he would have commanded on the open market

        When his numbers match-up with the other top 1b in the game, and he’s your guy – why not keep him. Can you imagine this lineup WITHOUT Ryan Howard?

      • Publius

        May 17, 2011 at 5:03 pm

        No, but I wouldn’t have to because Howard would still be a Phillie through next year. Rube should have waited to see how Howard would decline before ridiculously overpaying him.

        Also Ryan’s numbers do not “match-up” with the other top 1Bs in the game. Howard in 14th (!) in OPS among first basemen in the majors. Not really elite, premiere or pre-eminent. Simply above average.

      • Manny

        May 17, 2011 at 5:11 pm

        Even if I agree with your premise that he’s a top1B in the game (which I think is still true despite a subpar 2010 and a ok-but-not-great start to 2011), it is already clear that the Phillies jumped the gun on this one.

        Look at Adrian Gonzalez’ deal with the Red Sox… they’re paying AGonzalez similar $$ to what Howard is getting in his deal. But a) they get the younger player –which means at least two more “prime” years of production of him than Howard, and b) he was a Padre, so there was no hometown discount that the Phillies could’ve had with Howard. Normally, I’d say Howard and Gonzalez are at about the same level, but if you wanna dig deeper.. Gonzalez WAR is better than Howard’s, for example.

        So the Red Sox got a non-hometown player, who’s younger, and arguably slightly better for an amount of money that is very similar to what the Phillies paid for a hometown guy, who’s a couple years older, and arguably slightly inferior.

        As much as I like Ryno, this was a NO WIN for us.

      • Don M

        May 17, 2011 at 5:39 pm

        PLEASE… are you really going to try to throw stats out there right now to try to suggest that Ryan Howard ISN’T one of the best 1b in baseball ???? Really?????

        Pubes, I know you are trying very hard to disect every single thing I say, but pick something that has merit… trying to knock Ryan Howard isn’t worth anyone’s time.

        It would be nice to have Adrian Gonzalez.. who is a better overall hitter than Ryan Howard, but you have to assume that in the Free Agent market, with multiple teams bidding, the prices go up that much . . . Look at what Fielder stands to make this year.. So if we waited for Howard, we’d possibly have to pay him more to keep him just because other teams bid on him. And when guys come up through your system, its not like the Phillies were going to let Howard walk, and then go hard after Prince Fielder, baseball doesn’t work that way

      • Publius

        May 17, 2011 at 5:50 pm

        Ryan Howard (.858) is not in the top 10 1Bs in baseball. 1Bs whom I would rather have than Howard (with their OPS since 2010):

        Joey Votto (1.025)
        Miguel Cabrera (1.029)
        Kevin Youkilis (.953)
        Albert Pujols (.952)
        Justin Smoak (.933 in 2011)
        Justin Morneau (.932)
        Adrian Gonzalez (.918)
        Prince Fielder (.880)
        Billy Butler (.853)
        Mark Teixiera (.852)

        All these guys are either younger, better or some combination thereof than Howard. Again, not saying that Howard isn’t good, he is. He’s just not uniquely so and does not rank among the game’s elite 1Bs and certainly doesn’t deserve to be paid like one

      • Don M

        May 18, 2011 at 10:13 am

        If you’d really rather have BILLY BUTLER than RYAN HOWARD… you shouldn’t be allowed to post on here anymore

        Obviously Miguel Cabrera, Pujols, Teixiera, Votto, Adrian Gonzalez are all better than Howard.. Fielder and Youkilis are a toss-up in my mind, I’d like to see Fielder commit to staying in shape, etc after he gets his contract, Imagine the player he COULD be.

        If you’re going by WAR – your normal measuring stick… it tells you that Deric Barton, Aubrey Huff, Ike Davis, Billy Butler are all ranked higher than Howard since the start of 2010 – no need to tell you how bad I think that ranking is.

        If you’re going by RBI, as most of these guys, playing a corner spot are there for their power, not their Gloves . . . Howard would be 2nd… trails Cabrera by 11, then leads Pujols by 1, …Votto by 5, Tex by 13, Prince by nearly 30 …

        In Home Runs, Howard (with 40), would be behind Pujols and Konerko with 49, Cabrera with 45, Votto/Tex/Dunn with 42 … Prince with 41 …. tied with Gonzo at 40

        RUNS scored is where Howard trails some of the other.. Cabrera and Pujols lead with 142, Votto 138, Tex 135… ………….then a big drop to Prince 119, Gonzo 114, Huff 112, and Konerko tied with Howard at 109 (Everyone’s favorite, Michael Cuddyer.) comes next at 105 …. Howard also had the least plate appearances of all these players

        ***Name that stood out a lot is Gaby Sanchez of the Marlins – 26 HR, 110 RBI, 96 RUNS in his last 191 games . . . Didn’t see Youkilis on this list, not sure what position he was under and didnt feel like searching anymore . .

        Point is, all of these guys in Free Agency, would get MONSTER contract, Howard is right there with all of them, is “home-grown,”.. and keeps fans coming to the ballpark, keeping the revenue up to make everything work down there – Maybe he’s worth $23 M instead of $25 M – but who cares … they made a commitment to keep him, and to not have to outbid anyone else to do it (AND… forcing the Cardinals – who are size-wise, and main rival to the Phillies organziation to have to pay Albert Pujols WAY MORE THAN THAT) … so to say Howard”s not among the best 1b in baseball is a little bit ridiculous. Is he THE best, no.. but he’s right there

  5. Rabbi

    May 17, 2011 at 3:31 pm

    Howrd’s production has been decreasing every year because he stubbornly looks for inside pitched that he can pull. The problems that arise when he pulls the ball are that (1) he is having to hit the ball through or over the shift, (2) he hits balls to right with topspin, which brings the balls back down to earth sooner, and (3) he has to start his swing sooner, thereby making him vulnerable to anything off-speed. On the other hand, when he arrived on the scene in 2005, he hit a lot of pitches on the outer half of the plate out to left and left-center. When he hits balls the other way, he hits them with underspin, and they carry much further. Also, if he doesn’t try to pull the ball, he can allow the ball to travel deeper into the zone, affording him a better opportunity to see the spin on the ball, as well as whether it will even be a strike.

  6. Don M

    May 17, 2011 at 4:51 pm

    GREAT article… who knows if last night’s approach was something planned, or he just happened to have a good eye and knew to leave bad pitches alone. I can’t see Howard being okay with doing that all the time though

  7. Pat Gallen

    May 17, 2011 at 5:03 pm

    If anyone is worried about Howard’s decline, I have the perfect remedy – trade him to STL.

    Pujols can obviously play 3B and Howard for Matt Holliday would be nice, right?

    Just jokes.

  8. Chuck

    May 17, 2011 at 5:39 pm

    Well, to answer Don M’s question (which wasn’ t really directed at me, but rather Publius)….NO, I couldn’t imagine this lineup without Ryan Howard. Maybe the Phillies did “overpay” I don’t know. No one will really know for sure for a few years.

    But he DOES lead the league in RBIs. Is on a pace for about 40 HRs. And has been playing great defense.

    Uhhhh…don’t know about you guys….but I’m pretty happy.

  9. TheDipsy

    May 17, 2011 at 5:40 pm

    A joke Pat? I would trade Ryan for Pujols in a second! Contract issues be damned.

    The Dipsy

    • Pat Gallen

      May 17, 2011 at 5:43 pm

      Not Pujols, Matt Holliday. And yes it was a joke because Pujols will not play 3rd.

      • Chuck

        May 17, 2011 at 5:49 pm

        Pujols didn’t look half bad though at the hot corner last night….for not playing there in something like 8 years.

  10. Chuck

    May 17, 2011 at 6:23 pm

    So, Publius, you’d rather have Justin Smoak and his smmmaaalllll body of work….instead of Ryan Howard?? Just making sure that’s correct…

    • Publius

      May 17, 2011 at 6:50 pm

      I would, yes….but that’s because I am also a Mariner fan and Justin Smoak owns bones

  11. TheDipsy

    May 17, 2011 at 6:49 pm

    I’d take Holliday for Ryan, too.

    The Dispy

  12. Andrew From Waldorf

    May 17, 2011 at 7:52 pm

    Howard is about 20% over paid.
    so its not that hideous.

    He is just an above avg 1b.
    Hes been in what 1 all-star game?

    Hes not in the Gonzalz Pujos echelon of 1b he is in that next group. He is paid like he is in the top group.

    Until the Phillies start crying poor and they havent done that I am not too worried abotu what players are making.

  13. AC in NJ

    May 17, 2011 at 10:04 pm

    This offense is pathetic.
    I can’t watch Ben Francisco or Wilson Valdez anymore.
    For that matter, I can’t watch Michael Martinez or Pete Orr either.
    This is the best Ruben Amaro could do???
    He better be burning up the phones…get somebody in here who can hit.

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