Commentary

The 7-year battle: Accepting Ryan Howard

(Eric Hartline/ USA Today Sports) Via Philly.com

(Eric Hartline/ USA Today Sports) Via Philly.com

Jimmy Rollins is gone.

Cole Hamels is gone.

Chase Utley may be gone soon.

And all that’s left from that 2008 team is Carlos Ruiz

Wait. Oh yes. There’s him, too. Him, standing there at first base, now folding his arms as he’s watching me. He’s aggravated, isn’t he? It’s Ryan Howard, who thanks to Maikel Franco and Odubel Herrera, we forgot a little. Of course, that was the point, wasn’t it? Let him just fade into obscurity and just ignore the $25 million the Phillies are paying him this year … and next year … oh, and there’s a 2017 club option, too. Hooray.

I should go on record. On April 14, 2008 – way in the beginning of what became a legendary season – I published a piece that helped put Phillies Nation in the national eye. It was titled “Why I Would Trade Ryan Howard.”

“It sounds almost ridiculous that a team in the top half of the payroll list contending for a World Series would want to trade its biggest power hitter, a man capable of hitting 60 home runs,” I wrote at the time. “But there are reasons to think heavily about dumping Howard.”

Those reasons, I continued, included that Howard “is an average at best first baseman in the field.” I said he’d be a logical designated hitter for an American League team. Moreover, I wrote, “Ryan Howard wants to make big bucks, especially if he’s not getting a long-term deal. This season he’s making $10M, the largest arbitration victory ever. Experts say a $20M arbitration prize before 2010 isn’t out of the question. That means a long-term deal would mean potentially $25M per year.”

Son of a …

I then outlined a number of potential returns in a Ryan Howard trade. In retrospect, most of them would have turned out dreadfully. My best hypothetical return was from the Yankees: Ian Kennedy (12.7 fWAR since 2008), Austin Jackson (16.9 fWAR), Chris Britton (-0.2 fWAR), David Robertson (10.8 fWAR) and Marcos Vechionacci (0.0 fWAR). Compared to Howard’s 9.3 fWAR since 2008, it would’ve been a steal. Maybe with Kennedy the Phillies don’t pay hefty prices for starting pitching. Maybe with Jackson the Phils trade Shane Victorino and restock the system. Maybe with Robertson they can shift easily from Brad Lidge and never sign Jonathan Papelbon. And look, I basically would’ve traded Howard around the peak of his value.

Seriously, why didn’t they make this deal?

A month later, in May 2008, Howard was hitting .183. In May. I attempted to lambaste Howard.

“I’m angry. Steamed. That’s what a .183 batting average on May 21 will do to a man. That’s what 68 strikeouts will do to a man,” I wrote. “I know you’re battling, too. Likely, you’re frustrated, unable to see any truth past that low-riding helmet brim. No. All you see are fastballs, when they’re all really sliders and curves that fall flat off the outside corner. You’re swinging wildly, reaching terribly at anything you can glimpse. It’s all washed out, isn’t it? And you hate it – you want to see clearly, want to find that ball and mash it into the gap or over the short fence. So I can recognize your state of mind, but I won’t appreciate it. I won’t take it for much.”

That night against Washington, Howard went 3-for-6 with two home runs. His average would climb above .200 and never return below the line. Guys, I did that. You’re welcome.

Then Howard carried the Phillies into the playoffs with a scorching second-half. And a week after the Phillies won the World Series, I argued the Phillies should simply go to arbitration with Howard, knowing his value may weaken as he aged.

“The big man becomes a free agent in 2011, meaning the Phils have two years to run Howard out there. He’ll be 29 this season, 31 as a free agent. At that point, it could be extremely wise to let him dance in the American League while the Phils hope to ride new stars alongside Hamels, Chase Utley and an aging Jimmy Rollins.”

Oh come on!

Then, in February 2009, the Phillies signed Howard to a three-year, $54 million deal that took him to his free-agency year in 2011. I liked the deal, seeing as it paid Howard close to his approximate value at the time, and it didn’t choke the Phillies future plans. At the time I felt the Phillies had secured their elite status for a few years.

“The Phillies will contend until 2012. And it’s very possible they’ll contend beyond 2012,” I wrote. “They’ve left room for signing the foundation players into their twilight years, while leaving plenty of space for the farm system talent to take over.”

Oh dear God.

After I left Phillies Nation, Howard finished a strong 2009, the first year of his three-year contract. Then the Phillies signed him to a five-year, $125 million extension. They ignored the arguments about his poor pitch recognition; they ignored the predictions of declining power, and the inability to adapt to defenses’ positioning during his plate appearances.

rhowardI would experience the seven stages of Ryan Howard grief. After a tepid 2010 I grew frustrated. After a decent 2011 I felt curious. Then he fell, injuring his ankle, causing the final out of the 2011 National League Division Series. I was sad. Then I was angry. Then I was hysterically mad. Going into this year I was just foggy, like The Dude with his legs spread in the back of the limo. “Howard’s still on this team? Whatever, man. Got any milk to top off this White Russian?”

And that brings us back to the beginning. Oh, Howard’s there. Yeah, he’s been here forever. We don’t pay attention to him anymore. He just comes in, takes a bunch of swings, and then he leaves. Whatever man. Got any milk?

But recently I was perusing Howard’s batted-ball metrics, which by the way, we barely had back in 2008. Apparently this year Howard has raised his line-drive rate to 26.9 percent, which is his highest ever. His fly-ball-rate is actually closer to 2009 levels, at 37.9 percent. Small upticks, really, but stay with me – we’re seeing a weirdly comfortable Howard. He’s swinging at nearly 53 percent of pitches, nearly his highest mark ever. And without a doubt he’s swinging at more outside pitches than ever before – 39.6 percent of them.

Now, this means he’s not walking much anymore; his walk rate is down to an atrocious 5.4 percent. But his strikeout rate is actually down, too, at 27.9 percent (lowest since 2011). His isolated power is back up over .200, and with his 23 doubles, he already has more extra-base hits than last year.

So how is this more comfortable? When I watch him, I see a man who’s stopped trying to be something he isn’t. He’s not the threat who can walk 100 times a season. He’s not a punch singles hitter who will go the other way. He’s not the focus of the lineup anymore. All of the things we wanted from Howard all of those years … he’s just not doing it.

And I think he knows it. I know that I know it. I’ve accepted it, and because of that, I’ve embraced him.

Now I see a man who isn’t striking out on sliders but is flaring doubles into the gap. Now I see a man who isn’t slow to reach a liner but, every once in a while, can pick the ball off the carpet and make a solid play at first base. Now I see a man who isn’t holding out for money but who keeps a banter with his teammates, says all the right things, and continues to do well by his community. Now I see a man who isn’t walking with heavy eyes back to the dugout but, even still, can absolutely rip a baseball to shreds and park it deep into the seats at any one of America’s wonderful ballparks.

He’s doing the same things as before. He still has huge holes that every writer, pundit and fan – not to mention every pitcher – has exposed repeatedly. But now I’m totally fine with it. And I honestly think he is, too.

I don’t think it’s his fault that the Phillies extended him to an outrageous five-year contract at the near height of his value. I don’t think it’s his fault that the Phillies found themselves in the cellar just four years after attaining the best record in baseball. Could he have improved his swing? Could he have improved his plate recognition? Could he have adjusted to defenses? Yes, absolutely. He should have, especially as a player earning $25 million per season. But I’m past all of that. I’m past the angry young man who tried to tear Howard after some bad early-season stretch in 2008.

We lost Rollins and we lost Hamels. We may lose Utley. We still have Ruiz, and yes, we still have Ryan Howard.

Even if, despite my efforts, he was the hardest thing to shake.

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