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The Unfortunate Final Days Of Ryan Howard’s Phillies Career

rhowardThe hard part is to forget, just for a few minutes, that Ryan Howard has made $25 million in one year, and more than $200 million in his professional baseball career. But if you can, just forget that, since if you’re reading this, it’s likely you can never know what it’s like to earn that much money.

What all of us know, however, is the feeling of losing support.

All of us, at some point, have lost the support of a friend or family member. And it hurts. You may wonder what you did to deserve it. You may wonder, if this person exercised destruction on you, how you ever had a relationship with this person to begin with. Did you not see it ahead of time? Was there something wrong with you? Frustration and confusion leads to anger, and soon to sadness and even depression. Everything you once knew is warped.

Howard experienced this not simply with one person, but with his closest relations: his mother, father and two brothers – one of whom his twin brother and closest confidant.

Between 2011 and ‘14 Howard fought in court against his family members over his finances, the very finances resulting solely from his ability to do his job extremely well. Regardless of who was right or wrong, Howard lost the support of his mother, father and brothers.

At the same time, in October 2011, Howard injured his Achilles while attempting to run out the final out of the season, an unfortunate five-game series loss to the St. Louis Cardinals that prematurely ended an otherwise outstanding team campaign. As for Howard, he was at that time a career .275 hitter with 286 home runs in less than 4,500 plate appearances. He was still considered one of baseball’s most feared hitters. The Achilles injury stopped him cold.

You can’t pinpoint a day that baseball changed, but certainly the game began to transform after the 2009 season. Teams in 2009 scored 4.61 runs per game, still in range of a high-offense era that began in 1993. But in 2010 teams scored just 4.38 runs per game, the lowest mark across baseball in 18 years. Home runs were down below 1 per game, and total bases dropped under 14 per game for the first time since ‘93.

The 2010 Phillies were a balanced team, scoring 4.77 runs per game (seventh in baseball) and surrendering just 3.95 runs per game (fifth in baseball). To be blunt, the 2010 Phillies were very good and extremely well positioned to reach a third-consecutive World Series. They were two games short.

Ruben Amaro Jr. doubled down on top-shelf talent for 2011, adding Cliff Lee to the rotation before the season, and acquiring Hunter Pence before the trade deadline. As a short-term solution it worked: the 2011 Phils are one of the best regular season teams baseball has seen since the Yankees dynasty. That they fell short in the postseason is unfortunate, but that they failed very quickly after 2011 is more a result of the front office risking depth for top-shelf talent. Oswalt left. Halladay got hurt. Rollins regressed. Victorino regressed. Polanco regressed. Utley got hurt. And Howard was hurt and never returned to his past production. The Phils suddenly gave considerable time to Juan Pierre, Ty Wigginton, John Mayberry and Kevin Frandsen.

The 2012 season proved that elite pitching wasn’t everything. The top pitching staffs that season (Tampa Bay, Cincinnati, Washington) had healthy, durable and young starters and relievers. Depth – and not elite-level talent – became necessary for offenses to succeed. That trend has carried on to today. In this new era, younger players are more often the stars – high-velocity starting pitchers and five-tool proto-rookie hitters are leading teams like the Cubs, Mets and Astros.

The modern era, which began some time after 2009, puts more focus on on-base skill and defensive skill and positioning. These are both obvious problems for Howard.

Fed an early-career diet of fastballs, Howard locked himself into his sweet zone while taking whatever fell away. Plus pitchers hadn’t compiled enough scouting on him. He walked a ton. Now, with more emphasis on pitch mapping and velocity, pitchers are simply better at attacking hitters. So young fireballers toss 95 mph fastballs past the aging Howard, then choke him with killer breaking balls. It used to be that the top 5-10 percent of pitchers would give Howard great trouble. Now, in only four years, it’s more like 50-60 percent.

Then there’s defense, a two-pronged problem for Howard. On one end, emphasis on defensive metrics has placed Howard in an uncomfortable spotlight. It was once assumed that Howard wasn’t the best first baseman; now it’s confirmed through advanced metrics (however unreliable they still can be) that he’s maybe the worst of them all.

On the other end of the defensive issue: positioning. Starting in 2009 teams freely employed a heavy right-side shift on Howard, hampering his ability to effectively lash singles into mid-range right field. The greater availability of spray data makes this adjustment work.

In effect, Howard is one of the more substantial victims of the metrics renaissance. And in this modern era, which is now defined by ubermen like Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen and Kris Bryant, Howard has been branded a relic.

It doesn’t help, of course, that Howard is making that $25 million this season. It was an overpay, for certain, but also a product of an era that glorified compiler statistics like home runs and runs batted in. Phillies ownership saw a prodigious slugger making franchise history, the team’s very own Sultan of Swat earning endorsements locally and nationally. Howard was one of the major reasons kids came to Citizens Bank Park; in fact, Howard’s was the 18th highest selling jersey among all baseball players after the 2010 season, the first of his mammoth contract extension. And the Phillies were maybe the biggest brand in baseball, coupled with the game’s second-largest payroll and a franchise-record sellout streak. The $25 million may have been an overpay, but tell that to the old guard that oversaw the short- and long-term plans of the Philadelphia Phillies. They saw the man who was carrying their franchise through its most unprecedented period of success.

Maybe there should have been more doubt that Howard could sustain his production. Maybe ownership should have resolved that he was, at some point sooner than later, going to completely fall off a cliff and turn into a shell of his past production. Maybe they didn’t quite see the pitching evolution up ahead. Maybe they didn’t quite see the trend to younger, dynamic talent. Maybe they didn’t quite see changes in pitching strategy and defensive strategy, let alone the full impact of advanced metrics.

I’ve in the past railed on the Phillies for waiting too long to join baseball’s all-too-obvious evolution into the data age, and my thinkpieces are certainly not the most definitive. But in nearly all of those thinkpieces, at some point the yarn comes back to Howard, to his inability to see the ball, to his inability to adjust, to his inability to play better defense or lose weight or gain back muscle or swing harder or swing faster or be kinder or just smile or just get the hell out of Philly and get on with it.

Yeah, Ryan Howard has cost the Phillies $100 million since 2010. It’s likely he’ll be here all season, costing them another $25 million. Meanwhile he’s performed well enough to be worth some of that. Some places will tell you that’s not the case.

I’ll tell you that it’s hard to square up to a baseball, swing that ball into a place where someone won’t get to it first, and react on a dime, 95 feet from home plate, while a ball screams toward you. It’s hard to do that when you’re getting older and slower with the bat, and your muscles aren’t reacting as quickly as they once did, and your eyes and brain and limbs aren’t in perfect synchronicity like they once were.

It’s hard to watch young kids hurl 95 mph fastballs past you, then contort themselves to throw some 80 mph slider that disrupts the space-time continuum and you’re left wondering what the hell just happened. And it’s hard to adjust to that, even if you’ve been in the cage every day, even if you’ve watched video after video to look for signs that, okay, in the next hundredth of a second, the pitch is going to slice radically this way, and that’s what it is and I can see it, and by the time I’ve thought all of this the umpire is saying “Strike three!” because the thing was so good that it didn’t even land out of the strike zone.

It’s hard to do this when everybody in that ballpark, those people who came five years before and stood in unison as you weighed your bat against the pitcher’s stance and waited for the 92 mph fastball you could destroy, are now murmuring to themselves that you’re going to miss it, and you suck, and you’ve always sucked, and why can’t you just stop doing what you love so much and go home already.

It’s hard to do this when even before the season begins, before what could be your final days standing in that ballpark, at home plate, where they once feted your every swing, and you smiled and held a trophy high to the skies, the media is already asking you if you thought you’d even be here this time around. Why are you here? What’s the point? Nobody cares, right? They’re saying you should go. Maybe it’s time to go, isn’t it? What if you go? Will anyone take you, and give you a chance, and allow you to do the one thing you love so much … play baseball?

It’s hard to do this when during the offseason a report linked you to performance enhancing drugs, and despite the lack of evidence against you, and a retraction by your accuser, you’re immediately targeted by fans, the media and those who simply know your name. An investigation is ongoing, but even if nothing is found, will everybody, all at once, forget any accusations existed and not question the one thing that you did better than anyone else of your time?

It’s hard to do this when while you stand there and face that media, you look around and see that Jimmy isn’t there to lessen the blow with a joke. And Chase isn’t there either. Cole won’t be found. No Roy. No Cliff. No Shane. No Jayson or Raul or Pat or any of those guys. Only Chooch. All the rest are gone. The guys you came up with, played with since you were in your early 20s, are all somewhere else, whether they’re playing with another team or happily enjoying retirement with their families.

And it’s hard to do this when you lost some of that family support, when you feel cheated by their expectations and you wonder why nobody sticks up for you. You have your wife and your children, and sure there are friends here and there, but what about the rest of the world? What about everyone who spits on you and yells at you to stop doing what you love doing the most and get the hell out of here?

“But Baseball becomes a great getaway for all that kind of stuff.”

When you lose the support of those you thought were closest, you could slip further into a state that becomes depression, or something else, maybe something worse. Maybe addiction takes hold. Maybe destructive behavior. Maybe you isolate yourself from everything in the world but what makes you comfortable. Whatever it is, it typically isn’t healthy. Especially when those around you constantly question why you’re doing what you love doing the most.

The last days of Ryan Howard’s career were predetermined to be unfortunate. Everything that led us to this moment was building for years.

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