Howard's power and sabermetrics

Ryan Howard's slugging percentage last season was well below his career average. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The ankle, Ryan Howard says, is about 98 percent right now. So what condition was it in during the postseason?

"That doesn't really matter anymore now," Howard said this morning. "I'm not going to make any excuses about my ankle or anything like that."

No, but Howard's final numbers in 2010 certainly reflected the effect of the injury. He ended the season with 31 home runs and 108 RBIs, the lowest of his career since becoming a full-time regular. But counting numbers need not apply since Howard missed 19 days with a sprained left ankle. And following that return -- which may have been rushed -- Howard was not 100 percent.

Heck, he's not even 100 percent yet and it's February.


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"It's funny to me because everyone talks about my power numbers," Howard said. "'Oh, Ryan, your power numbers were down.' I think everybody forgot I was out for a month, that I was hurt. I was right there with everybody on the leaderboard in home runs and RBIs. I don't really think that was an issue. I got hurt."

Again, as a reference:

2010 slugging percentage pre injury (407 AB): .528
2010 slugging percentage post injury (143 AB): .441
Career slugging percentage: .586

So yes, it is troubling that even before the injury, his slugging percentage was well below his career figures. But if we are to rely by mere counting numbers, had Howard not been injured, it's wholly possible he ends the season as the National League home run leader. (Albert Pujols finished with 42. Howard tied for eighth with 31.)

Interestingly enough, Howard accidently explained a principle of sabermetrics today. Near the end of last season, he remarked at how he was getting good swings on a lot of balls, but the home runs weren't coming.

He talked about that again today, when informed his strikeout rate was down but his home run rate was down too. But he still hit .276, which was just three points below his 2009 average and 25 points above his 2008 average.

Howard was putting more balls in play. They just weren't going over the fence.

"Last year, I probably hit the most balls I've ever hit that knuckled for some reason," Howard said. "I just wasn't getting the backspin. I would square balls up and they knuckle."

Howard's batting average on balls in play last season was .332 -- his highest mark since the ridiculous MVP season of 2006.

So what does it mean? Was Howard luckier in 2010, that more balls he put in play fell in for hits? It's possible, but Howard's line drive rate remained the same from 2009 to 2010 -- 23.2 percent. His fly ball rate was down (40.6 percent to 37.1) and his home run to fly ball ratio was too (25.4 percent to 21.1).

All the numbers back up what Howard suggested -- that he didn't make as solid contact as he usually does. Now, the question is, was that caused partially by the ankle injury or is it the early onset of a declining power hitter?

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