Get well soon, Ryan Howard. A leading publication is expecting you to have an MVP-caliber season.
According to Baseball Prospectus, whose 2006 statistical annual was delivered to my doorstep yesterday, reigning National League Rookie of the Year Ryan Howard, recovering from a cold that sent him to the hospital with dehydration, is about to blow the doors off this mother.
Collecting data using PECOTA, a system that compares current players with similar players throughout history and mixes the results with other data, including park factors, Howard is likely to hit 41 home runs, drive in 108 RBIs, and hit .286/.375/.612 next season.
After a quick skim of the 554-page reference, Howard's standout line is the biggest, most realistically-attainable surprise projection in the entire annual, which lists predictions for 1,600 players and prospects. He's pictured on the book's cover along with five others, and his stat readout is used as a pullout example at the beginning of the book to show how PECOTA works and how their data is justified.
The only players in the division that jumped off the page in a positive way more than Howard were the Mets' David Wright, who is younger and carries even more value than Howard, and Miguel Cabrera of Florida, already established as one of the premier hitters in the game. Not even Andruw Jones is expected to jack up the kind of numbers Howard is expected to have.
One data set available on the Baseball Prospectus Web site, available to subscribers a few weeks ago, shows a chance Howard's numbers could climb even higher, including one set that reaches 61 homers. Don't bet on it, however.
Instead, Baseball Prospectus is putting their money on Howard becoming the next Willie Stargell, not Barry Bonds. They're forecasting a career that's comparable to that of Travis Hafner – perhaps the best DH in the American League – Mo Vaughn, Cecil Fielder, Stargell and Carlos Delgado. They represent five of the six top careers Howard is most comparable at this stage. The other, Mike Epstein, hit 130 homers with various teams from 1966 through 1974.
The data is open to interpretation, but PECOTA often hits the nail right on the head with their predictions, including a near dead-on forecast of Jason Kendall’s power collapse in 2005 - and that was one of the easy ones. Experts and GMs, including Rob Neyer, Alan Schwarz, Peter Gammons and former Red Sox GM Theo Epstein, swear by the projections issued by BP.
Considering Howard mashed 22 homers in his first season in just 348 plate appearances, reaching 41 isn’t all that unlikely over a season of about 560. It's more of a wake-up call than anything that says the Phillies offense can seriously bash with anyone, knowing in all likelihood Howard will probably bat sixth in the lineup once again.
With this new data, it's realistic to believe Howard can become the team's single most important contributor starting as soon as next season.
At worst, BP says he will become merely a very good mistake hitter, citing poor bat speed as the main reason. Indeed, most of Howard's homers sailed to the opposite field, but his raw power cannot be ignored. PECOTA’s strikeout projection of 147 is also a tad low, but no one, including Howard, knows for sure how many more games he’ll see against left-handed pitching. Expect something closer to a league-leading total closer to 180.
A fast fizzle is also not out of the question, including a comparison to former Yankee Kevin Maas, the 13th-rated comparable player to Howard’s career thus far. And let's not forget those lingering doubts.
For now, consider this news reassurance the Phillies indeed made the right choice in trading Jim Thome and allowing Howard to blossom.
Get well soon, Ryan. Big things are ahead of you.
Links: Pawnking the Blogging Accountant calculates how many more wins the Phillies would achieve with Howard's 2006 projection mixed in with last-year's team.
Also, The Good Phight is holding a community projection for Howard, with numbers so far similar to BP's computer reading.