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How bad is the decline of Ryan Howard, really?

Ryan Howard is an easy target of criticism by Phillies fans. For those who pay attention to the deeper numbers and statistics of the game, Ryan Howard has his flaws. This cannot be denied when taking his contract value in to consideration. But as the month of April starts to wind down I was curious how Howard's first month of the season has compared to some of his previous Aprils, for the sake of comparison. Is Howard still on a decline, or is there a perceived bias against the Phillies first baseman?

Basic Stats

April Batting Average

2008 .172
2009 .288
2010 .274
2011 .290
2012 N/A
2013 .277

Howard's overall batting average has certainly declined a little bit, but .277 is actually six points higher than his career batting average to date. As we will see later though, the disparity between batting averages against right handed pitchers vs. lefties is drastic, especially in the early going this season. Ideally you would like to see Howard bring that batting average a little bit, but if he ends up hitting .277 this season that may not be a terrible thing. In fact, if he maintains that batting average, hen Howard would finish the year with his highest batting average since hitting .279 in 2009. It would also be his fourth highest season batting average, not including his September call-up for 19 games in 2004.

April Home Runs

2008 5
2009 4
2010 4
2011 6
2012 NA
2013 1

One area of concern is the lack of power from Howard's bat this month. As it stands, Howard is on track to have his lowest home run output in the first month of the season in his career. With a week of games to play, Howard has hit just one home run. He has never had an opening month with fewer than four home runs. The optimist viewpoint here is that once Howard does start getting out of his power drought, they could come in bunches (when is hittin' season again?), but the pessimist view point (and perhaps the more realistic view) is Howard's power is hindered by still recovering from injury.

April Slugging Percentage

2008 .343
2009 .525
2010 .484
2011 .560
2012 N/A
2013 .385

As you might have expected, with a low home run total this April, Howard's slugging percentage is also down significantly. The two numbers generally go hand-in-hand of course. Howard also has just six runs batted in and four doubles thus far. He is on track for his lowest slugging percentage since 2008. If he is still bothered by his ankle and is being held back because of that, maybe this will change somewhat if and when he gets closer to 100 percent.

April Strikeouts, Walks 

2008 38 SO, 18 BB
2009 20 SO, 9 BB
2010 20 SO, 5 BB
2011 29 SO, 9 BB
2012 N/A
2013 16 SO, 3 BB

You almost have to expect that Howard is going to strike out a lot. Many home run hitters do it seems. Of course, sometimes those home run hitters also draw a pile of walks. This month Howard has struck out 16 times, and with a week of games to go that number will almost certainly climb. Whether or not he breaks 30 strikeouts remains to be seen. He has not struck out 30 times in the first month since 2008, when he struck out 38 times. Howard is currently striking out just under an average of once per game, but he has walked just three times all month. This is a result of not being able to lay off bad pitches that lefties have come to realize he cannot hit. It also suggests that opposing pitchers are not afraid to pitch to him, and there is no respect for anyone batting behind him in the lineup. Time will tell if any of that can change enough to alter the numbers and ratios. Are these numbers that concern you right now?

Next Level Stats (Full Season Stats)

Batting Average Vs. RHP

2008 .268
2009 .320
2010 .283
2011 .266
2012 .247
2013 (April) .340

Howard is hitting righties well above his season averages dating back to 2008, and it is helping him keep his batting average above water. Howard is currently on pace to have his best season against righties in this timeframe, beating his 2009 .320 average by twenty points. Of course, Howard's success against righties eventually leads to his downfall in certain situations as managers are quick to smartly go to a left handed option out of the bullpen, as we'll see in the next stat…

Batting Average Vs. LHP

2008 .224
2009 .207
2010 .264
2011 .224
2012 .173
2013 (April) .067

As well as Howard has been hitting righties, he has been just as miserable against lefties. Howard has hit just .067 against southpaws this month, well below his putrid career numbers against lefties. As you can see, Howard's batting average against left handed pitchers has been on steady decline since 2010, a season which may have been the exception to the rule for Howard. You can blame part of Howard's lack of success against lefties last season to coming back from injury, perhaps sooner than needed, but the numbers largely do all the explaining regardless. Howard struggles mightily against left handed pitchers, plain and simple, and the league continues to catch on to his kryptonite.

This ends up being one of the more popular criticisms of Charlie Manuel's managing in later innings. If a game is tied or the Phillies are in need of a hit for a rally in the ninth inning and the opposing team ha a lefty on the mound, the logic behind using Howard in that situation is fundamentally flawed. His numbers suggest Howard should never be used in that situation, yet Manuel will likely never look to pinch hit for Howard. The criticism is legitimate, but the Phillies have proven they care little about the in-depth statistical analysis available to them.

Batting Average With RISP

2008 .320
2009 .267
2010 .275
2011 .298
2012 .329
2013 (April) .143

Is Ryan Howard a clutch player? The numbers sure do not say so this early in to the season. Howard is hitting well below his career averages by season with runners in scoring position. Currently Howard his hitting roughly 180 points below his 2012 average with runners in scoring position and he is on track for what will clearly be his worst year with runners in scoring position if this trend continues. I have a strong feeling he will turn this number around as the season continues. This is one area where Howard has actually been improving since 2009, increasing his RISP batting average each season since 2009. Let's not hit any panic button just yet in this category, but let's dig a little deeper here…

Batting Average With RISP, 2 Outs

2008 .322
2009 .222
2010 .200
2011 .304
2012 .207
2013 (April) .000

Yikes. That is m reaction to seeing that Howard is still without a base hit of any kind with runners in scoring position with two outs. This will pick up at some point this season, one would think, but the numbers suggest Howard is not going to be depended on to continue innings with runners in scoring position all too often. Except for 2008 and 2011, Howard generally has a low batting average in this situation. This season Howard has been in this situation nine times and he has struck out three times but walked twice. There is obviously nowhere to go but up for Howard, but the question is just how much can he turn this number around?

Late & Close

2008 .158
2009 .330
2010 .280
2011 .268
2012 .190
2013 (April) .429

If we change the situation though, Howard's story changes as well. Howard has actually been playing well late in games this month, hitting well above his career numbers late in close games. I actually had to double and triple check these numbers when filling this out because it just seemed wrong considering what Howard has done over his career and his batting average late in close games has been on steady decline since 2009. Of course, this is where a small sample size comes in to play in Howard's favor, as he has 12 plate appearances under this classification. Let's see how this plays out a month or two from now and see where he stands.

Batting Average With RISP, Within 2 Runs

2008 .256
2009 .311
2010 .285
2011 .259
2012 .244
2013 (April) .304

Howard has in fact been showing some more clutch ability when you break down the numbers. With the Phillies are within four runs this season, Howard is a .300 hitter. For the purposes of this post I just took a look at the situations that have the Phillies within two runs. As you can see, Howard is having one of his better years so far when the Phillies are within two runs, with his highest batting average since hitting .311 in 2009 if we date back to 2008. It should be noted though that Howard's batting average in this situation are actually declining by the year since 2009, so we will have to see if Howard continues the down swing here as the season progresses. That said, he is off to an encouraging start here.

Baseball is a game of numbers, and to be fair you can almost certainly dig in to the stats a number of other ways to suggest Howard is still on the decline on various degrees. There is no argument form me that would suggest otherwise. The point here is to try and keep any widespread thoughts about his decline in some form of perspective. The Phillies are not getting the value out of Howard's contract that you would expect, and that is a valid criticism of the organization and their lack of desire to incorporate advanced stats research in to their apparent business thinking. But any suggestion that Howard is a worthless player is beyond ridiculous.


Photo: Andy Lyons, Getty Images (via Zimbio)

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