It’s been a wonderful, remarkable two years for Ryan Howard, a journey that came full circle yesterday when he was announced as National League Rookie of the Year.
It started two Aprils ago when he smashed his first home run in Reading … and then another … then another.
Bobblehead makers were called into action immediately. As I write this, Ryan sits to the left of my keyboard, wearing his black R-Phils jersey, looking nothing like the real Ryan whatsoever.
Not that they needed anything more than 46 homers as proof, the Phils could no longer contain a man itching for big-league pitching by keeping him bottled up in Scranton. Following his record-breaking power surge, he added a hitter’s touch and patient approach, leading the International League in batting (.371), on-base percentage (.467), and slugging (.690) before his final call-up. Baseball America also named him the league’s best defensive first baseman.
Nine months after the novelty bobblehead was given out to Reading season ticket holders, the real Ryan bested Houston’s Willy Taveras and Atlanta’s Jeff Francouer in ROY voting, earning 19 of 32 first-place votes in the eyes of the Baseball Writers Association of America.
Howard hit .288 with 22 home runs and 63 RBIs in 88 games, becoming only the fourth Phillies player ever to win the award, joining Scott Rolen (1997), Richie Allen (1964) and Jack Sanford (1957).
To my eyes, Howard surpassed the front-runner Francouer on Sept. 21 against the Braves when he hit a game-winning grand slam in the 10th inning. Counting October, Howard hit 11 homers during the final month.
Howard shined in big moments, and his confidence is hard to quantify. Did you know that 16 of his homers came the first time he faced a pitcher in a game? As for the clutch, .241 with runners in scoring position is a poor indicator; I’ll take 6 homers, 1.011 OPS in situations described as “close and late.” He was also the first to get the Phils on the board a number of times, something that can't be dismissed.
This award is also a credit to his handler, manager Charlie Manuel, who made the transition seamless by shielding from too many bad mismatches against left-handed pitching. It’s hard to argue now that he should have been pushed into an outright full-time roll immediately with results this good. From his second call-up forward, Howard never slumped. In September and October, he went hitless only six times.
There is still the token goofiness common with a young slugger. Somewhere in cyberspace, there is a way to calculate how Howard’s 9-61 against left-handed pitching (.148 BA, .175 OBP, .246 SLG) stacks up against other ROY winners, in addition to his 100 Ks over 312 ABs.
He’s not your average slugger, either. Last year, he sprayed balls to all fields, hitting the majority of his homers the opposite way or to dead center. He possesses tremendous raw power. Whatever he hits explodes off his bat effortlessly. Pitchers can’t throw fastballs anywhere near the zone.
He’ll get better with experience, but his weaknesses are worth noting. He’s weak on balls inside, a product of left-handed pitching, particularly down and in, and also weaker against breaking pitches, hitting .182 against curveballs, .233 against sliders.
Simply put, he needs more work against crafty lefties and needs to work on forcing pitchers to come over the plate. Knowing Manuel, Howard will continue to see more action, but not against too many aces. It’s still a good spot to give work to a bench player and let Howard come off the pine, a tactic that worked quite well last season.
Not to find fame in another man’s misfortune, but none of this would have happened if Jim Thome hadn’t missed the entire second half with season-ending elbow surgery. I don’t see anything but an outside shot Howard won’t be the opening day first baseman. Shopping Thome to the American League, where he doesn’t need to use his problem elbow in the field, and eating a portion of his $43 million contract, remains the logical next step.
As for the future of Ryan Howard, Baseball Prospectus subscribers are anxiously awaiting some new PECOTA numbers. PECOTA uses stats to compare players of similar age, attributes and numbers to project how a player will do based on historic comparisons. Most comparable projections for Howard before 2005 included names like Sam Horn, Fernando Seguigonal, Franklin Stubbs, but also names like Derrek Lee and Carlos Delgado.
Until the numbers are published, I have a projection of my own: More bobbleheads.