Ryan Howard, who posted a pedestrian .859 OPS, saw fewer strikes and less fastballs than at any point in his career. Opposing pitchers will have even less incentive to test him now that Jayson Werth has moved on.
It's funny how role players like Antonio Bastardo and Wilson Valdez dominate the offseason discussion while a centerpiece like Howard can go months and months without getting his own thread. A couple of factors are at play. First, Beerleaguer proudly enables obsessed weirdos to get their fix of Phillies minutiae they can't obtain anywhere else. Secondly, if you're like me, you've settled into the very early stages of trepidation about the five-year, $125 million blockbuster contract that Howard signed in April. With his season cut short by about 80 plate appearances, he hit .276/.353/.505 with 31 homers and 108 RBIs, bottoming out to five-year-lows in both categories. At $25 million a season, Howard only lived up to about a third of it, according to the dollar measure applied by Fangraphs.com.
Nevertheless, fans seemed generally "okay" with Howard's season, citing improved plate discipline, better numbers again left-handed pitching, fewer strikeouts and an all-around steady campaign in which he avoided his trademark slumps. But I question whether these changes were for the best, or to be frank, whether these changes existed at all.
Numbers show that Howard saw fewer strikes than ever before, only 41.6 percent, a career low, but it's an obstacle not unlike what other sluggers like Prince Fielder, Adam Dunn and Josh Hamilton face on a regular basis. All three, and nine others, saw even fewer strikes than Howard, according to Fangraphs. The difference with Howard this season, as opposed to previous seasons, is that he improved his ability to connect on balls out of the zone to the tune of 48 percent, a career high and a six percent jump over 2009. Unfortunately, he also swung at more pitches out of the zone than ever before: 33.1 percent, almost six percent higher than his previous high. What's more, he kept the bat on his shoulder for called strikes more than ever, swinging at a career-low 68.4 percent of balls in the zone - not including the infamous called third that ended the Phillies' season for good.
Objectivity is often in short order when it comes to discussing Howard. That's why it's good to fall back on these types of stats. Subjectively, I wonder if the league has finally put the clamps on him by simply avoiding his power. I've often thought that Howard can only get hot if the opposition allows him to do it. Early in his career, he'd fall into deep, well-documented slumps, and it was as if opponents would fall asleep on him, test him with strikes and he'd suddenly go on a tear. Or, as was the case in no fewer than two Septembers, he'd feast on a steady diet of mediocre, lame-duck, right-handed starting pitching late in the season.
I wonder about Howard, and I fear that opponents can really put the screws to him now that Werth is out of the picture. (Getty Images)