Posted by Kevin Durso
Ryan Howard drove in four runs in the Phillies’ 11-3 win over the Nationals on Saturday night, improving his total to 95 on the season, taking over the National League lead. As the MVP winner in 2006, Howard has the potential to put up monstrous numbers in every season. You may recall that last season’s injury-shortened season for Howard led to his first season short of 40 home runs and 135 RBIs in four straight seasons. Howard finished 2010 with 31 home runs and 108 RBIs in his 143 games. Already this season, Howard is just five home runs and 13 RBIs shy of those totals. No one has ever questioned Howard’s ability to hit home runs or drive in the Phillies in front of him in the lineup. It’s why he’s been consistent with his totals over his entire career. But, the New York Times featured an article today on how Ryan Howard is nothing more than an RBI leader instead of an elite hitter. Here’s an argument against that.
I, like many other Phillies fans, are highly critical of Ryan Howard’s performance, especially when the game is on the line. Howard is one of those players that can’t avoid the spotlight. So, you can’t deny that when Howard struck out for the first out of the ninth inning in Friday’s game, representing the tying run, that you weren’t frustrated. Many, including this writer, at times have been known to criticize Howard’s ability to be “clutch.” But, just what is being clutch? From the seventh to ninth innings, Howard hits .239 with 59 home runs and 187 RBIs. Those are both the smallest of the three periods of a ballgame (1st to 3rd, 4th to 6th). He has, however, hit .276 with two outs and runners in scoring position, .281 in tie games, with 81 go-ahead home runs, and actually hits better when the Phillies are trailing then ahead – .279 as compared to .270. But, clutch numbers really don’t factor into the equation, because the article questions Howard’s ability as a hitter for a whole game, not in the key situations.
Howard is a cleanup hitter. That means he will strike out and try to hit home runs more often than he does for average. Still, notice a few things about his season totals, and how they progressively get better from a hitting standpoint. Since playing his first full season as the Phillies starting first baseman in 2006, here are Howard’s strikeout totals in order of season: 181, 199, 199, 186, 157, and 132. Now look at Howard’s averages since that time: .313, .268, .251, .279, .276, and .257. One of the noticeable things about Howard’s seasons is that his average has been better in the seasons he
strikeouts less. This season, Howard’s on pace for more strikeouts than last season, which may explain the average drop. Still, with Howard only at 26 home runs at mid-August, it seems Howard is finding a way to drive in runs without going deep.
That’s where I argue with the article. Two or three years ago, I would have agreed that Howard isn’t much of a hitter because most of his results were from one swing a game. Howard is now more of an RBI guy than a home run hitter. Don’t get me wrong, Howard’s job in the lineup is to hit home
runs. But, Howard is driving in 100+ runs a season with around 30 home runs, not 45. This really ways on what happens the rest of this season. With 26 home runs and 95 RBIs, Howard doesn’t seem to rely on the longball the way he used to. And as much as the article stresses that the RBI is a stat that gives way too much credit to the hitter, remember why the Phillies are entering the national spotlight as a team to beat. The Phillies finished with the best record in baseball last season for the first time in franchise history. They have the best record in baseball this season to this point. There’s a reason for that. They score runs and don’t allow them.
What the article fails to address is that baseball is still played with a ball and bat, and that the numbers don’t mean a thing in the end, if you don’t win the game. Just look at last season’s MVP race. Joey Votto takes the crown from Albert Pujols. The Reds made the Postseason for the first
time in 15 years. The Cardinals did not make the playoffs. So, while Pujols’ numbers may have been superior to Votto’s, Votto was the one on a playoff team, and that goes a long way. Wins are what really matter, and with the way the Phillies can score runs and limit them with their Cy Young level pitching, they put themselves in winning position every year. That just makes Howard the go-to
guy, because he is at the middle of the lineup.
The bottom line here is that what makes a player a good hitter is his ability to actually hit. Remember when we all complained that Howard wasn’t hitting balls to the opposite field because he was pulling off on everything. Since then, Howard has gone to the opposite field more, and all it
took was one hit. Sometimes all hitters need to do is remind themselves just what they are capable of. Every once in a while that opportunity is golden. For Howard, sometimes all he has to do is prove to himself just what he’s capable of, and when that happens, watch out. It’s the reason Howard has been hitting better in August.
Howard didn’t start the Phillies’ game against the Padres on July 23rd. He hadn’t homered since July 5th, which was his only home run of the month. Howard swung at the first pitch of his pinch-hit at-bat that day, after spending much of his “off” day working in the cage. He served it into the left-centerfield stands as if it were batting practice. Howard has been hitting home runs on a more regular basis since then, including adding a multi-homer game on August 2nd. In the same regard, sometimes getting the hits in key situations just means proving you can do it. Howard is not the best first baseman in baseball. He could easily be placed behind the likes of Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, and Joey Votto. But, as easy as it is to look at batting average, and think that what makes a guy a true hitter is a .300 batting average, and not 100+ RBIs a season is just wrong. Hitting is still an art, especially if you play under Charlie Manuel. And just ask Charlie what he thinks of Howard. He’ll tell you the Big Piece can hit. In that case, there is no reason to question anything about Howard’s hitting.