This January is Ryan Howard Month here at Phillies Nation, but we know of at least one individual who couldn’t wait until the new year and opted to celebrate early. Six months early, to be exact — and five, and four.
That individual would be Bryce Harper. (Did the headline give it away?) Because the second half of the season that arguably won Harper the 2021 MVP Award was a callback to another bonkers second half by a Phillie in an MVP (and Hank Aaron Award) season of his own: Howard, in 2006.
Remember that torrid second half by Harper? When it felt like almost every night, he was going 3-for-4 with a home run, a double and a walk, or something along those lines? The Phillies slugger hit 20 home runs and posted a .338/.476/.713 slash line post-All-Star Break (which, ironically in hindsight, was indeed a break for him), and it almost single-handedly kept the Phillies in the playoff hunt.
It was the first time any Major League player had slashed better than .300/.400/.700 in the second half in 15 years. No more than 15, though — because of Howard.
And if those numbers are any measure, Howard’s 2006 second half was even better.
It’s certainly no knock against the reigning MVP — it’s hard to knock him in any way for anything about the 2021 season — but rather a way to put into perspective just how great that stretch was for The Big Piece. After the break, Howard slashed .355/.509/.751 with 30 (thirty!) big flies.
His 1.259 OPS was the 14th-best second-half mark in Major League history, minimum 40 games played. But omit three players from that list — some guys named “Barry Bonds,” “Ted Williams” and “Babe Ruth” — and Howard’s second-half OPS was the third-highest ever.
Still, for much of his own second half, Harper was on pace to give Howard’s numbers a run for their money. Through Sept. 18, when the Phillies had just 14 games remaining in the season, Harper had posted a cool 1.247 second-half OPS — still behind Howard’s, but not all that far off in any significant way, and his slugging percentage was 10 points higher. (He also won the extra-base-hit tally, 49 to 45.) Alas, Harper hit in a manner somewhat resembling a human being in the final couple weeks, giving Howard the edge. (Did you know Harper went 0-for-11 in the biggest series of the season? *Gasp!*)
But the late moderate cooling off didn’t detract from Harper’s accomplishments, as his September was still otherworldly. And between the two of them — Harper and Howard — each posted an OPS above 1.000 in each of the final three months of the season.
“The run that he’s been on has been an amazing one … It’s Bryce being Bryce,” Howard said in September. “Bryce just has to go be Bryce. Don’t be anything else. That’s it. He goes and does what he normally does, he’s gonna go put up numbers … When I did it, I knew what I was capable of doing.”
Now, there is another connection between the second halves of Harper in 2021 and Howard in 2006, but it’s a dubious one. Despite their contributions, and the hardware by which they were acknowledged, both lefty sluggers’ teams missed the playoffs, making their seasons two of 12 in the Wild Card Era in which an MVP’s team came up short of the postseason. (Harper owns two such seasons.)
“I mean, that’s baseball,” Howard said. “It’s an individual team sport. Sometimes, you just don’t get the breaks. He’s going out there and doing what he’s capable of doing and doing what he can do. It’s just a matter of everybody else going out there and doing everything as well … Bryce can only do so much.”
Here’s another way to look at it: What did the Phillies do the year after Howard’s monstrous second half and MVP season?
They snapped a playoff drought.
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