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Howard’s Power, or Lack Thereof

When Ryan Howard hit his eleventh homer of the season this week against the Yankees, it marked the latest point that Howard has reached that mark in any of his four previous full seasons. Now, eleven is a bit of an arbitrary number to point out, but this occurrence merely highlights the overarching concern that Ryan Howard has, well, been a bit of a power drain.

With no word on injury, Howard’s relatively low slugging in 2010 is curious. Frankly, there’s more about Howard’s game this season that puzzles me than just his power, but seeing as the long ball is the Big Man’s calling card, it deserves a bit more scrutiny. Where have the homers gone? Why aren’t there more?

Through 64 games and 279 plate appearances, Howard has 11 home runs and 23 extra-base hits, both of which are his lowest totals through 64 games played since 2004, when he played just 19 games. Were the rest of the club not exiting one of the worst offensive slumps in recent memory, this is something that probably would have already been discussed in detail.

So, what gives? Let’s start at the top, looking at Howard’s 11 dingers. HitTrackerOnline is a site that’s nice enough to track the distance of every single ball that leaves the yard during the Major League season. To the right, Howard’s long ball landing spots are plotted out by direction and distance. Howard has established a reputation of having incredible opposite-field power, and this plot shows an intriguingly even spread across the field, in confirmation that Howard’s opposite-field ability is still there. Even with a relatively small sample, a comparison of this plot to previous years yields similarities in spread.

All right, so that relieves one area of concern. Howard doesn’t appear reliant on pulling the ball out of the park. HitTracker notes that Howard’s 11 homers this year have an average “true” distance* of 408 feet. Hey, that’s farther than I can hit a golf ball with an aluminum bat, I’m sure, and actually ranks as Howard’s second-best average distance, trailing last year’s 414-foot average mark.

*HitTracker defines “true” distance as such: “if the home run flew uninterrupted all the way back to field level, the actual distance the ball traveled from home plate, in feet.”

All right, that looks well and good, too. I suppose that leaves us with one final stone to overturn: how is Howard hitting the ball? It is within that answer that we may have found the reason for Howard’s modest homer totals.

From 2006 to 2009, Howard has had some pretty consistent percentages of ball-in-play types. His splits come out to around 38.8 percent fly balls, 37.7 percent ground balls, 22.7 percent line drives and less than one percent infield flies. This year, Howard’s fly ball percent is the lowest it’s been since 2005 – though his line drive rate is his highest by a slim margin – and an alarmingly low number of those fly balls are leaving the yard.

Since his 58-homer campaign of 2006, the percentage of Howard’s flies that have left the park have declined. From39.5 percent of flies turning into homer that MVP year, to 25.4 percent last year, to just 17.5 percent in 2010, it seems we may have found our culprit.

Why would that be the case, though? I don’t know if anyone can say for sure. Some would point to the dropping amount of fastballs he gets to hit (and the reflexive bump up in sliders seen), some would say this is mere bad luck, and others may suggest more radical things like Howard’s annual weight loss have, in turn, sapped some power away. Maybe he just needs a human jinx like me to stand up and mention it. Whatever the case may be, Phils fans can only hope that the hot summer months continue to bring out the beast in Howard, as they have in the past. Third-highest on the Phils in slugging – behind Shane Victorino, no less – is not a place most of us are accustomed to seeing Ryan.

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