Mon. Dec 9th, 2019

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Ryan Howard: Piece Out?

4 min read
Ryan Howard

Brian Garfinkel/Getty Images

Despite all the awards, accolades and fond memories, it is time to face facts: Ryan Howard needs to go. 

The handwriting has been on the wall for Ryan Howard and the Phillies for a few years now. But, the diminished slugger’s lack of production this year may send both parties headlong into that wall very soon.

Years from now, when the salve of time and distance has cooled the rash of frustration we’re all feeling, history will remember Ryan Howard’s career as the highest of highs and lowest of lows – Rookie of the Year, NL MVP and three time All-Star, but also a player who struck out in roughly 28% of his plate appearances.

The adulation and adoration that was poured out during the first five or six years of his career have given way to boos, derisive shouts and a cacophony of angry callers on sports talk radio. The 5-year $125 million contract that was lavished upon him just as the decline began has been the megaphone amplifying the discontent of Phillies fans throughout the Delaware Valley.

It could’ve been different, you know.

After his Rookie of the Year campaign (.288, 22 HR, 63 RBI in 88 games) in 2005, he seemed to become better; just when pitchers throughout the league should have been figuring him out. His first full season in the bigs (.313, 58 HR, 149 RBI, 1.084 OPS) ended in an MVP award … and yes, you read that right, he hit .313. He was spreading the ball to all fields and showing the prodigious opposite field power that was his trademark. That year, he struck out 181 times in 704 trips to the dish (26%). But, his production was such that the whiffs were forgivable.

Over the next three seasons, the madness continued. His assault on the record books came into clear focus in September 2010. Howard hit his 250th career dinger in only his 855th game. No one in the history of the game had reached that plateau faster. Not Ruth, not Mays, not Aaron or Bonds … nobody.

Teams throughout the league did make one major adjustment … The Shift.

This is why it could have been different. Howard was willing to patiently stand by as he was pitched around (averaging over 90 BB/season from 2006-09). But, when the shift was implemented, he made no attempt to adjust his swing to fill the open spaces with singles and doubles. The value that he and manager Charlie Manuel placed on his power numbers outweighed the common sense of taking what was given to you. He didn’t need to do it every time up. But, had he taken advantage of the shift rather than hitting into it, that .313 in ’06 wouldn’t look like such an aberration.

Which brings us to our current sad state. As the 2016 Phillies are showing life and an accelerated growth rate, Howard seems like a millstone tethering the up-and-coming team to the ground. A cavernous, rally-killing hole in a lineup that desperately needs a masher hitting clean-up.

The statistics are heartbreaking. In 137 plate appearances, The Big Piece has reached base only 31 times (19 H, 12 BB) for a .226 OBP. He has struck out 44 times in 40 games. One could conservatively estimate that during at least 100 of those 137 plate appearances The Shift was on. If in only a quarter of those 100 chances he had taken the free hit to left field that was being offered, he would be hitting .360. Before we have the ‘But, we need his power and production’ argument, let’s note that six of his eight taters this year have been solo shots. So, what power he is displaying is not exactly driving in legions of baserunners.

How can a professional hitter survey a defensive alignment like that for eight seasons and never take advantage of it? Stubbornness? Complacency? Poor coaching? It is unceasingly confounding.

It reached a head in Detroit Monday night. With the game tied in the 7th inning and a runner on second, Tigers manager Brad Ausmus walked Maikel Franco to face Howard. Once the most feared power hitter in the game (intentionally walked 30+ times in two different seasons), he offered little resistance as he was fanned on three consecutive pitches.

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During that at-bat, it became more crystal clear than ever that it was simply over.

Don’t cry for Ryan Howard. Even though he was only paid $355,000 for his MVP season in 2006, he will have earned better than $190m when all is said and done. The opulence of the compound he is having built in Florida has been well documented. So, his family will eat and his place in the history books is secure.

At the same time, turn your ire to the men who continue to send him out there out of some misplaced dedication to the past or for purely fiscal reasons. Gentlemen, you owe the man the remainder of his $25m for this year and an additional $10m to buy out of your option for next year. In terms of what his continued presence in the lineup is costing this organization in missed player development, games lost due to rallies falling short and public relations, your choice is clear. You have undoubtedly sought trade partners. But, that contract is poison. Again, your choice is clear.

It is time to let go.

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