The Big Piece. Ryan Howard has given us plenty of great moments over the years–from game winning monster home runs to “get me to the plate, boys”. Ruben Amaro Jr. awarded him with a monster contract that has since been proven to be one of the biggest mistakes he’s made as Phillies GM due to a tremendous drop in production from the lefty slugger. But this isn’t about the amount of money that the now run down, breaking ball chasing Howard is making. This is about a different aspect of his game that I don’t think has been analyzed deeply before.
Ryan Howard has always been a strong pull-hitter. And, much like his predecessor–Jim Thome–he gets the shift treatment each time he steps to the plate. The second baseman plays in shallow right field, the short stop plays somewhere up the middle, and the third baseman plays shortstop. The third base position does not, and will never, exist when The Big Piece is in the batters box. For this reason, Howard has gotten plenty of “ground outs” on frozen ropes that are hit directly at the second baseman in right field. On the other hand, he’s had a handful of swinging bunts to the left of the pitcher that got him a single as well. Here’s an analysis of what the shift does to Ryan Howard, and what Ryan Howard does to the shift. First, we’ll look at a couple spray charts courtesy of Brooks Baseball.
As you can see in the image above, there is a large cluster of ground balls (marked in green) in between first and second base on the right side of the field. The dots are marked at the point at which the fielder made contact with the ball. A large portion of those dots are in the outfield, a direct result of the shift. Lets take a look at another lefty on the Phillies–Chase Utley.
He has a similar tendency to pull ground balls to the right side, but the contact with the fielder in his chart is much more condensed and closer to the natural second base position. He also has more ground balls make it through the infield to the right fielder.
Now, seeing his spray chart, Howard clearly falls victim to shift more often than not. Most of his ground balls to the right side are eaten up by the shift, and result in outs. Also, a larger portion of his line drives (red dots) to the right side are caught by the shifted fielders than Utley. But here’s another chart:
The black dots in this chart represent his outs. As expected, there is a cluster on the right side of the infield and in shallow right field. But what’s interesting, is that he has more outs in center field and left field than he does in right field. This is–you guessed it–another direct result of the shift. Opposing teams are able to cut down the amount of batted balls that even make it to the outfielders. Another area of interest is the amount of singles and doubles to the right side. He has significantly more singles to right than any other part of the field, but less doubles. Outfielders play him to pull, and are able to cut down deeply hit balls that the infielders could not get to.
This is proven by looking at some numbers on Baseball Reference. When Howard pulls the ball, he gets a hit roughly 37.8% of the time. But when he hits it up the middle, that average jumps to 41.4%. And when he hits it the other way, it’s an even 40%. His OPS, however, distinctly increases as you go from the right side (1.050) to the middle (1.237) to the left (1.408). So, while his strength is pulling the ball, opposing teams have successfully been able to counter that with the fielding alignment. And, judging by his numbers to each field, limiting the number of balls he pulls would benefit him.
So, knowing this about himself, has Howard tried to change his approach a bit to try and beat the shift? David Ortiz, another slugging lefty, was able to change up his approach a few years ago. He began to fight off outside pitches to the left side, rather than still trying to pull them. He even attempted to bunt a few times. Howard, on the other hand, has made minimal changes, if any:
Overall, there is little change since 2007 in the area where Howard hits the ball. It doesn’t look like he’s trying to drive the ball the other way any more than he did seven years ago. It’s quite understandable that Ruben Amaro Jr. isn’t paying him to hit line drive singles to left-center, but at this point in his career, can The Big Piece afford to keep driving hit after hit into the teeth of the shift? Should he change his approach? In my opinion, Howard should keep doing what got him that ludicrous contract in the first place. Changing up his approach now would do more harm than good for a guy still trying to find his old self at the plate.