Debate: Ryan Howard

Ryan Howard is one of the most polarizing players in baseball. Some fans see an elite slugger, while others see an average player who is paid like an elite slugger.

The purpose of this article is to host a debate on the topic. Is Howard elite? Or is he basically an average all-around player?

Joining us today is John McCann, Phillies fan and author of Fredsboot.com. John will be responding to the prompt, “Ryan Howard is an elite player,” while I will be responding to, “Ryan Howard is a roughly league average player.”

Ryan Howard is a roughly league average player

When people describe Ryan Howard as an elite player, I think part of the reason they reach this conclusion is because he’s such an entertaining player. He’s good at two things, hitting home runs and driving in large quantities of runs. It’s safe to describe both categories as among the most enjoyable events to watch in baseball. Chicks dig the long ball, but they’ll also applaud the two-run single.

image

I make this point because I think some people are subconsciously confusing entertainment with on-field value. Basically, because Howard is one of the most entertaining players to watch, he must be good.

The problem with that line of thinking is that while Howard is good at a highly visible skill, his other skills are poor.

He is statuesque as a fielder, lacking completely in range. One can’t help cringing when he throws to second base to start a double play, not knowing whether he’s going to complete the throw, airmail it, or plunk the runner.

He’s quietly terrible as a baserunner. While he doesn’t create outs on the bases by making boneheaded plays, his immobility makes him one of the worst baserunners in the sport.

Fangraphs measures baserunning runs above average, which does not include stolen bases. It’s simply a measurement of how well a player does advancing from base to base.

In 2011, Ryan Howard has been the second-worst in baseball, costing the Phillies 7.8 runs compared to an average baserunner.

Sometimes I imagine a scout grading Howard’s five tools—hitting for contact, hitting for power, speed, fielding abilities, and throwing. Scouts use a 20-80 scale with 20 being very bad, 80 being extremely good, and 50 being major league average. Here’s how I think a scout’s report card might look, along with a brief justification.
{exp:list_maker}Hitting for Contact – 30: In 2011, Howard has swung and missed on 14.5 percent of his swings. Only Miguel Olivo (19.2), Mark Reynolds (15.8), and Mike Stanton (15.0) have worse rates.
Hitting for Power – 70: Howard used to be a borderline 80 in this category, but he belted “only” 31 home runs in 2010 and has 33 in 2011. His power is probably on the decline.
Speed – 20: As discussed above, Howard is very slow.
Fielding – 20: Howard’s a first baseman, so this category was never going to be above 40 (or below average), but Howard’s a BAD first baseman, hence the low ranking.
Arm – 30: Howard simply isn’t good at throwing.
{/exp:list_maker}Imagine we are playing a video game. We can play as Mario, who is exactly average in all categories. Or we can play as Bowser, who has huge power when he hits, but he’s pretty bad at everything else. The developers did extensive balancing so both characters are equally good—in fact, they are both exactly average—they just get there in different ways.

My argument is that Howard IS Bowser. He is basically an average player because he’s so bad at everything besides hitting the baseball very hard. While he creates many runs with his power, his other skills chip away from that value.

To this point, I have played down the statistical side of the debate for a couple reasons. First, this isn’t a new debate. Statistics have been used before, and I have seen the aftermath. It tends to be a pissing match over how much consideration home runs, RBI, and “made-up” stats like wOBA should receive. I think I speak for everyone when I say that debate is boring.

The second reason is that I don’t think we need statistics to reach the conclusion that Howard is a fairly average all-around player. Reflect on that Bowser analogy while watching him play.

  Season     Age     BB%      K%   BABIP  SwStr%     AVG     OBP     SLG    wOBA     WAR
    2004      24   4.80%  31.00%   0.375  15.60%   0.282   0.333   0.564   0.378     0.4
    2005      25   9.50%  28.70%   0.354  14.80%   0.288   0.356   0.567   0.382     2.2
    2006      26  15.30%  25.70%   0.356  14.00%   0.313   0.425   0.659   0.436     6.2
    2007      27  16.50%  30.70%   0.328  15.10%   0.268   0.392   0.584   0.396     3.7
    2008      28  11.60%  28.40%   0.285  15.60%   0.251   0.339   0.543   0.366     3.0
    2009      29  10.70%  26.50%   0.325  15.70%   0.279   0.360   0.571   0.393     4.6
    2010      30   9.50%  25.30%   0.332  14.60%   0.276   0.353   0.505   0.367     1.3
    2011      31  11.90%  26.90%   0.294  14.50%   0.249   0.343   0.490   0.353     1.6
Total     - - -   12.30%  27.40%   0.323  14.90%   0.274   0.368   0.560   0.385      23

Much of what you see above has already been discussed, so let’s start on the right with Wins Above Replacement (WAR). Fangraphs’ version of WAR is pretty harsh when regarding Howard. A 2.0 WAR player is exactly league average, which is roughly how it views Howard.

It might be worth noting that according to Baseball Reference, Howard is a 2.6 WAR player—slightly above average—with the difference mostly coming from a more positive view of his defense. Either way, those numbers scream average.

Let’s talk rates. Howard’s .249/.3483/.490 line is a fairly typical for a power hitter. His wOBA, which uses linear weights to evaluate his hitting performance, is about 20 percent above average. That’s good, but again, not elite. Scanning back a few years to 2006, you can see what an elite season actually looks like; his .436 wOBA that season was over 60 percent above average.

Howard is an important player for the Phillies. But given his fading, one dimensional skill set and merely good statistics, I find it hard to accept him as one of baseball’s elite.

And now I will turn the floor over to John. He will be arguing that…

Ryan Howard is an elite player

The premise that Ryan Howard is not an elite player based on sabermetric results is one side of a coin. Sure, Howard is not an elite fielder or base runner. Throws to second base? Not so much. But, he is elite when it comes to his power and production. More important to the discussion, where does he fit in amongst the current greats of the game? I tell you where—batting fourth for the Philadelphia Phillies.

Conventional thinking would have you believing in him as one of the games best based on his resume. He has won Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards, and he is the fastest in the history of the game to hit 100 home runs, as well as 150, 200 and 250, and he should own the 300 mark early next season.

Webster’s defines “elite” as “the choice part” or “the best of a class.” I characterize it as someone that is at or near the top of what he/she does. In baseball terms, Howard is in this class of players.

In addition to the aforementioned awards, Howard has been the most prolific power hitter and run producer in the MLB since he started his first full season in 2006. In short, he has more home runs and RBI than any other player during that span. If Howard can get to 35 HR and 120 RBI this season, he will be one of three active players to accomplish the feat in five seasons or more (Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez being the others).

However, these figures cannot begin to measure his importance to the Phillies. I list a few other items such as:
{exp:list_maker}Games Played: He consistently bats cleanup each and every game. He has averaged 154 games played per season from 2006 through 2010 and is maintaining a similar pace this year.
Game Changer: Opposing managers game plan around Howard. This is evidenced by much of the National League East loading up on lefty relievers in recent years in an effort to stop the Big Piece in later innings.
Statistics: Six consecutive years of 30/100 despite having next to no protection behind him during many of these years.
Excitement level: The excitement that Howard brings to a game is palpable. I watched him plant a pitch over my head in the right field bleachers when down 6-1 to the Marlins back on Aug. 26. I was on the edge of my seat hoping for something special, and he delivered. This is the type of anticipation and excitement that he brings to the table each and every time he comes to the plate. {/exp:list_maker}The cons on Howard are his cost, speed, throwing arm, and spotty defense. He is also unfairly criticized for men reaching base ahead of him. I would argue that Howard has improved his defense each year and is passable at this point. But, base running and throwing? He is not being paid to steal bases or go from first to third on a single. Those items do not deter me from thinking of him as elite.

Also, some of the other “elite” first basemen don’t exactly shine with their glove. Pujols and Miguel Cabrera both have 11 errors and Prince Fielder has a whopping 14. I assume that their general managers would still consider them elite, and yet they do not match Howard’s raw power numbers.

As far as men on base in front of him, players like Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez also bat in very effective lineups yet fail to match Howard’s raw production.

I try to look at the sabermetric side of a baseball player, but I cannot buy into an equal spread of hitting, power, running, throwing and fielding—the five tools. They don’t get twenty percent each, at least not for a first baseman.

Howard’s value to the Phillies is weighted; it should be calculated with about a 75 percent weight on his power and production. He is not expected to steal bases or throw runners out. As long as those items don’t cost you runs by committing errors, or that injurious “caught stealing,” then they are a non-factor. His strengths lie in his ability to plate runners, a skill at which he has been at the top of the MLB game since he came into the league.

The bottom line is that Howard is very entertaining to watch, and the Phillies would not be the same without him. He puts butts in the seats. Yes, chicks dig the long ball, and he hits them at a higher rate than other player since 2006. Ryan Howard is one of the faces of the most successful teams in baseball. Not surprisingly, that team designation surfaced once Howard was on the scene.

Elite? You betcha!

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Comments

  1. kevinapps said...

    It all depends on how you define “elite.”
    If you say there are 5 elite first basemen, then Howard isn’t elite.  If you say there are 15, then he is.  But having 15 elite first basemen means that half of the league’s starters are elite.  That seems a TOUCH generous to me.

  2. Brad Johnson said...

    Bob,

    Just to be entirely clear, I argued the first point. John McCann, a friend of mine, argued the second point. I’ll see what I can do about making that a little clearer.

  3. Bob Rittner said...

    I think Brad has a point in noting Ryan’s durability. That does not make him elite, but the fact that he is on the field most days is a plus.

    Other than that, I don’t see much in the argument. One might support the view that he is among the elite hitters for power, but that is not the same as saying he is an elite player. Mark Reynolds is also among the elite home run hitters, for example. (I am not comparing the two, just noting that being excellent in one skill does not support claims for elite status as a player.)

    And noting that managers game plan around him, particularly by loading up on Loogys, does not support the contention that Ryan is elite. On the contrary, it points to a significant weakness, his .633 OPS vs. LHs this season (.749 lifetime), that limits his effectiveness even in his one outstanding skill.

  4. Bob Rittner said...

    Oops, sorry. I confused who wrote which argument. I was referring, of course, to John’s defense of Ryan as an elite player.

  5. kds said...

    “His wOBA … is about 29 percent above average.”  No, his wRC+ is 122 and that is calculated from wOBA, but the relationship is not linear.  League average OBP and hence league average wOBA is about .320 this year, so 20% above that would be about .384.  wRC+ says that if we could count all the runs he created for his team, and compared it to an average batter (park adjusted), he has been 22% better this year.  (I think this includes SB/CS but not all other base running.)  (That is all runs, not runs over average or runs over replacement.)

  6. Richard said...

    It’s funny, I agree that Howard is not an elite player, but I feel the criticisms of his game go overboard. For example, Brad’s claims about his defense. Howard’s basically an average-fielding first baseman. There’s little call for saying he’s poor or bad or statuesque. Throughout his career, the metrics have him around average, with last year his first bad year. This year, it’s depended on which metric you use, enough that falling back to average seems safest. His throwing is often bad, though I don’t recall any of those airmailed toss this year. Again, average seems safest.

    His baserunning was once ok-ish (though never great), but it’s true he’s been effectively poor the last two years. His ankle injury last year and bursitis this year have taken their toll. It remains to be seen whether that’ll improve at all next year (he is, after all, getting older).

    I find the whiff rate more compelling. Howard simply strikes out too much, so that even his decent walk rate this year hasn’t helped enough to overcome his lower BABIP.

  7. John (Fred) said...

    Being a traditionalist, I look at Howard as “the” guy in that line-up.  They have the best record in baseball, but before you mention “it’s the pitching”, remember that they had the best record last year as well.  Without Howard, they cannot score this year.  Period.  Best team in baseball’s only producer (at times).

    He means more to this franchise than any other position player, and likely is more important to his team than anyone else in the league (position player).

  8. John (Fred) said...

    To add on to Richard’s comments, my belief is that I don’t care about his throws to 2nd base.  They have not cost the Phils a game this year.  Additionally, his lack of base-running attributes are low on the “weight” scale.  Howard is paid (albeit highly) to drive in runners, not steal a base or throw someone out.  As “the” power guy on this team, he is paid to gets the runners home.  He does this consistently.

  9. Dr Van Nostrand (papirico52) said...

    Well, I sort of agree with both guys, and if both of you have a share of reason in the matter means that he is neither elite nor he is alighty above average.

    Loved the Bowser comparison!!!

  10. Cameron Vansant said...

    Good for the Phillies, not an elite player. Not even sure if he has 1 elite tool anymore since it seems his power is declining. Could also be a product of the league since it seems offense is down the past few years

  11. Telo said...

    The author of the second perspective should spend a few days and become familiar with the basic principles of sabermetrics: wOBA, positional adjustments, etc., then revisit his thoughts.

    I can safely say there is barely a shred of useful information or evidence in his writing.

  12. garik16 said...

    “He is not being paid to steal bases or go from first to third on a single.”

    No.  This is the worst excuse ever.  Ryan Howard is paid to be good at baseball.  That includes things other than pure power. 

    Teams may badly evaluate who is truly good at baseball, by over-relying on certain numbers.  But they expect elite performance OVERALL when they pay a player like an elite player.  Howard doesn’t bring that.

  13. John (Fred) said...

    Telo…I would urge you spend some time watching some Phillies games (in person if possible) if you do not already do so.  Howard means more to the Phillies than the top “saber” guys out there.  How are the Cardinals doing?  My God, I don’t need to study up on all of the saber stats since I am not a GM or even a scout.  But, I am a fan of baseball and like to watch the stars.  Which 1B is more important to their team?  Cabrera?  Nope.  Teixiera?  Nope.  Fielder?  Please, without Braun, HE is league average.  Gonzalez? without that line-up in Beantown, he isn’t an MVP candidate. 
    With the possible exception of Pujols, none of these guys mentioned will make an opposing Manager game-plan to stop them. 
    Howard does not have the sabermetrics going for him that would make some of you recognize as one of hte game’s best.  But, since he came into the league, his counting stats are better than any other player.  Just because his running and throwing are poor (negatively affecting his WAR), that doesn’t make him an average player.

  14. NSS said...

    What, what the heck, John Fred? Without Braun, Fielder is league average? That can’t be what you meant … but … I can’t think of any other way to interpret that sentence.

  15. Matt said...

    You also can’t discount who people are comparing him to as well.  There was a time not that long ago that you would be hard pressed to find a 5 tool first baseman in all of baseball.  The talent level at first base is off the charts these days and the debate over elite or not is not worth having.  You can’t compare a power hitting first baseman with tons of production to a 5 tool first baseman like Pujols.  There is no comparison there.

  16. Brad Johnson said...

    Luigi, Kevinapps:

    I’ve had this argument a couple hundred times by now. The number of “better” first basemen depends slightly on how you define it – you could use true talent (however you’d like to define that) or current season performance. Typically, Howard ranks around #8-10 either way.

    Really he’s in a fuzzy area where you could argue as high as 5ish and as low as 12ish.

  17. David P. Stokes said...

    Howard’s career OPS+ is 138.  I wouldn’t assert that that’s elite, but I think that you could reasonably make that argument.  He’s definately an offensive force, even if a one-dimensional force.  It really boils down to how much you want to take away because of his defense and baserunning.  (Incidentally, while he’s not a good baserunner, he does seem to know how to pick his spots on steal attempts.  He’s be successful on 75% of his career attempts.)

  18. Joe said...

    Sorry, but the “Pro Howard” argument is simply a mess:

    “Pujols and Miguel Cabrera both have 11 errors and Prince Fielder has a whopping 14. I assume that their general managers would still consider them elite, and yet they do not match Howard’s raw power numbers.”

    Howard 33 HR, .490 SLG, .241 IsoP
    Pujols 36 HR, .552 SLG, .247 IsoP
    Fielder 34 HR, .544 SLG, .251 IsoP
    Cabrera 26 HR, .559 SLG, .226 IsoP

    Pujols and Fielder are actually the very definition of matching Howard’s raw power numbers, and if Cabrera comes up a bit short, it’s more than compensated for by his almost-100 point advantage in OBP.

    The next one always galls me, too:

    “he is the fastest in the history of the game to hit 100 home runs, as well as 150, 200 and 250, and he should own the 300 mark early next season.”

    Sure, he got to the majors as a more physically mature player.  This stat masks the fact that Albert Pujols, who is two months younger than Howard, has 158 more major league homers than him.  Even Howard’s 111 minor league home runs that he hit during Pujols Major League career don’t make it all that close.  Fielder is four years younger and has 60 fewer career HRs.  Cabrera is three years younger and has 13 fewer career homers. 

    Howard has power, to be sure.  But it’s not elite power – there are lots of first basemen with just as much power.  And the three other guys under dicussion are equal/better fielders, equal/better base runners, and far superior in getting on base compared to Howard.  Frankly, it’s embarrassing to even try to pass this argument off as convincing.

  19. Brad Johnson said...

    By the way, I ultimately had to cut the section I wrote on WPA for a couple reasons. First it wasn’t super supportive of my point. In fact, at first glance it supports John’s point. Related to that, it was simply too long. Anyway, below is the text from that cut section, which I think adds an extra dimension to the debate.

    “The last stat I would like to examine is Win Percentage Added (WPA). WPA is interesting because it is context aware. wOBA would assign Howard an equal value for a double whether it comes with the bases empty in an 8-0 game in the third inning or with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth down by two runs. WPA uses a leverage index to assign value to the timeliness of a players performance. This is useful for our debate because it allows us to move beyond RBI when evaluating Howard’s production.

    Howard has a 3.94 WPA which ranks him 10th in baseball. Since WPA is context aware, the ordinal ranking is a little misleading. Most players simply don’t have the same number of opportunities as Howard. Given those opportunities, an elite WPA would probably be above 5 – Matt Kemp, Jacoby Ellsbury, Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto, and Jose Bautista all have above 5 WPA this season with Bautista posting a league leading 7.43.

    With that in mind, Howard’s season has been good but not great. That’s before remembering that WPA
    doesn’t consider fielding range or base running ability.”

  20. Terry said...

    Howard is beast. Break the #‘s down however you want to support your arguments. I don’t CARE if he’s elite to every other baseball fan in the world, I just know he’s elite TO ME. And I’m the only fan I care about. I love him because he mashes the ball and plays 1B for my favorite team that goes to the playoffs every year.

    Old guys like me and Frederator are more back of the bubblegum card fans. Sabrs are nicely analytical. It’s finding a middle ground that seems to be the circular argument when it comes to any Ryan Howard debate.

    Billy Beane had 10 years to do his sabr magic in Oakland with… how many rings again?

    Odds are if the Vottos and Pujols’ and Fielder’s of the world mashed the ball played 1B for my favorite team that goes to the playoffs every year I would love them just as much.

    But they don’t. And I don’t. So suck it.

  21. Josh said...

    I think that Howard does have elite power. He’s up there with Bautista, Pujols, and Fielder in terms of being able to send the ball into the next county. However, that’s all he does well. You can’t be an elite player if you only have one above-average skill. In the pantheon of first basemen, I’d rank him behind Votto, Pujols, Cabrera, Fielder, Gonzalez, Teixiera, and possibly Konerko and Helton. Next year, he might get passed by Hosmer and Freeman, plus we saw last year how good Morneau is when healthy. There are too many good 1st basemen in the game right now for a one-skill player to be considered elite.

  22. Marc Schneider said...

    Howard gets a lot of RBIs because he bats cleanup in a lineup where the guys in front of him are on base all the time.  How many RBIs would Albert Pujols have if he played in that line up.  I enjoy seeing huge RBI numbers too, but to use that as an argument for Howard being an elite player is bogus.  I’m not going to say Howard doesn’t have great power because he does, but he also benefits from playing in a bandbox that allow a lot of his fly balls to left to go out.  How many homers would he hit, especially against lefties, if he played in Atlanta or New York? 

    He is awful against left-handed pitchers.  If he is up in a key situation late in a game, he is toast if the other team has a tough lefty. 

    Howard is a good player and seems like a nice guy.  But his performance is, if anything, declining.  He happens to be on a good team and puts up good (although increasingly not great) counting stats. 

    As for Terry’s “argument”, good for you—you like Ryan Howard. I guess Charlie Brown could say that Joe Schlobotnik is an elite player because he is Charlie Brown’s favorite player. Let’s see how much you like him when he is 37 or 38.

  23. Joe said...

    Obviously I’m bored:

    “With the possible exception of Pujols, none of these guys mentioned will make an opposing Manager game-plan to stop them”

    You make an excellent point, sir!  Ryan Howard is the ONLY left-handed batter in major league baseball against whom the opposing manager will deploy a lefty-handed reliever.  Not before his arrival nor likely after he is long gone will there be another left-handed slugger who is force-fed a diet of lefty relievers.  History will refer to these pitchers as “LOFRHies” (Lefty Only Face Ryan Howard specialists.)

    Also, the argument that someone so good at hitting for power (his superiority in which has already been debunked) can’t become an “average” player by virtue of the rest of his game is, to me, like saying a basketball team with a superstar shooting guard will be above-average even if the rest of the team is a bunch of scrubs.

  24. Brad Johnson said...

    Terry, I regularly try to hand you the middle ground in this argument and you refuse to take it. All you have to say is Howard’s merely good not great. I’ll back off my “he’s average” argument by focusing more on his WPA – i.e. how the Phillies use him rather than his skill set in a vacuum.

    That only goes for Terry mind you because we’ve had this argument for years. The rest of you out there aren’t getting off so easy.

  25. Heisenberg said...

    “With the possible exception of Pujols, none of these guys mentioned will make an opposing Manager game-plan to stop them”

    I don’t see this as a positive.  I see this as there is a glaring weakness for this hitter and here is how we can plan for it.

    In the 2009 WS the plan was Damaso Marte.

  26. Paul E said...

    That 3-6-3 DP is as difficult for Howard as negotiating Middle East peace accords. That being said, his career trend on OPS+ is also headed south.

    They still owe him $150,000,000.

    He’s not better than Votto, Cabrera , Pujols, A-Gon, Fielder, or maybe even Teixeira. And I don’t believe he’s younger than any of them either. And any credit he gets from dWAR is total BS

  27. Kekoa said...

    “Billy Beane had 10 years to do his sabr magic in Oakland with…how many rings again?”

    I’m always a little confused when I see these statements, do some people think that Beane has or had magical analysis computers that will produce legions of “perfect” baseball players a la the motion picture Weird Science?

    Sorry for the digression.

  28. kevinapps said...

    @Luigi

    I would rank him outside the Top 5 (probably Pujols, Gonzalez, Fielder, Cabrera, and Votto in some order).  And I would rank him definitely inside the Top 15.  The question of where he fits from 6 to 15 is the question.  If it’s at 6, then you can probably make an “elite” argument.  If it’s at 15, not so much.  I could see him settling in at around 8-12 on my list, if I took the time and effort to actually rank everyone.

  29. Ralph B said...

    With all due respect, this is strictly a fantasy baseball debate.  I don’t think the Phillies care one bit about his rating as a fielder, base stealer or base runner. He’s been a leader on a team that’s won 5 straight division titles and a World Championship. He’s also carried them this year as injuries have taken Utley and Rollins out of the lineup for a good chunk of time. Oh, and he’s done all this while his “power declines”.

  30. Dave Studeman said...

    To pitch in, I think you can make an easy case that Howard has been an elite hitter for many years.  His batting WPA over the past six years is third-best in the majors, behind Pujols and Cabrera.  Yes, he’s had opportunities, but he’s also sixth in WPA/LI.  That’s not shabby—that’s elite.

  31. Joe said...

    “With all due respect, this is strictly a fantasy baseball debate.  I don’t think the Phillies care one bit about his rating as a fielder, base stealer or base runner.”

    With all due respect, I think you’re completely wrong here.  You want to take out fielding and base running, which are not incorporated into fantasy baseball, and basically just focus on HR and RBI, which are counted in fantasy baseball.  Which is basically the same as saying that Howard is more valuable in fantasy baseball than he is in real baseball.

    And I’m pretty sure the Phillies care about his defense and base running, even if that’s not reflected in the contract he signed.

    I don’t think anybody is saying that Howard isn’t a valuable part of the Phillies offense.  We’re just saying that there are actually other guys out there who would do more for the Phillies.

    Also, being a solid producer all season in the middle of a so-so offense for a team that won a lot of games with great pitching doesn’t make one an elite hitter.

  32. Jake said...

    Not everyone is fast. The dude is like 6ft100 and 350 lbs. I am not a phillies fan. I actually kinda hate the phillies. He Plays first base for a reason. They’re not trotting him out to center or short. He plays first because he’s cruddy at throwing and is a giant. That doesn’t detract from him doing what it is he does well, which is hit. No, he is not Rickey Henderson in 1987. But he is Ryan Howard in 2011. And that dude is terrifying. Even with a Williams shift and a left hander on the mound. You kind of expect him to strike out or ground out to the shortstop playing second, but it’s always dicey. He might do something crazy. Their isn’t a Williams shift for utley. I know it means he’s predictable, but the success he has dealing with all that jazz is remarkable. I come from a sabermetric background. I read the bill James almanac every year when it came out. I was 8. I don’t think there is a fan alive who if Ryan Howard came through their system they wouldn’t be super stoked. He’s fun to watch, and he’s excellent. Who cares if your giant can’t throw to second 6 times a year? He’s your giant, and he punishes baseballs. If he made only 9 milllion, the conversation, would be how great and undervalued he is. The phillies value him and what he does. I don’t think that his contract should overly alter our way of percieving him and his talents.

  33. Joe said...

    “And that dude is terrifying. Even with a Williams shift and a left hander on the mound. You kind of expect him to strike out or ground out to the shortstop playing second, but it’s always dicey. He might do something crazy. “

    Howard vs. LHP this year: 183 PA, 225/284/349-3-28 Those are roughly the same rate stats as Phillies utility man Wilson Valdez this year (250/296/345).  Sending a lefty in to face Howard is roughly the same as if the Phillies chose to pinch hit Wilson Valdez for him.  Nobody is afraid of Wilson Valdez.

    “I don’t think that his contract should overly alter our way of percieving him and his talents.”

    Well, the article debates whether or not Ryan Howard is an elite player, not weather or not he’s a valuable player.  I don’t think anybody doubts that he’s a valuable player.  But the argument still boils down to

    1) He has the same power as a few other top first basemen
    2) Of those 6-7 guys, he has the worst OBP by quite a lot
    3) Of those 6-7 guys, he’s probably the least valuable base runner
    4) Of those 6-7 guys, he’s probably the worst fielder.

    He’s got one skill that is on par with the top players at his position (not better than, but on par with), and he is measurably worse than all those other guys at the rest of the game.  He’s not an “elite” player.

  34. Drew said...

    He’s really one of the worst regular 1B in the game (in the bottom half of those who qualify).

    Oh wait, I just noticed he has 120 RBI. Elite!

  35. Drew said...

    The people who think Howard is elite are the people who think Andre Dawson was a first ballot HOFer and who gave Joe Carter MVP votes.

    RBIs are stupid. Everybody knows that. Even by pretty traditional stats like OBP and SLG – stats that elite 1B are SUPPOSED to be good in – Howard is middle of the pack.

    Awful.

  36. Jim said...

    Same old story. The Howard debate goes so deep, down to fundamental levels. It simply boils down to the value of avoiding/making outs and the idea that players at different positions or batting order spots have fundamentally different roles. If you want to invent a role so that you can ignore parts of his game, go ahead, but there’s really no justification for it.

    Its the equivalent of saying a SS’s only job is to play great defense. Sure, there are players, even good players, in the league who get by only playing good D while swinging a noodle, but people don’t go around calling them the elite players in the game because they “do the job their paid for.”

  37. Bob said...

    “Entertaining to watch,” “excitement level,” and “game changer”?  Nice try, Brad, but you don’t have a lot to work with.  Stats don’t lie and he is not elite.  A good guy to have in the lineup?  Sure.  But there are a lot of first basemen that rank ahead of the 2011 version of Ryan Howard.

  38. Adam said...

    @kevinapps
    I completely agree with that assessment of Howard falling somewhere in 8-12 or so. I don’t consider Howard elite at all, in fact I’d say he’s a 3rd tier Firstbaseman. My thought has always been that elite means you’re the best at what you do, and at 1B there’s only Pujols, in my opinion. 2nd tier guys include the likes of Gonzalez, Fielder, Cabrera, and Votto. 3rd tier includes the likes of Howard, Konerko, Morneau, Teixeira and even Dunn if you consider him a Firstbaseman. Hosmer and Freeman get honorable mention but too little time to tell.

  39. Jim said...

    The idea of hitters having drastically different jobs is something you just can’t assert without evidence yet Howard defenders constantly do. Prove it! Prove that a team scores less runs with a better hitter than Howard who doesn’t have the same power/rbi skill set. Stop just saying its his job. Sure it seems obvious to you that the phillies score fewer runs with a Kevin Youkilis-type or Chase Utley clone (healthy) in his spot, but that doesn’t make it true.  I repeat: prove it or stop using the job argument.

  40. Dave Studeman said...

    When you look at championship teams, you tend to see teams that are more well-balanced than not. They tend to have many strengths instead of just one.  You can’t “prove” this with typical linear weights or whatever, but it’s something that a regular observer of baseball will notice.

    You want to have different strengths, because you will play teams with differing strengths and strategies.  The most obvious thing is lefty/righty balance, both on the mound and at bat.

    Now, you may think that power isn’t really necessary to have a well-balanced team.  And that may be true.  But I would think that the burden of proof is more on you than others, given the totality of baseball experience.

  41. Brad Johnson said...

    Basically, Dave is saying that diversification is an effective strategy and that it has value. Even without evidence, that is a pretty compelling statement. The whole point of diversification is to spread asset value so that the investor can handle unexpected loss of value.

    Imagine if the Phillies had Adam Dunn instead of Howard and that Dunn still had his crappy season. The Phillies, by diversifying from an all power, mediocre pitching team to a team with a little bit of everything, would have been able to easily absorb Dunn’s struggles and still make the postseason.

    Bring this back to the debate question, I think this is more of an argument as to why his contract isn’t as godawful terrible as people make it out to be. An elite player transcends setting.

  42. Joe said...

    The argument that I’m reading from the pro-Howard side is that “he does his job” and “he’s perfect for what the Phillies need.”  This somehow implies that the Phillies would not be better off with a guy who has similar power/RBI numbers, but who also gets on base at a much higher clip and is a better fielder and base runner.  Which is patently ridiculous.

  43. Brad Johnson said...

    Joe,

    I think the implication is more along the lines that Howard’s combination of power and production is exceedingly rare in baseball. So that while there are a couple dozen players in baseball who can do what Howard does (or more), there are only a couple that the Phillies actually have access to and the cost of acquiring them greatly exceeds the cost of retaining Howard (even with the questionable contract).

    Which again is more an argument about value than where Howard stands as a player.

  44. Jim said...

    simple question. if you could replace him with an offensive clone of healthy peak utley batting cleanup and playing 1b with same ability, would you? if you say no, i think the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate why the particular skill set makes him a better choice than a superior hitter.

  45. Terry said...

    I humbly retract my suck it.

    Brad, my post is, I think, as clear as I can put it. I’m not real interested in other people’s perception of him, and I readily admit he is not the best player on Earth. I think I pretty consistently take the middle ground, rhetorical flourishes aside.

  46. Drew said...

    Offensively, Howard had a couple of awesome seasons (‘06 and ‘09). Elite, even. Offensively.

    In those years, even accounting for his weak glove and subpar baserunning, he was a very valuable player. Not quite elite in ‘09, but in ‘06, yes, elite overall. Even subtracting for the glove and baserunning.

    Problem is, besides those two seasons, he’s been only an “above average” offensive player, which, for a 1B with a bad glove, is obviously not going to cut it as elite.

    I mean, even traditionalists can see that his homers, runs and RBIs are down from prior years. He makes too many outs and doesn’t get on base enough. His slugging has gone from at least the mid-500’s to now in the upper 400’s.

    In ‘06, he used to be underrated and awesome – now the people who hated him in ‘06 for being one-dimensional, striking out too much, and hitting “meaningless home runs”, love him because he has 6 consecutive 100-RBI seasons, even though his overall production (getting on base, not making outs, hitting for extra bases) is way down.

  47. Paul Francis Sullivan said...

    Drew, I said he wasn’t an MVP. I said there are far better players than him, meaning that he wasn’t an elite individual player.

    I agree that his hitting stats besides RBI are tumbling and that is a disturbing trend.

    I understand that RBI is a tenuous barometer for determining a players value.

    Got it.
    I understand.
    We agree.

    But here’s the thing. If you put those 8-10 firstbasemen that you claim would do a better job, how do you know how they will fit with the team.

    That’s the same thing I heard when people were saying “Oh, Edgar Renteria is a much better fit that Orlando Cabrera in Boston.” Or “Kevin Brown and Javier Vazquez will actually be an improvement over Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte in New York.”

    Howard fits with the Philadelphia line up and that market. And I know it is disgusting to hear this but his JOB is to drive in runs.

    As I said before, put him on another team and his value plummets. This is an example of the whole being greater than the parts.

    The simple answer to the question “Is Ryan Howard an elite player” is No in terms of individual numbers.

    But in terms of the recipe of a team, there is no denying it works. And there is no certainty that plopping another first baseman in his place will mean they would replicate his run production.

    Individually, Howard isn’t the best Phillie and shouldn’t be mentioned along with Albert Pujols, Adrian Gonzalez, Joey Votto, Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder or Paul Konerko.

    An elite player cracks the top 5 which Howard doesn’t.

    So we agree there.

    But I wouldn’t replace him if I were the Phillies.
    No F—-ing way.
    It’s working. Don’t mess with what works.

  48. Brad Johnson said...

    Next debate question: Is Ryan Howard’s contract an albatross?

    I think the general consensus is that it is. Having just argued that he’s a fairly average player – which given the fWAR/value dollars model means a roughly $8-14 mil/season player – I think I’d be pretty comfortable arguing it is not.

    In truth, I can’t tell if it is. Part of me worries that he’ll start turning in Carlos Pena’s bad years before the contract is halfway done. The other part looks at other elements like diversification, availability of alternatives, etc and finds the Howard contract to be preferable to the expected deals of Pujols/Fielder and the past deal with Tex.

  49. Joe said...

    @Brad “Howard’s combination of power and production is exceedingly rare in baseball.”

    I assume this means slugging and RBI, which are difficult for me to separate.  He wouldn’t have as many RBI without as much power.  Pure power-wise, Howard is 18th in the majors in IsoP, which I wouldn’t call “exceedingly rare.”  And if you include, you know, getting on base as “production,” then he starts to fall short.

    @ Paul: “put him on another team and his value plummets.” 

    I really don’t get this statement – are you saying that a slugging run-producer isn’t of value to a lot of other teams?  Whaaat?  Or, maybe you mean that his skills would be wasted on many other teams because they don’t get a lot of base runners?  In which case you are totally tying his value up in the quality of his teammates.  In essence, this is the argument that all the people who downplay his RBI totals have been doing for years.

  50. Joe said...

    Not sure why you think the Howard deal might be better than the Teixeira deal.  Teix is half a year younger, is putting up similar numbers this season, is a much better fielder, and is due to get paid $12 million less than Howard through the remainder of their contracts.

  51. Brad Johnson said...

    I’m looking more at Tex’s entire contract vs. Howard’s extension since Howard would have been using that as a starting point in negotiations. If we’re just talking about rest of contract, I think it’s a pretty much a toss up as to which deal is better.

    At first glance, a 5/125 deal with an option to make it 6/138 appears much more favorable than an 8/180 or higher deal. Howard’s 6, 7, 8 years aren’t likely to be at all valuable, so avoiding purchasing them (albeit at a higher per season cost) was prudent.

  52. Jim said...

    stack it up by age not by years. texs deal included better age years. late peak and decline. all decline for howard. tex would not get his remaining deal if on market now IMO.

  53. Joe said...

    What Jim said.  The reason that 8/$180 doesn’t look good for Howard is because he’s three years older than Teix was when he signed his.  (Actually 3.5 years older, because he’s six months older than Teixeira is).  And for the first three years of Teixeira’s contract, he’s earned 12.0 WAR (B-R def) vs. Howard’s 9.6 WAR. 

    So Teixeira’s been the better player over the last three years, has a better overall skill set, he’s a few months younger, and he’s getting paid $2.5 million per year less starting next season. Why again do you think Howard’s contract is better than Teixeira’s?

  54. Brad Johnson said...

    Given a deal like Tex’s already being extant, I think it’s safe to say that were Howard or Tex about to hit the market now, they’d probably end up with a similar contract. They might trade a year off the end of the deal for a signing bonus or something of that nature. But with the number of 1b availabilities along with the numerous clubs looking to excite their fan base by upgrading at 1b, the likelihood is that players of their skill set would get paid very well.

    I’m not trying to compare the Tex and Howard deals in a real sense. I’m trying to roughly estimate what a Ryan Howard free agent contract looks like compared with the one he has. Given historical behavior and the healthy demand for sluggers this offseason, Howard’s current contract compares favorably.

  55. Joe said...

    “I’m not trying to compare the Tex and Howard deals in a real sense. “

    Oh, then you must feel like I’m wasting your time, because I responded to your statement as if you meant it in a real sense.  If I try not to look at it in real terms, I can see where you are coming from.

  56. Brad Johnson said...

    What I mean is that the Tex deal is the bench mark that Howard would use and he’d likely find a contract out there that was at least roughly equivalent if not more costly.

    The previous three years are irrelevant to that. Yes, Tex was younger and hence more attractive on the free agent market, but inflation probably cancels out most age related considerations. Perhaps he’d have trouble finding a 7th guaranteed year, let alone a 6th, but you can be sure he’d either get a handful of big option buyouts, a significant bonus, or both.

  57. Joe said...

    Are you sure about that?  I don’t see a ton of inflation over the past three years – not for position players anyway.  Adrian Gonzalez is a better player than Howard and he signed for less than Teixeira.  It wasn’t an open-market deal, but it was enough to get him to forego free agency.  And he might not have made that much, with Pujols and Fielder hitting the market at the same time. 

    That’s the same market that Howard would find himself in if the Phillies hadn’t locked him up.  At the time he signed the extension, he was the fourth-best FA-to-be for this winter.  I truly question whether Howard would get the same contract under those conditions.  In that regard, I think he’s pretty significantly overpaid.

  58. Paul Francis Sullivan said...

    I swear I will read all the comments. I don’t have the energy now so forgive me if I repeat what people said.

    The correct answer is you are both right.

    In terms of individual stats, he is not. There are far better hitters, fielders, baserunners than Ryan Howard.

    In terms of how he fits in with this team, he is ideal. The Phillies are a team designed to have good pitching and they need to score 3 or 4 runs a game and they will win a bunch.

    Put Howard on the Royals or Padres and he is not a good fit. Put him in Philadelphia (where he also has the good will in the bank from an NL and NLCS MVP) and he does the job perfectly. His JOB isn’t to get on base. His JOB is to drive in runs.

    And while Sabermetrics might discount that, it’s what he is paid to do. And he is among the league leaders in RBI. I know. It’s a stat that requires other people’s help (which stat doesn’t?) But that’s his gig.

    And you can theoretically replace him with another first baseman but how do we know how that replacement will fare in Philadelphia?

    Is he an MVP?
    Not this year.

    Is he the perfect fit to produce runs and will in all probably help the Phillies win a World Series?
    Probably.

    I’ll take the latter.
    It’s a team game.

  59. Corvelay said...

    The ‘5 tools’ evaluation, while it may be useful for prospects, does not really tell us much about the value of a major leaguer.  Throwing ability, for a 1B, probably has very little effect on runs allowed – Howard may miss a few throws that others would make, but I doubt it costs the Phillies more than a few runs a year.  Basepath speed probably costs them a bit more, but the value produced by it is dwarfed by the ability to hit for power, field,  and make contact.  Also missing is the ability to walk (the batter’s eye), which Howard does at a relatively high rate.

  60. BobDD said...

    Awesome power and fun to watch.  That’s pretty good.  Had three elite offensive seasons?

    “With the possible exception of Pujols, none of these guys mentioned will make an opposing Manager game-plan to stop them”

    Sorry, but that is not a plus.  In Howard’s case that is because the lefty reliever is just so effective; it neutralizes a cleanup hitter – of course the whole league will use that.  If the opposing game plan didn’t work THEN you’d have a great argument.

    He is a good player who has had a few very good years.  His stats aren’t even as good as Mo Vaughn to this point.  But for Philly fans to claim a greatness for him is loyal, so I’m not going to sweat the details with them; I like loyalty too – it’s just not good in evaluations.

  61. Drew said...

    @ Paul

    Ok so you love RBIs and can’t get enough of em. Rad.

    But if the team’s the thing, how do you look past the fact that a) he’s not even the best position player on his team right now or over the past few seasons and b) without him, if the Phillies had 8-10 other 1Bs filling his void, they’d ACTUALLY BE A BETTER TEAM?

  62. Jake said...

    The article does say that fwar rates Howard as exactly league average. I don’t think that those metrics acurately reflect his value. While not replacement level, at or below league average seems like a disproportionately low assessment. He may not be one of the top three first basemen in the league, and perhaps not even elite. I wouldn’t trade Pujols for him. There does seem to be a rush to denigrate what he accomplishes. No, he is not the best player at his position in baseball, but that that he needs to be considered in the top 6-7 should be all that is needed in the discussion. Top 25 in baseball? No. But better than 90 % of what teams are currently running out there? Totes for sure. He isn’t Pujols, or votto. But that doesn’t mean he is not a wonderful player. I just don’t think this conversation happens without his contract. And, incidentally, I did say you expect him to ground or strike out vs a tough lefty, but something awesome might happen. Would you rather Howard platoon with the likes of eugenio Valdez? It would be interesting to see some research on the effects of wide shifts on numbers, and to see how the metrics are effected.

  63. David P. Stokes said...

    From Ralph B:  “With all due respect, this is strictly a fantasy baseball debate”.  Actually, I see it as even less than that.  It’s basically a semantics debate.  Howard is exactly as good or bad as he is, whether we label him “elite”, “great”, “good”, “over-rated”, “bad”, or some other adjective.

  64. Brad Johnson said...

    “Would you rather Howard platoon with the likes of eugenio Valdez?”

    I assume you used your pocket laboratory to combine Eugenio Velez and Wilson Valdez?

    I kid of course.

  65. John C said...

    I’m sorry, I don’t believe the worst baserunner on the planet can fart away eight runs over the course of a season unless he’s constantly running into outs trying to stretch doubles into triples—and I am sure Ryan Howard doesn’t do that.

    Howard is not an elite player because he doesn’t hit left-handers very well. But he is a very good player. He puts a lot of runs on the board, and while he’s not a great defensive first baseman, I’ve seen a lot worse. Frank Thomas at first base could have made Howard look like Keith Hernandez in comparison.

  66. Joe said...

    He’s 8 runs below average.  That doesn’t mean he’s losing runs with outs, that means if the average base runner scores 100 runs, Ryan Howard will score 92 (and a really good base runner will score 108). 

    Slow base runners score fewer runs than average/fast base runners.  That’s pretty intuitive, no?

  67. Brad Johnson said...

    John C,

    I haven’t researched the BaseRuns stat in depth, but I know it depends on linear weights and so is fairly objective. For example, under linear weights, a double is .37 runs more valuable than a single. If Ryan Howard hits five singles that should have been doubles for an average baserunner, that’s negative 1.85 runs alone. It’s probably safe to say that Howard’s hits are shortened by an expected base far more than 5 times a season. There are also 1st to 3rd plays to consider where Howard might end up on 2nd base instead of taking third. That’s another roughly -.4 run play.

    Ultimately, Howard’s BaseRuns stat is saying he should have gotten roughly 19-21 more bases than he did were he an average baserunner. There’s nothing outlandish about that.

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