Howard's contract will be a referendum on the Phillie philosophy
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Howard's contract will be a referendum on the Phillie philosophy
David Murphy, Daily News Staff Writer
First, we here at High Cheese would like to apologize for allowing ourselves 24 hours of reflection before going on record with any thoughts about Ryan Howard's new $125 million contract. We realize that we live in a time where relevance has a short shelf life, and where being first and loudest trumps being lucid and thorough. But even Hemingway would have a hard time dissecting this deal in 140 characters.
So, again, we apologize. We hope you were able to find a knee-jerk reaction or two.
(We also apologize for using the royal "We" -- it makes us feel more distant from the self-righteous tone of the first couple grafs).
Like with any of the contracts the Phillies have awarded since I started covering the team, I'm not going to label this one "good" or "bad." When an organization decides to award a contract, they consider so many variables that transcend numbers. Take, for example, the Raul Ibanez deal. There is a good chance the Phillies overpaid for him. But part of the reason they gave him the deal that they did is that they felt they desperately need him for the 2009 season, and there were a couple other teams they thought might out-bid them. They didn't like Milton Bradley or Pat Burrell, Bobby Abreu wasn't walking through that door again, and they didn't think they could repeat with someone like Wily Taveras or Cliff Floyd or Geoff Jenkins in their outfield.
The fact that Ibanez carried them for much of the first half of the season and finished with far better numbers than any free agent outfielder aside from Juan Rivera played a big role in them advancing to the World Series. Does that make the deal a "good" one? No. But it is much different than a team like the Royals signing him for three years and $31.5 million.
Which brings us back to Howard, and a contract that history suggests is one of the biggest gambles they have ever taken.
1) The Phillie Philosophy
The fascinating thing about this contract is that it will likely end up serving as a referendum on the organizational philosophy that they have established over the last few years: If you have performed well and represented the Phillies with professionalism on and off the field, they will take care of you.
This philosophy was on display when the Phillies bid adieu to Pat Burrell after 2008, yet handed Jamie Moyer a big two-year contract extension. It was on display this offseason when they bid adieu to Brett Myers, yet gave Joe Blanton a three-year deal. And general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. explicitly stated this philosophy on Monday, when he said several times that he decided to give Howard a monster extension with no obvious concessions on the player's part a year-and-a-half before free agency because "he deserved it."
"When we commit these kind of dollars and these kind of years to a player, it's not just because of what he does on the field as an athlete," Amaro said. "It's also as a person. To me, and to our organization and to our fans, he's not just an special athlete, he's a special person, and that makes a difference."
More than any contract the Phillies have awarded to date, the Howard deal will determine whether this philosophy is refreshing, or quaint. Judging by the positive reaction of the ticket-buying public, the fan base feels it is the former. Judging by the past production of players after the age of 31 and the amount of payroll space involved, it will be an upset if it does not turn out to be the latter.
And, of course, it could turn out to be both.
2) Downside: the decline of power
Howard's extension guarantees him $125 million between ages of 32-36. The Phillies felt this amount was, in their words, "equitable for both sides" because of his unique power production. Over the last couple years, Howard has turned himself into an adequate defensive first baseman. He is a better base runner than people give him credit for. He has worked hard to harden his body. His strikeout rate has declined. But the Phillies decided to sign Howard long-term because of his power. In seven seasons, he has hit 225 home runs. Over the last four years, he has averaged 50 of them per season.
But power is one of the first things to decline in a player.
Most of the game's greatest home run hitters were significantly less productive between the ages of 32-36 than they were between the ages of 27-31.
Between the ages of 26 and 29, Howard hit 198 home runs, second-most in major league history. Only Ken Griffey Jr. hit more (209) between those ages.
Of the 25 players with the most home runs between 26-29 in MLB history, only four maintained a similar level of success between the ages of 30-33. Sammy Sosa hit 48 more home runs. Babe Ruth hit five more. Lou Gehrig hit four more. Manny Ramirez hit 10 fewer.
The rest hit at least 10 percent fewer home runs. Eleven saw at least a 30 percent drop in their home run production. Griffey hit just 83 home runs between the ages of 30-33, a 60 percent decline.
The drop off between the ages of 34-37 was even more precipitous. Of the original 25, all of whom hit at least 153 home runs from 26-29, only six hit at least 100 home runs between 34-36: Babe Ruth (181 between 26-29 to 182 between 34-37), Hank Aaron (163 to 158), Carlos Delgado (162 to 104), Harmon Killebrew (167 to 100) and Ken Griffey Jr. (209 to 112).
(Keep in mind that four of the 25 -- Howard, Pujols, Adam Dunn and Andruw Jones -- are younger than 33).
3) The exceptions
The Phillies would argue that they aren't paying Howard with the expectation that he puts up Ruthian numbers until the age of 37.
They'd probably be happy with the contract if his career ends up mirroring another left-handed slugging first baseman.
Ironically, that first baseman is the man the Phillies traded away to make room for Howard.
Like Howard, Jim Thome began his career later than most of the game's prolific home run hitters. His first season with more than 400 plate appearances didn't come until he was 24 years old.
Between the ages of 30 and 33, Thome averaged 48 home runs and a 1.021 OPS per season. He missed most of his 34-year-old season with an injury, which paved the way for Howard's rise. But at the age of 35, he hit 42 home runs with a 1.014 OPS for the White Sox. At 36, he hit 35 home runs with a .973 OPS.
Are those numbers worth $25 million a year alone? Sheer economics say no. But do those numbers represent an albatross? No, particularly when combined with the marketing ability the team will continue to enjoy with a face-of-the-franchise slugger closing in on 500 home runs.
Thome is one of only nine players in major league history who have recorded at least four seasons with 35 home runs and an .850 OPS after the age of 31.
Barry Bonds did it seven times. Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Rafael Palmeiro did it six times. Mike Schmidt did it five times. Willie Mays, Mark McGwire, Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome did it four times each.
Five more players - Andres Galarraga, Gary Sheffield, Sammy Sosa, Jeff Bagwell and Frank Thomas - did it three times.
4) In conclusion. . .
Looking strictly at past performances, it is fair to say the Phillies have decided to set sail in treacherous waters. But they would argue that the waters are not treacherous, but uncharted. Because Howard is an uncharted player. They would argue that Howard is one of the most unique players in the sport's history. He might be 30 years old, but he has only been playing in the big leagues for five seasons. Whether that matters to the human body remains to be seen. Amaro pointed out yesterday that Howard has been one of the most durable players in the big leagues, and indeed he has. Amaro pointed out yesterday that Howard has dedicated himself to an intense offseason conditioning program, the results of which have been clear to see the last couple seasons.
Howard lives and competes in a time where he has access to nutrition and fitness programs that were unavailable for most of baseball's history. He lives and competes in a time where life expectancy is far greater than it was for much of the sport's history.
Because of the steroid era -- Sosa, Ramirez, Sheffield, McGwire and Palmeiro have all been connected to performance enhancing drugs in some manner -- there are few comparables among modern athletes. Maybe athletes who began their careers in the 21st century will prove to be far more durable than their predecessors, with modern training and nutrition regimens proving to be just as effective at extending careers as illegal supplements may have been to some.
Maybe Howard will continue to be what his production thus far has shown: A Freak.
And even if he does slow down, even if his power does diminish, even if his body starts to show the effects of all the games his durability has allowed him to play, maybe the ancillary benefits of keeping a home-grown superstar in the fold will supplement the difference between the worth of his on-field production and $125 million.
Who knows how many tickets Howard alone might sell during a down year? Who knows how much the Phillies' decision to reward him is worth in the eyes of other players? Who knows how much hidden worth lies in having the three most marketable professional athletes in the city of Philadelaphia (with apologies to Mike Richards, Andre Iguodala, and Kevin Kolb)? How much that might mean when the next round of sponsorship deals get signed?
Runs Batted In might be overvalued by members of the general public, but members of the general public are the ones who buy tickets, and merchandise, and billboards, and television contracts, and sponsorships.
UZR and WAR might tell you more about winning ballgames, but they don't sell.
That said, maybe winning ballgames is what ultimately sells. And maybe if the Phillies find themselves with $25 million fewer dollars to spend for two or three seasons, their ability to win ballgames will be drastically affected.
The Cubs still rank sixth in the majors in attendance. But will they still rank sixth in the majors in attendance at the end of Alfonso Soriano's contract? The Mets, who ranked in the Top 3 from 2006-08, currently rank 12th.
The first big difference between the Cubs/Mets and Phillies is that the Phillies chose to bestow a gargantuan contract on a home-grown star who is beloved by the fan base and is a model citizen in the community.
The second difference is that they did not wait for the market to dictate how such a player should be rewarded. Like the contracts given to Raul Ibanez and Placido Polanco, and the decision to exercise Rollins' option a year ahead of time, they decided for themselves what the market should be.
"He kind of set the market for himself by his performance," Amaro said.
Which, of course, is not how markets work.
But it is how the Phillies' philosophy works.
Where it leaves them six years from now will be fascinating to see.