The Ryan Howard deal: examining a baby albatross

Well, I guess this means we know which National League team would be the first volunteer to hop circuits should realignment so require. As you’ve surely seen, Ryan Howard and the Phillies agreed to a five-year, $125 million extension to his current contract. Howard will be a Phillie through at least 2016, and if the extension plays out as drawn up, he’ll earn $144 million between the beginning of this year and the conclusion of the pact. Howard will be 32 by the time the extension even takes effect. The early returns on the Phillies’ generosity are in, and they aren’t pretty.

Bill Baer at Crashburn Alley:

Most Phillies fans will love the extension, as it keeps a fan favorite in town for a long time. Stat-savvy fans immediately dislike the deal. Most Phillies fans will come to loathe the deal in several years when the Phillies are hamstrung by Howard’s relatively large salary and declining production.

Already, Howard has shown signs of decline; his walk rate has declined every year since 2007 and sits at a paltry 3.6 percent thus far in 2010. His BABIP has been lower as more and more teams have employed an infield shift against him. Opposing teams also have been bringing in more left-handed relievers to face Howard and his production against them has swiftly dropped. His strikeout rate has declined gradually but so has his isolated power. Using FanGraphs’ pitch type linear weights, Howard’s production against the fastball has dropped every year since 2006. He has swung at more and more pitches outside of the strike zone every year since he came into the majors. Finally, his whiff rate (swinging strike percentage) has increased every year since 2006.

This will be a fun ride for two, maybe even three more years, but it will quickly become tumultuous.

Hardball Talk’s Craig Calcaterra:

Here’s a list of Ryan Howard’s most comparable players through age 29—his age for the 2009 season—according to Baseball-Reference.com: Richie Sexson, Cecil Fielder, Mo Vaughn, Willie McCovey, David Ortiz, Tony Clark, Mark McGwire, Carlos Delgado, Fred McGriff and Norm Cash. The only two guys on that list who didn’t fall off a cliff before age 36 are McCovey and McGriff, and they were a heck of lot skinnier than even Ryan Howard 2.0 is. The rest of those names should constitute nightmare fuel for Phillies fans.

But the thing is, Howard doesn’t even have to fall off a cliff in the next five years for this deal to be bad. It’s bad on day one. Why? Because while we all like Howard, he’s not as good as many like to think he is. Lefties are kryptonite to him. He doesn’t walk nearly as much as a slugger like him should. While he’s better than he was on defense, he’s still bad and, before this contract was signed, seemed like a guy who was on the DH-express.

Rob Neyer, toiling away at ESPN:

But Howard’s going to be paid like one of the best players in the sport, and he’s not. Not one of the very best. Last year, enjoying one of his two best seasons, Howard might have been one of the 30 best players in the majors. Maybe one of the 25 best. And maybe, just maybe, if you stretch the boundaries of analysis and tilt everything in his favor, he was one of the 20 best players in the major leagues.

That was 2009. What will we (and the Phillies) be trying to do in 2015? Make a case for him as one of the 40 best players in the majors? One of the 50 best?

Ryan Howard’s new contract is a testament the enduring power of the Are-Bee-Eye. It’s also a testament to old-school ignorance: ignorance of aging patterns, ignorance of position scarcity, ignorance of opportunity costs … hey, take your pick. The Phillies have done a lot of things right over the last few years. But this is a big bowl of wrong.

And finally, Phillies fans, I’ll subject you to Matthew Carruth’s post at Fangraphs:

Even if you think baseball’s salary per win goes up to $4.25 million this coming offseason and rises at a 5 percent clip every winter through 2017, Howard will need to produce an average of 4.75 wins from 2012 through 2017 just in order to justify his salary. If you factor in that Howard gets (even more) long-term security from this deal, then that average production levels goes up to 5.3 wins.

In other words, Howard will need six seasons that were better than his 2009 season, except over his 32-37 years. I’m not sure I would lay even money on him achieving even half of that. This contract is both incredibly risky and unnecessary since Howard was already signed through 2011. Say hello to baseball’s newest worst contract.

Pretty painful stuff, huh? Whether you’re a mathemagician of the highest order or just a casual fan, it’s clear that this deal makes no sense whatsoever. It’s the worst sort of mistake: it didn’t have to happen. While there will be drums and drums of virtual ink spilled on just how remarkably disastrous the contract itself is, I think there’s some canary-in-the-coal-mine action going on here, too.

It’s not just what the contract will mean to the Phillies organizationally. They’re locked into tens of millions of dollars each year at the easiest position to fill in the National League. This probably means they’ll lose Jayson Werth, so Domonic Brown needs to be ready to go sooner rather than later. The Phils will likely have to suffer the drama playing out in Boston over David Ortiz, but might still owe Howard $100 million while it unfolds. Howard, a fan favorite, seems destined to end up vilified for making what is, in a vacuum, a pretty great decision for himself. Should the Phillies fall far from their current perch atop the division, however, Howard will quickly come to symbolize the organization’s decline.

Why am I so concerned this spells doom for the Phils’ mini-dynasty? It’s not just the money, the years, the roster inflexibility, and the negativity sure to follow this ill-fated extension. I mean, it is all those things, but there’s more: The Phillies don’t get it. And, really, there’s no harsher indictment of an organization.

The Ryan Howard extension indicates that the Phillies think they’re above the system. It’s like they looked at the mega-contracts and decided, “You know what? Our guy is in that class.” Well, there’s Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez. They’re both earning ridiculous sums, but (a) they profile much better in their decline years and (b) it’s the freaking Yankees. If any team can do whatever the heck it wants, its the Yankees. But guess what, Philadelphia: Even the Yankees don’t burn through resources as egregiously as you might think.

“But Joe Mauer!” Ruben Amaro will shout. “A smaller market team is giving one player $23 million per year!” Yes, that’s true. But he’s also the best player in the league, an asset defensively, possessing skills that will age well, and—oh yeah—he’s only 27. Miguel Cabrera‘s making a ton of money over a lot of years, too, but he’s just a day older than Mauer. Now Carlos Lee, Vernon Wells, and Alfonso Soriano…those are some deals that are better indications of the future of Howard’s new deal.

But I digress. The point here is that Howard’s extension tells me the Phillies aren’t interested in sustainable growth. While the Phillies are certainly in a position to spend handsomely on players, even the wealthiest clubs cannot afford to so aggressively compromise their long-term futures. Given the complete absence of any sort of reason to get this done now, I can’t help but think the Phillies see themselves as something they’re not. Yes, they’re kicking some serious tail at the ticket booths, but what happens if the club hits a dry spell?

In extending Howard so needlessly, the Phillies bring their 2012 commitments to $87 million, and that covers just eight players. Given that Cole Hamels is one of six players who will either be extended or paid via arbitration, it’s easy to see the Phillies’ effective 2012 commitments are over $100 million. That’s an unacceptable burden to place on a non-Yankees franchise, especially considering that every single player under contract through 2012 is likely to be worse then than he is today. Storm clouds on the horizon, these contracts.

What’s so frustrating for a fan of good decision making is how easily this problem could have been avoided. Before the Howard extension, there were some problems the Phillies would have to overcome to maintain their current level of talent. The seven other contracts, alone, posed serious-enough issues. Adding Howard’s to the list nearly guarantees roster cataclysm. Letting Howard walk after the 2011 season, by which time he’ll really need a DH spot anyway, would have been painful. But it would have been the right move.

The inability to focus on the future will end up costing the Phillies dearly. And I can’t see it ending well for Howard, either. Philadelphia won’t suffer his struggles lightly, not when he’s barely worth a roster spot, let alone $25 million per year. And, perhaps worst of all, the signing shows that Ruben Amaro‘s trust—however it is distributed—is misplaced. Amaro references Howard’s remarkable work ethic as a reason not to fret over the back half of this deal. Unfortunately, that’s a verse that mostly falls on deaf ears.

If nothing else, Howard’s contract is certain to leave a legacy. Many commentators are projecting its impact on the next deals for Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder and Adrian Gonzalez. I think this effect might be overstated. Yes, Pujols will get his. But I really believe Howard’s deal so shockingly excessive and unnecessary that it will have a cooling effect on the market for sub-Pujols first basemen. After all, who is going to pay this kind of money? Not the Yankees, locked in at first base and designated hitter already. Not the Red Sox, too savvy to make this kind of commitment. Not the Phillies, newly-hung with a massive albatross. Not the Astros or Cubs, saddled with dead weight anchors of their own.

Maybe I’m being naive, but I really see this disaster of an extension as a breaking point. Designated hitters masquerading as first basemen must not be paid as the most valuable players in baseball. And, if the early reactions to the contract are an indication, the outcry over this deal is going to be impossible to ignore. This deal is indefensible. I know it, you know it, Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Doug Melvin know it. Only the Phillies don’t. And, more than anything else, that should terrify Phillies fans everywhere.

Just three and a half months ago, I ranked the Phillies as the best organization in baseball from a fan’s perspective. I wrote, “[T]hey’re just moving in the right direction. The Phillies look to be in great position to make the postseason tournament each year going forward.” Well, this is decidedly the wrong direction. And I sure feel a whole lot worse about the organization’s future today than I did yesterday. The move itself is bad enough. What it says about decision making at the top of the Phillies’ ladder is worse. This won’t end well, and I’m not particularly looking forward to watching it fail.

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Comments

  1. John said...

    Joshua, you make a most compelling argument against the ill advised nature of this deal.  One can’t help but wonder what people like Mr. Amaro are thinking when they shell out this kind of money to guys that can’t possibly hope to earn it. Even organizations that are supposedly operating ahead of the curve in terms of their willingness to use advanced statistical analysis still fall victim to the occasional absurd deal. Good luck to the Phillies trying to move Mr. Howard and his contract when he can no longer field his position or hit his way out of a paper bag. My sympathy to their great fans who will be forced to pay ever increasing ticket prices, even as their team loses its ability to compete.

  2. Sean Smith said...

    Nobody is ever forced to pay higher ticket prices.  In a few years, if Utley and Halladay are on the decline, and the prospects they got from Cliff Lee don’t turn out to be saviors, good luck trying to “force” inflated ticket prices to watch a 75 win team. The result will be a beautiful, but empty stadium.

    I see the makings of replay of the Seattle story.  Pat Gillick builds a great team.  They win.  Gillick retires, leaves an idiot in charge, who squanders the franchise.

  3. The A Team said...

    I agree with your sentiments, but it’s obvious you neither watch Howard field nor pay attention to UZR. The man is a simply a good fielder these days, he has decent range, great glove work, and is surprisingly mobile. He has visibly improved his defense 2 consecutive springs in a row. The downside is that every throw he makes to 2nd base is an adventure. Howard does not hurt the Phillies defensively and does not need the DH.

    Now if you meant that you think Ryan Howard will start to have the same issues Jim Thome was having when the Phillies decided to cut ties with him, then you should have said so.

  4. Josh Fisher said...

    The A Team-

    By all accounts, Howard’s nothing short of a great guy who has done a lot to change his body and his game. But I still have concerns.

    Any gains made by becoming passable defensively will be given away by his decline at the plate. Jim Thome is the best case scenario here, and that’s not acceptable for this kind of commitment.

    I appreciate that he’s a hard worker and has dropped a lot of weight. But (a) carrying all that weight for so long probably took some tread off the tires, and (b) for as wonderful as this is…we’ve heard it before.

    I hope it works this time. “Three-true-outcomes masher discovers weight room, changes game at age 30!” It’s just…who in the world thinks that’s what’s really going to happen?

  5. Ebessan said...

    And of course, this is sayonara to Jayson Werth, the second best position player on the team.

    Just wonderful.

  6. Jim C said...

    I agree with the assessments of the writers, and there is another thing wrong with this deal. There is a plethora of first basemen who are putting up great numbers right now, many better than Howard’s. What’s going to happen when Adrian Gonzalez, Justin Morneau, Kendry Morales, and yes, Albert Pujols, are ready for their next contracts? They money they will get will be absurd, and fewer and fewer people will be able to afford the tickets. This contract assumes the economy is growing for everyone when most of us know better.

  7. Jim G. said...

    Another point about Mauer’s contract is that he plays a position (very well) that is pretty much bereft of talent throughout both leagues.

    Jim C – don’t forget Prince Fielder

  8. Nick Steiner said...

    I don’t see the huge problem with this deal.  Is it likely to be an albatross in 4-5 years?  Yes, but I don’t think the Phillies are too concerned with 4-5 years down the road. 

    Howard is a premier player right now, despite how you may feel about RBIs and the Phillies locked him up in an attempt to win in the near future.  Paying 25 million to a 10 million dollar player 5 years from now isn’t a franchise killing move, espeically given the finances at the Phillies disposal.

  9. Dave Studeman said...

    “Is it likely to be an albatross in 4-5 years?  Yes, but I don’t think the Phillies are too concerned with 4-5 years down the road.”

    If this is the only contractual albatross they have, you may be right, Nick.  But how likely is that? Most teams that play in the free agent market wind up with contractual albatrosses without planning for one.  This is a guarantee of at least one.

  10. Josh Fisher said...

    Nick—

    What bothers me is that my ideal GM is ALWAYS concerned with 4-5 years down the road. That’s clearly not the case here.

    Josh

  11. Adam said...

    Nick makes a good point.  What would a “good” contract for Howard look like?  Paying him $15M per, instead of $25M per, in the last 2-3 years of the deal? 

    If that were the case, and they overpaid him by $20M-30M in the out years, you could argue that (a) they will make up a lot of that money in the near term through ticket sales and other revenue directly related to the fact that Howard makes them a better player and (b) $10M isn’t going to wreck their payroll planning for 2015 or 2016.

    The writers who are declaring this deal a complete debacle are underplaying the benefits and overplaying the costs.  I suspect that’s because many of the same people don’t like Howard’s statistical profile and they feel he is overrated.

  12. Josh Fisher said...

    Adam-

    Given the state of the market, there probably is no good contract for Ryan Howard, free agent. Due to the nature of the system, players are compensated in free agency for what they have done, not what they are likely to do. Megadeals for guys like Howard are just a bad idea, generally. There are exceptions, but we’re not talking about either (a) the Yankees or (b) Albert Pujols.

  13. GNfnR said...

    As a Met fan, I love and hate this.  It will make the Phillies a disaster, but not for another 2-3 years.  This is exactly the kind of thing the Mets will respond to by overreacting and getting a brand new albatross of their own.

  14. Sean Smith said...

    “I don’t see the huge problem with this deal.  Is it likely to be an albatross in 4-5 years?  Yes, but I don’t think the Phillies are too concerned with 4-5 years down the road.”

    If they aren’t concerned about 4-5 years down the road, what use are the prospects they got for Cliff Lee?

    I can’t comprehend what’s going on in Amaro’s head, but to offer this contract he has to be thinking two things:

    1) Howard will still be hitting 45 homers, 130 RBI 4-5 years from now.
    2) That production, combined with his contact skills and being limited to 1B, is actaully worth 25 million.

    If he wasn’t worried about 4-5 years down the road then you play Howard for the 2 years he’s still under contract, and let him leave.

  15. The A Team said...

    Josh-

    I definitely share your concerns, I just don’t think labeling him as a DH only is quite fair yet. As we get toward the latter half of this deal, I’m very worried about his ability to play the field.

  16. Josh Fisher said...

    ctwink-

    I used his B-Ref age. I think he turns 31 this fall.

    A Team-

    Maybe he’s not a DH now. But this new obligation to pay doesn’t start for about 23 months. How comfortable do you feel saying he’ll be decent in the field then?

    My point is: if you’re looking at Ryan Howard, 2012-2017, you *have* to value him as a DH.

  17. Jon Heyman said...

    You stat geeks don’t get it. Howard is magically clutcherific, and uplifting.

    Sure there has been numerous high power, three true outcome hitters who had similar peaks to Howard, and all but one or two fell off a cliff, but Howard is a magic man. He will create 150 RBIs a season all the way through his contract and win 3 MVP’s (because I’ll vote him 1st every season and argue he’s underrated, you peons will eat me up).

    /evil laugh.

    P.S. anti-VORPies alliance unite!

  18. Joe R said...

    “I can’t comprehend what’s going on in Amaro’s head, but to offer this contract he has to be thinking two things:

    1) Howard will still be hitting 45 homers, 130 RBI 4-5 years from now.
    2) That production, combined with his contact skills and being limited to 1B, is actually worth 25 million.”

    Sean, you forgot the third possibility, and I think the most likely, and most damning of Amaro as a GM:

    He actually ascribes the recent success of the Phillies to Ryan Howard.

    Ask any SABR’d out fan, and they would likely list, in order, Utley, Werth, Rollins, Howard, in value to the Phillies. Even without defensive metrics and thinking like a traditionalist, his status as the most valuable HITTER is questionable (after all, Utley OBP’d .397 and went 23 for 23 in steals in 2009).

    But the fans love Howard, and the media loves him even more. On great teams, someone becomes the star, and it’s often the “heroic” one. In the case of Philadelphia, it’s Howard. I’m not going to dissect who fans like, they can like whoever they want, and it’s not like Howard is a bad player.

    The problem is, AMARO apparently thinks this, too. He sees how well the team plays, and gave the RBI-clutchman tons of money.

    A perfect counter-example w/ a good GM, Theo Epstein, signs JD Drew despite a following of people who say he sucks. Epstein pays Drew for what he actually offers, not what his dissenters think he offers. Amaro, in contrast, paid for the media-creation. That, for anyone who cheers the Phils, should be scary. Your GM doesn’t think like a businessman, he thinks like a drunken bleacher creature who would run a pro team like it’s fantasy baseball and sign “home runs”, “RBI’s”, “Stolen Bases”, and “Wins” in a vacuum.

    Of course, Werth is good as gone, and now Domonic Brown will have to be MLB ready by the start of 2011. At least the Phils will have a starter under the age of 30.

    To all Philly fans ready to “stick it” to “know-it-all” geeks via Ryan Howard, when you finish 3rd in the NL East in 2012 and have no money to sign big free agents, don’t come back crying.

  19. Joe R said...

    Nick, competing with who?
    The Yankees won’t bid.
    The Red Sox will, but not to the tune of $25 mil a year.
    The Mets should be set with Ike Davis.
    The Tigers w/ Cabrera.

    And oh yeah, there will be two other excellent 1B’s on the market. Younger ones, too.

    Sure Howard could live up to this deal, but it would take anywhere from 4.7 to 5.3 marginal wins (I estimated 4.9) a season to do it.

  20. Hugh Jorgan said...

    Nick,
    I don’t think for most of us the issue is really with the cash, but the length.  If the extension were say 3/75, then you could live with that.  It’s those last two years, that last $50 mil that is really going to hurt.

  21. Nick Steiner said...

    What you can argue is that Howard will be reasonably productive and close to worth his contract over the first 3 seasons, assuming the Phillies have better information on his health/aging profile compared to a one size fits all formula in the projection systems.

    By the time the Phils have won another championship and made the playoffs all 3 years on the strength of a powerful core including Howard.  You hope than inflation + residual revenue will allow you to swallow the last couple years of the contract without too many problems.  Plus, there is a by out on the last year. 

    That’s a risky proposition and as you guys all say it seems unnecessary given the old deal, but consider what happens when Howard’s old deal would have expired.  The Phillies are now competing with several other teams for the services of Howard, and if they let him go on the heals of success and replace him with a “meh” option they are a worse team and the fans are hella pissed for letting a franchise player go.

  22. Josh Fisher said...

    I guess that’s what baffles me most about this…the Phillies paid Howard more in an extension that doesn’t start for two years than any team would have on the open market now. Just doesn’t make sense.

  23. derekcarstairs said...

    Maybe the Phils are paying Howard a little more than they should, and maybe they should have waited awhile before giving him an extension. I don’t know. As a Phillies fan, I am happy that they extended one of their core players. Now, if they also sign Werth, Rollins and Hamels to extensions, I will have no complaints.

    If the Phils extend all of their core players, they can then turn their attention to finding their future catcher, third baseman, a closer and Nos. 3 and 4 starters. Some of these needs may very well be supplied from the farm on the cheap.

    I judge the Phillies front office by the team they put on the field. If they continue to put an elite team on the field, I will judge them as effective even if they go over budget as determined by WAR.

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