Saturday, October 10, 2015

Ryan Howard, fastballs, and the fallacy of protection

SAN FRANCISCO -- Of the 17 pitches Ryan Howard saw from three Colorado Rockies pitchers Wednesday, eight were fastballs. He hit a two-run double on a Jason Hammel slider and a two-run homer off a Rex Brothers fastball.

Ryan Howard, fastballs, and the fallacy of protection

Ryan Howard has been seeing more fastballs in games since the arrival of Hunter Pence. (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)

SAN FRANCISCO -- Of the 17 pitches Ryan Howard saw from three Colorado Rockies pitchers Wednesday, eight were fastballs. He hit a two-run double on a Jason Hammel slider and a two-run homer off a Rex Brothers fastball.

Since Hunter Pence has joined the Phillies lineup, slotted directly behind Howard, the slugger is hitting .409 (9 for 22) with a 1.595 OPS. An astounding eight of his nine hits are for extra bases.

Ergo, Pence is the greatest protection since William H. Macy in Air Force One.

"I've seen a lot more fastballs at least this series," Howard said Tuesday. "HP is getting it done. If they want to keep throwing me fastballs, I’m not going to get mad at them."

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Has Ryan Howard's recent hot hitting been due to the acquisition of Hunter Pence?
Yes. He is seeing better pitches.
No. It's a coincidence.
Too soon to tell.

Unfortunately, it's probably not that simple. First of all, we're dealing with a sample size (five games, 88 pitches) that is far from significant. Still, let's compare:

479 Four-seam fastballs
1,766 Total pitches

27 Four-seam fastballs
88 Total pitches

If Howard had that same 30.7 percent over his first 104 games, it would yield 63 more total fastballs seen during that span. Is that significant? Maybe?

A better explanation is probably lies in the fact Howard has been hitting off pitchers wearing Pirates and Rockies uniforms. Or the fact that Howard is a better second-half hitter. Always has been, always will be — apparently. In the first half, Howard has a career .867 OPS. In the second half, it jumps to 1.011. His slugging percentage, specifically, experiences almost a 100-point increase.

Does Pence help? Probably, in some unquantifiable way. But it's important to remember this: Last year, Howard had Jayson Werth, who finished ninth in MVP voting with a team-leading .921 OPS, hitting behind him. Howard's first half OPS last season was .859. In 2011, it was .828 — mostly the product of a 37-point drop in batting average.

He is seeing fewer fastballs than last season (47.5% to 45%). But just about every other factor in plate discipline mirrors 2010, which represented a steep drop off from 2009.

% swings at pitches outside the strike zone
2009: 27.3%
2010: 33.1%
2011: 32.3%

% swings at pitches inside the strike zone
2009: 75.5%
2010: 68.4%
2011: 70.4%

% swinging strikes
2009: 15.7%
2010: 14.6%
2011: 13.1%

Except, there is this: He is seeing 2.6 percent fewer pitches in the strike zone this season, but his contact rate on pitches outside the zone is nearly 10 points higher than last season. That is to blame for the decrease (so far) in power production. The more balls Howard swings at and makes contact out of the zone, the less likely he is to have an extra-base hit.

So is Howard's recent (brief) success because he's being more patient or because he's seeing better pitches to hit? Chicken or egg?

There has been plenty exhausted on the subject of protection in the past. We'll have more data at the end of the season to perform a similar study on Pence's effect. Let's see what happens this weekend against a pitching staff of the Giants' caliber and familiarity with Howard.

For now, chalk it up to another one of Howard's August and September revivals commencing.

Have a question? Send it to Matt Gelb's Mailbag.

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