Player-A-Day: Ryan Howard

Welcome to Player-A-Day. The purpose of this column is to identify interesting major league players who may be fantasy-relevant in 2014. We will discuss the real world roles that the player may fill, set a range of potential expectations, identify any wild card factors in play, and comment on how this affects the player’s fantasy value.

The high level

For four seasons, Ryan Howard dominated the fantasy baseball landscape by putting up big home run totals and even bigger stacks of RBI. But that was 2006 to 2009. Fresh off two fairly terrible seasons in which he mustered only 71 and 80 games of sub-par production, Howard may find himself with a new role that will devalue him to even his most stubborn supporters.

For a number of reasons, Howard should be universally cheap in all but the deepest leagues. And that offers an excellent opportunity to cunning owners who like to leverage players with heavy platoon splits.

The details

Howard’s career was taking a slow tumble until he injured his Achilles in the final at-bat of the Phillies’ 2011 season. Since then he has been in free fall while trying to recover from the devastating injury. New Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg and GM Ruben Amaro Jr. have publicly discussed using Howard in a platoon role unless he shows an ability to hit left-handed pitching. He needs to realize a massive improvement to be merely average against lefties, and that seems nearly impossible in his age 34 season.

Let’s dig into his numbers against left-handed pitching. We’ll be using his strikeout and walk rate, ISO, and wOBA for the purposes of this analysis.

Ryan Howard versus left-handed pitching

Year PA K% BB% ISO wOBA
2011 185 29.7 6.5 .124 .283
2012 98 42.5 4.7 .204 .261
2013 87 44.8 3.4 .148 .238
Career 1654 34.5 8.5 .204 .316

What we observe is a collapse in talent following the 2011 season as seen in a sky high strikeout rate. Howard was already hitting poorly against left-handed pitching, but now he’s worse than Pete Kozma against his fellow lefties. Fans of the Phillies know that Howard is attacked with low and away breaking balls. Here’s the visual evidence. Note the whiff rate against breaking balls in the first chart.

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The second visual shows all of Howard’s swings against lefties. You’ll notice that he really struggles on low pitches, missing a total of 31 out of 37 regardless of whether they are in, out, or centered. It’s worth noting that some of those pitches were bounced. Bottom line: the Phillies should not play Howard against lefties and you absolutely should not use him in fantasy baseball against same-handed pitching.

As bad as he is against left-handed pitching, he’s still relevant when facing right-handers. Here’s the same chart from above except against righties.

Ryan Howard versus right-handed pitching

Year PA K% BB% ISO wOBA
2011 459 25.5 13.7 .284 .385
2012 186 29 10.8 .204 .327
2013 230 24.3 8.7 .220 .371
Career 3364 27.7 13.3 .311 .410

While his career .410 wOBA against righties is almost certainly out of reach, his last healthy season included a still robust .385 mark. It’s probably reasonable to expect a range between .360 and .385 all while batting cleanup.

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His swing data are slightly less offensive against right-handed pitching. As you can see, he still features very high whiff rates, but they are at least 10 percent better than against lefties. Right-handed pitchers use many of the same patterns of attack, but they clearly aren’t nearly as effective which probably reflects his ability to lay off junk in the dirt.

Fantasy implications

Some leagues will have owners who dream of the glory days and think they are clever spending $8 on Howard. Most leagues will largely ignore Howard, much as fantasy owners ignored Adam LaRoche prior to the 2012 season.

Since he had a more attractive peak than LaRoche, he’ll probably slip through fewer drafts, but he shouldn’t cost more than a late round flier or $2. Owners should target him only if they have a shortage of power (although who doesn’t?) and perhaps a risky pick in a first base or corner infield slot.

A sample platoon that could prove to very cheap and valuable is Howard and Brandon Belt. Carefully managing both players might cost no more than $10 and provide 80 runs, 30 home runs, 90 RBI, 5 steals, and a non-terrible average. That’s not a bad Plan E.

Beyond the platoon issues, Howard remains an injury risk. It’s really not a good idea to go into the draft targeting him. Just don’t forget about him as you enter the late rounds and realize your plans are crumbling around you. That happens to the best of us, but the best of us always have one more fallback plan.

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