|Despite MVP Votes, Howard is no Superstar|
Written by Bjoern Hartig (Contact & Archive) on July 24, 2009
When thinking about superstars in the National League, the first name that that comes to mind is of course Albert Pujols. "El Hombre" towers above everyone else -- e.g. his OPS+ stands at 210 for this season, 33 points better than runner-up Prince Fielder. He is simply in a class of his own.
But right after Albert Pujols, the competition for next-best-player is wide open. One name that usually comes up in the discussion is that of Ryan Howard, especially if you look at MVP voting. In fact, from that point of view, you could argue that Howard has had better three years than Pujols, finishing first, fifth and second between 2006 and 2008, while Prince Albert came in second, ninth and first (he also won in 2005 though, when Howard won Rookie of the Year). However, most people know that MVP voters in general love team performance, the RBI and the home run, which has helped Howard a lot since his Phillies finished second once (2006) and first twice (2007, 2008) while he himself collected 149, 136 and 146 RBI and 58, 47 and 48 long balls in those years, twice leading the league in each category.
Let's start with the part of his game that is easiest to appraise: his hitting. Like most power hitters, Howard does not have a particular high average, though he hit .313 once. His career average however stands at .277. So Howard is no Ichiro, but he does not get paid to be one, he gets paid to hit the ball with authority. And that he does. Nearly half of his hits go for extra bases (329 of 668) and close to two thirds of those leave the park (201 HR). That translates to a .585 slugging percentage since the start of the 2006 season, which is good for second in the majors behind -- guess who -- Albert Pujols (.644, in words: six four four).
However, to achieve this power, Howard has to sacrifice contact, which means he strikes out a lot. His 690 Ks since 2006 are easily the highest number in baseball. Only Adam Dunn (629) comes within 140 K's of this number. He compensates for the whiffs with 341 walks (sixth- highest), which, combined with his modest average, is good for a sound but not spectacular .379 on-base-percentage (30th since 06, min. 300 games). It should also be noted that his OBP was down to .339 last season and currently stands at only .346. This means that Howard ranked second and eighth in OPS in 2006 and 2007, respectively, but only 28th in 2008 and 35th this year. A similar pattern emerges when looking at Runs Created: first, 18th, 25th, 29th from 2006 to 2009. Howard was brilliant in 2006 and good, but not spectacular after that, with a downward trend.
One argument Howard's supporters often make is that Howard is paid to drive in runs and obviously, he is doing that pretty well. However, the question remains whether this is due to Howard's skill or his teammates' ability to get on base in front of him. Since the start of the 2006 season, Howard is hitting .283/.433/.594 with runners in scoring position. The batting average is nothing special, but the slugging percentage is extraordinary. Only Pujols, Thome, Ramirez and Berkman have a higher SLG with RISP, and they all hit well above .300 in these situations. At the same time, only four players have had more at-bats with RISP than Howard (604)*. So, while some of his high RBI total is due to uncommonly many opportunities, Howard is indeed very dangerous with men in scoring position.
* Those four are Jeff Francoeur (634), Garret Atkins (629), David Wright (619) and Alex Rodriguez (609) and none, not even A-Rod, put up numbers even close to Howard's. A-Rod, easily the best of the four, slugs 60 points lower than him while having the same OBP. By the way, would anyone think of Jeff Francoeur as a useful player if his RBI totals hadn't been out of proportion thanks to hitting behind Chipper Jones.
So Howard is a pretty good hitter, but baseball is not only about putting a bat on the ball. As a first baseman, Howard plays on the low end of the defensive system and if you look at his body frame, you don't expect him to win any Gold Gloves in his career. Looking at ultimate zone rating (UZR) -- a modern fielding stat that measures the number of runs above or below average a fielder is -- Howard checks in at a solid 2.1 over his career, with an upward trend. This season, he is actually the second best defensive first baseman in the majors behind Paul Konerko (or, correcting for games played, fourth behind Konerko, Casey Kotchman and Derrek Lee).
While I have to admit I hardly ever see Howard play, this certainly surprises me. Either Howard's defense has improved much and is highly underrated or UZR is not the best way to measure first basemen's defense. However, other fielding stats available at The Hardball Times paint a similar picture: Howard ranks first in Revised Zone Rating (RZR) among National League first basemen and is in the middle of the pack when it comes to plays outside of the zone (OOZ). So it appears that Howard is in fact a pretty solid defensive first baseman and he is far from hurting his team with his glove as I would have expected.
This leads us to the last category, baserunning. There are only few baserunning stats available and I won't even pretend to understand them. The one I found which seems to be the most meaningful one is EqBRR by Baseball Prospectus. EqBRR which stands for Equivalent Base Running Runs and measures "the number of runs contributed by a player's advancement on the bases, above what would be expected based on the number and quality of the baserunning opportunities with which the player is presented, park-adjusted and based on a multi-year run expectancy table."
Anyway, this season Ryan Howard checks in at -1.93, which puts him at position 652 among 697 major leaguers. So basically, Howard is among the worst baserunners in baseball.* On the other hand, losing two runs on the bases over the course of half a season does not seem to be that big of a loss. I am not saying it is negligible, it is just much less than I expected.
* Interestingly, there are three Angels regulars listed below Howard -- Juan Rivera, Bobby Abreu (really? After all, Bobby is 20 of 24 in steals this year), Kendry Morales -- and two only a few spots above him -- Mike Napoli and Vlademir Guerrero. While those five -- with the exception of Abreu -- aren't exactly the speedsters on the team, it is still surprising that a team known for its baserunning has so many players ranked so low. Maybe it's the result of their aggressive style that leads to more outs on the bases?
So where does that leave us? Ryan Howard is a very capable power hitter, who is able to dial it up a little bit more when runners are on for him, although his high RBI totals overstate his ability thanks to a lot of opportunities. His defense does not hurt the Phillies and is actually quite solid in comparison and while he is a really bad baserunner, he is not killing his team on the basepaths.
However, considering that he is already 29 years old, that his numbers are continuously getting worse since his break-out season in 2006 and that his comparison list on baseball-reference.com features a lot of players who broke down early and suddenly (Travis Hafner, Richie Sexson, Ryan Klesko, Cecil Fielder, Mo Vaughn, Erubiel Durazo), we can assume that his best days are already behind him. At the moment, Ryan Howard is probably still a top 10 first baseman, but only barely so. He certainly is a very useful hitter for the Phillies, but he is no first-tier superstar.