THIRTY-FIVE years ago, the closest thing to advanced mathematical analysis in baseball was Orioles manager Earl Weaver's stack of 3-by-5 cards that recorded how his hitters had fared against various pitchers and vice-versa.
Still, new Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda knew a few things. One was that Los Angeles had missed the playoffs the previous year. One was that first baseman Steve Garvey hit for a high average (.317 in 1976) but had so-so production (13 homers and 80 RBI) at best. The other, he instinctively believed, was that if Garvey upped his power numbers it would help the team, even if the rest of his line suffered.
And so, the story goes, the manager sat down with the player and mapped out his plan. Garvey responded by hitting 33 homers and driving in 115 runs. His average fell, his walks dropped significantly and his strikeouts leaped by nearly a third . . . but the Dodgers went to the World Series.
These days, there is a dazzling array of statistical studies, computer programs and baseball algorithms designed to explain and predict almost every aspect of the game. Despite that, there doesn't seem to be a definitive answer to this seemingly simple question: Are the Phillies a better team if Ryan Howard:
(a) hits about .260 and strikes out 200 times but also hits 45 home runs and drives in 140 runs, or;
(b) hits .300 and puts the ball in play more but hits only 30 homers with, say, 105 RBI?
The question is timely because Howard is coming off a curious season. The biggest criticism in the past has been the number of times he walks back to the dugout without making contact. In 2007, he whiffed once every 2.66 at-bats. That's steadily improved each year since, though, and last year he struck out a career-best once every 3.50 ABs.
The problem is that after averaging nearly 47 homers and more than 140 RBI from 2007 through 2009, Howard hit 31 big flies with 108 RBI last season. Even missing 19 games, mostly because of an ankle injury, doesn't fully explain that decline.
Of course, the Phillies would love to see him hit for a higher average and still knock the ball out of the park with regularity. He did that in 2006 with a .313-58-149 season that won him the National League Most Valuable Player Award. And maybe he can do it again.
But . . . if there has to be a tradeoff, which makes the Phillies a better team?
Two local Society for American Baseball Research members said the question, as posed, is unanswerable.
"[It's] certainly something to speculate about, but my response is that I cannot choose between those options, because I think they are based on the 'wrong' parameters," Dave Smith, founder of retrosheet.org, said in an e-mail. "By that I mean the ones that don't stand up to even casual sabermetric analysis.
"Batting average is of very limited value, and the rest are 'counting' stats, not normalized to appearances or anything else. I see the focus on strikeouts and they have been shown to have very little predictive value in determining offensive contribution. As you know, the easiest way to compare seasons in a hurry is by adding on-base and slugging averages. I'm sorry if this is too geeky an answer and I appreciate that you phrased the question in a way that many people like, but there is no meaningful analysis to come from those numbers."
Clem Comly, co-chairman of SABR's Statistical Analysis Committee, noted that it depends, to some extent, on the lineup around him.
"A thought experiment I like involves two hitters," he wrote. "One [Kong] only hits HRs and strikes out, [batting average] .250, [slugging percentage] 1.000 and the other [Alou] hits singles every time up, so BA 1.000 and SP 1.000. In a super high offense, Alou is obviously superior because every out Kong makes hurts the offense. On the other hand, if [the rest of the] lineup is all automatic outs, Alou's team never scores a run while Kong's would score 121 runs in 162 games. Kong's OPS is 1.250 while Alou's OPS is 2.000, so if you put them in a [major league] average offense, Alou's team will score more."
For the record, based on 2010, he does not consider the Phillies a high-powered offense. To further advance the discussion, he was asked to assume that Howard's doubles (about 25, which has been the case every year except 2009) and triples (around five the last 3 years) and walks remained constant.
"Based on [those numbers] HR Howard [.260] would have an OPS of .933 while BA Howard is .919," he replied. "[That] makes sense - BA Howard has 20 more hits but 25 fewer total bases. But when I used Bill James' runs created, BA Howard added 3.7 more runs in 2011 than HR Howard because he made less outs. We may be cheating BA Howard significantly by not improving his walk numbers as his K's drop."
Interestingly, though, while Howard's strikeouts have declined, his walk ratio has plunged as well, from one per 6.06 plate appearances in 2007 to one per 10.51 plate appearances in 2010.
Manager Charlie Manuel and hitting coach Greg Gross, however, have a pretty good idea which way they'd lean.
"I think he looks at [strikeouts]. He hears people talk. He says, 'I don't want to strike out.' I don't think he ever wants to strike out," Manuel said. "If the production isn't there, people are going to look. And the strikeouts pop up even more. If he hits 40 home runs or 50 and he knocks in 125 to 150 runs, more than likely people will say, 'Yeah, but he strikes out a lot.' But that part's kind of acceptable.
"But if he don't knock runs in and he don't hit homers, all of a sudden you say, 'What happens if he don't strike out? He strikes out too much.' And you know what? That's how the game goes and how people think. In the real world, if Ryan struck out 100 times and got 25 more hits or whatever, yeah, he might hit some more home runs. He might have some more RBI. But he might. We'll never know because that's the way the game happens."
Said Gross: "For me, the key thing with Ryan is RBI. And I don't care how he gets them. A lot goes into that, too. The years he's been most productive, he's had guys on in front of him. Last year, Jimmy Rollins was hurt and Chase Utley missed time.
"I'm looking for Ryan to have a big year. I've seen quite a bit of him. He's already down in Florida. He's not just working extremely hard, he's working on the right things. I don't want to speak for him, but I think he knows he can do both. I think he's going back to that approach.
"From what I saw in the half-year I was there, maybe he got a little too selective at times. Maybe that happens when guys get hurt and you say, 'I'm going to be patient and make guys pitch to me.' And then you can get in a hole. Who knows? I don't care how good you are. When you're expected to be a force in the lineup and you lose people around you, instead of saying, 'I'm going to keep doing the things I've always done,' it's natural to want to try to pick up the slack and try to do even more."
Manuel's bottom line: "If he knocks in 145 runs, I can't say nothing."