There has been some hand-wringing as of late about Ryan Howard's supposed drop in power, to the extent that some fans and bloggers have even started to drop the dreaded D-word: decline phase.
Indeed, Howard's HR/FB percentage has dropped from 31.8 percent to 25.4 percent to 21.1 percent over the past three seasons. His isolated power in those years has gone .292-.292-.229. and his home run percentage has gone 6.9-6.4-5.0.
But after a close look at the numbers, I am convinced there are some simple explanations.
Before we begin, a reminder: We are talking specifically about Ryan Howard's power in recent seasons. This is not supposed to be a statistical defense of his contract extension, nor a forecast of what to expect over the rest of his career.
All of the statistics below are courtesy of the folks at Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.com
Now, onto the observations:
1) Howard's sprained ankle may have skewed his final 2010 numbers
Howard's final 2010 numbers were full of career lows: slugging percentage (.505), isolated power (.229), home runs (31). But those numbers may have been affected by a sprained ankle he suffered on Aug. 1 at Nationals Park. Not only did the injury sideline him for three weeks, but according to Charlie Manuel it hampered him for the rest of the season.
The timing of the injury is important when it comes to Howard: August and September are usually his hottest months at the plate.
Take a look at Howard's pre-August slugger percentage, isolated power, and home runs totals over the last three seasons:
2010: .528 SLG/.236 ISO/23 HRs
2009: .537 SLG/.271 ISO/26 HRs
2008: .498 SLG/.259 ISO/30 HRs
Now take a look at his numbers over the final two months of those seasons:
2010: .441 SLG/.210 ISO/8 HRs
2009: .629 SLG/.328 ISO/19 HRs
2008: .638 SLG/.362 ISO/18 HRs
Maybe Howard just ended the season in a funk. But you can also make a strong case that his inability to drive off of his back foot thanks to pain in his ankle prevented him from making his usual late-season surge. As you can see, his numbers before his injury weren't dramatically different from his pre-August numbers in healthy years. For sure, they were down. And we'll take a look at that in the remaining sections. Still, you can argue that, had he been healthy for his two hottest months, he easily could have posted numbers that were a lot closer to his production in previous seasons.
2) Plate Discipline
Let's take the ankle out of the equation, and focus on the fact that Howard's power production was down even before the injury.
In fact, his at-bats-per-home-run in the first four months of the season have fallen in each of the last three years:
2010: 17.7 AB/HR
His home-runs-per-fly-ball, a good measure of power, are also down (these numbers are for the entire season):
But here's the wrinkle: Howard's overall contact numbers are up. He is striking out less, and putting more balls into play.
Here are his overall contact percentages from the last three seasons:
A-Ha! If Howard is making more contact, and hitting less home runs, he must not be driving the ball the same way he once did. It's a logical thought. But what if he is actually making contact with fewer balls that are "his pitch?" What if the difference is in the location of pitches he is making contact with, and not the oomph with which he is swinging?
Take a look at the following four sets of numbers. The first is the percentage of pitches outside the strike zone that he swings at. The second is the percentage of those swings on which he makes contact. The third is the percentage of pitches inside the strike zone that he swings at. And the fourth is his contact percentages on those swings.
Percentage of pitches outside the strike zone that Howard swings at:
Percentage of contact on swings outside the strike zone:
Percentage of pitches inside the strike zone that Howard swings at:
Percentage of contact on swings inside the strike zone:
So the numbers say that, over the course of Howard's career, Howard is swinging at more pitches outside the strike zone, and making contact with more of those swings. In fact, in 2010, he saw a huge increase. What does that say to me? Well, it says that Howard is making more contact with pitches that aren't ideal pitches to hit. And when a pitch that isn't ideal to hit is put into play, like a slider low and away, it has less of a chance of going out of the park (or landing in the alley in right-center). Over the last five seasons, there isn't a huge difference in the contact he is making inside the strike zone. But there is a huge difference in the contact he is making outside the strike zone (and perhaps sending a single trickling through the left side of the over-shift).
3) Howard is facing better pitching
In Howard's MVP year of 2006, he hit 50 percent of his 58 home runs against National League East teams. Last season, he hit 35.5 percent of his home runs against NL East teams.
In fact, in 2006, he hit 34 of his 58 home runs against five teams: Florida (9), the Mets (8), the Nationals (6), the Braves (6) and the Reds (5).
Here were the slugging percentages and home runs allowed by those pitching staffs that season:
Florida: .423 SLG, 166 HRs
New York: .407 SLG, 180 HRs
Washington: .447 SLG, 193 HRs
Atlanta: .438 SLG, 183 HRs
Cincinnati: .457 SLG, 213 HRs
Here are those pitching staffs' numbers from 2010:
New York: .394/135
Either pitching in the National League has gotten better, or offense in the National League has dropped, or some combination of the two has occurred. For the sake of the argument, let's pretend it is the first or third scenario.
Here are the HRs and slugging percentages allowed by National League pitchers over the last five years:
2010: 2,395 HRs/.400 SLG
2009: 2,548 HRs/.412 SLG
2008: 2,632 HRs/.417 SLG
2007: 2,701 HRs/.424 SLG
2006: 2,868 HRs/.432 SLG
4) In Conclusion
Provided you consider Howard's ankle injury as a legitimate variable in 2010, his power numbers aren't nearly as concerning as some might think.
From 2008 to 2010, his 26.1 percent HR/FB ration is first in baseball. His .273 ISO is second in baseball. Last year was the first year in his career he didn't rank in the Top Two in baseball in HR/FB, and the first year in his career that he didn't rank in the Top Five in ISO.
Despite the ankle, his 21.1 HR/FB ratio last season ranked fifth in the majors.
Other sluggers saw dips in HR/FB and slugging percentage last year:
Prince Fielder in 09: 23.1 HR/FB, .602 SLG
Prince Fielder in 10: 18.3 HR/FB, .471 SLG
Mark Teixeira in 09: 17.8 HR/FB, .565 SLG
Mark Teixeira in 10: 15.0 HR/FB, .481 SLG
Adrian Gonzalez in 09: 22.2 HR/FB, .551 SLG
Adrian Gonzalez in 10: 16.4 HR/FB, .511 SLG
Albert Pujols in 09: 20.1 HR/FB, .658 SLG
Albert Pujols in 10: 18.3 HR/FB, .596 SLG
Without a doubt, Howard has room for improvement, which is why Manuel wants him to move closer to the plate.
Pitch recognition, plate discipline, health -- all are valid concerns.
But I think it's a little too early to start worrying about the 31-year-old Howard's body in decline.
As always, I'm open to persuasion, particularly if you disagree with my interpretation of some of these numbers.
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