Back in the summer of 2010, I noticed that Ryan Howard was not aging as gracefully as other players. As a big, power-reliant first baseman who loved to walk (he was seventh in all of baseball in 2007 at 16.5 percent), Howard was not taking the traditional “less power, same patience” approach that most hitters with comparable builds had used to slow their aging curve (e.g., David Justice). Instead I wrote:
[W]e find ourselves looking at a player who is seemingly attempting to change his game midway through a fantastic career… With the decrease in power/walks/strikeouts and increase in contact, Howard is looking more like Shane Victorino than his usual self. If Howard is making a conscious adjustment, he may want to revert to his old ways. While the strikeouts and lack of power are a scary thought for an aging slugger, they are typically inevitable (ignoring those aided by illegal substances), and can be mitigated by a solid walk rate.
In retrospect, this comparison is a slight to Victorino, who at this point is a far more valuable asset; 2013 Howard is much more similar to Miguel Olivo. Howard seemed to be making strides in 2011, increasing his walk percentage from 9.5 percent to 11.6 percent, mitigating an unsurprising decrease in power (although his ISO increased, leaving him with a nearly identical wRC+). An injury-ridden 2012, however, proved to be a nightmare; in 292 plate appearances, Howard’s slugging percentage plummeted to .423 and his walk rate dropped to a career worst 8.6 percent. With a .303 wOBA, poor defense and poor base running, Howard was undoubtedly a below average baseball player.
This season, the tides have changed but the water is just as deep:
A radical metamorphosis. Howard is simply no longer walking, his rate now the 13th worst in all of baseball (a historically dramatic drop from 2007). He’s striking out less and has a higher batting average, but the OBP is pretty much the same. His approach at the plate is just completely different: he’s taking fewer pitches and trying to make more contact. To his credit, it has helped his batting average, and his SLG is up 40 points from last year, but who knows if the new approach is causally related to his re-found power. If it’s not, a potential power regression could cause his wOBA to plummet (although at .318 he is above league average at the moment and 15 points up from last season).
It’s not that Howard’s approach is all that awful; a repeat of 2012 would definitely be worse for him and the Phillies. But his transformation is incredibly confusing and unconventional, making his 2010 season seem perfectly normal in comparison. Obviously the sample size isn’t huge in just 101 plate appearances, but BB percentage and Swing percentage regress much more quickly than other stats. It looks like we will never see the Ryan Howard of old again, and who knows what this new version will bring.