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What to Expect From Howard in 2013

Ryan Howard seen here in happier times. Photo by Ian Riccaboni

Let us pause for a second for a moment of self-acknowledgement: in 2011, I joined Phillies Nation after years of running a lightly traffic’ed blog about the Phillies and music, while posting pictures of Greek Yogurt and other healthy foods I was convinced I was going to try to incorporate into my daily diet. After a few months analyzing the performance of the likes of Michael Schwimer and writing fluffy pieces about John Bowker, I wrote a speculative-but-factually-grounded piece that prompted much discussion : “What If” The Platoon Works at First Base?

For those who don’t remember, the piece functioned around the idea that a combination of John Mayberry, Laynce Nix, Jim Thome, and Ty Wigginton could not only match Howard’s 2011 production but outperform his production. The piece drew up a lot of good discussion and was based on the assumption that a true platoon, which Charlie Manuel was unlikely to put together, could put together a line close to .280/.380/.550.

To say quite a few things happened last year would be an understatement. Let’s reflect.

A few things:

– I was way off on that triple-slash line. According to FanGraphs, Phillies first basemen not named Howard hit .241/.314/.416 with 21 HR and 78 RBI in 534 PA.

– Yet, even though I was not even in the ballpark with that triple-slash line, it was better than or equal to the line Howard put up in 2012: .219/.295/.423 in 292 PA.

– Howard would have likely eclipsed the HR and RBI total (25 HR, 102 RBI) had he reached the plate 534 times, yet the RBI number is a tough number to project because the majority of the first base AB’s from players other than Howard came from the six hole while Howard hit in the four spot. As usual, Howard would have benefited from more opportunities to drive in runners because of advantageous line-up positioning. To be completely fair, Howard drove in runners at a ~7% better clip than Wigginton did in 2012 based on opportunities.

With all this in mind, I’m willing to call last year’s “What If” a draw: Howard’s replacements did outperform Howard in 2012, but as anticipated in the original projection, Manuel did not properly use a platoon. Granted, this was not entirely his fault: Thome was not in appropriate health to execute the platoon on his end and Nix was injured about a month into the season after a hot start as the fourth outfielder meaning there was effectively no lefty to use. Also, Howard was particularly bad, worse than anyone could have projected, in part because at the time of the writing, we had not yet known of the infection in the gash of his ankle.

The Phillies were 28th in the Majors last year in production from first base according to FanGraphs last season, with their skeleton crew earning them -0.8 wins from the position, narrowly trumping the Royals and Indians but getting less production than the Marlins (Logan Morrison, Carlos Lee, and Gabby Sanchez), the Mariners (Mike Carp and Justin Smoak), and the pretty average six man revolving door the Astros had in place at first.

Howard likely will not be nearly as bad as he was last season, but there is a lot to consider when assessing the Phillies first base situation for 2013. Howard’s triple-slash lines have decreased every year in every category since his very good (4.6 fWAR) 2009, meaning that he was likely in a state of decline even before he blew his Achilles. Yet, if Howard is even worth 1 win in 2013, it would be a net win gain of 2 wins for the Phillies in 2013 at a time when wins become increasingly valuable for the club chasing the second Wild Card.

While Howard’s age, 33, and declining performance may be scary, there is reason to believe he could contribute to a two-win swing in 2013. To provide the Phillies a net two wins in 2013, Howard would have to play at a level comparable to 2012 seasons by Michael Cuddyer, Justin Mourneau, or Carlos Pena. Mourneau and Cuddyer are better comparable because they have similar defensive and base running deficiencies whereas Pena still plays a fine first base.

Mourneau hit .267/.333/.440 with 19 HR and Cuddyer hit .260/.317/.489 with 16 HR – this is the benchmark Howard likely has to reach to earn the Phillies one win over replacement, a net gain of two from last season. Is this possible? Absolutely. In fact, if healthy, Howard may be able to produce a season similar to Ike Davis‘s 2012 (.227/.308/.462 with 32 HR, 90 RBIs) which was worth 1.6 wins according to FanGraphs, which would be a net gain of about three wins for the Phillies.

Bill Baer at Crashburn Alley wrote a very nice piece with a moderate solution to optimizing the Phillies roster: use Howard for 115-125 games at first base to both conserve his health and improve production at first base, focusing more of his time against righties and relieving him some of the time against lefties. With Mayberry and Ruf on the roster, use a pinch runner in the later stages of close games to replace Howard if he gets on and/or replace with Mayberry or Ruf once a team goes to a tough lefty, assuming Chase Utley and Howard will hit 3 and 4.

The biggest and easiest example to follow from Baer’s piece was the following: Howard had a platoon advantage (faced a righty) of 64% of the time in 2012. Eric Chavez of the Yankees had a platoon advantage (faced righties) of 87.5%. If Howard’s appearances were adjusted in such a manner, the following would be likely to occur according to Baer:

The following formula is used to convert wOBA to runs:

( ( Player wOBA – League average wOBA ) / wOBA scale ) * Plate Appearances

  • Normal use
    • vs. RHP: ( ( .370 – .315 ) / 1.245 ) * 250  = 11.0 runs
    • vs. LHP: ( ( .310 – .315 ) / 1.245 ) * 150 = -0.6 runs
    • Total: 10.4 runs
  • Platoon-focused use
    • vs. RHP: ( ( .370 – .315 ) / 1.245 ) * 340 = 18.7 runs
    • vs. LHP: ( ( .310 – .315 ) / 1.245 ) * 60 = -0.3 runs
    • Total: 18.4 runs

The difference is about eight runs, or nearly one win.

In a lot of ways, I agree with Baer’s conclusion that while Howard will never come close to reproducing 2006 again, he can provide value as he regresses to his mean production of 2010-11 (1.4 and 1.7 WAR respectively). A 1.7 win season would be a 2.9 win increase from 2012 from Howard and an exciting contribution to a team on the periphery of the second Wild Card.

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