How good is Ryan Howard? Ask 10 people and you’ll likely get 10 wildly different takes. This season, Howard was among the league leaders in RBIs and home runs. But, according to advanced metrics, he was the second worst base-runner in MLB (behind only Paul Konerko) and he was one of the worst defensive first basemen.
It’s due to his low marks as a defender and base runner that Howard’s WAR this season placed him among the league’s worst 1Bs. We’re talking James Loney territory. Bill James’ Total Runs stat concurs, suggesting Howard was exactly as valuable as Loney, who is a non-tender candidate for the Dodgers.
Maybe you’re not a believer in advanced metrics? Maybe, like Bill Conlin, you think WAR is “despicable” and “undecipherable”? Maybe you think Bill James is overrated?
OK. I don’t really understand your skepticism, but OK. Can we at least agree that the part about Howard’s base running rings true? The Phillies’ first baseman was hobbled all season by an injured ankle and heel. He was never at full speed, and full speed for Howard isn’t very fast to begin with. By the end of the season, he was limping around the bases. It’s easy to imagine he was the second worst base runner in baseball this season.
And can we also agree that, while WAR doesn’t always measure defense accurately, we’ve seen enough of Howard to know that he’s no John Olerud with the glove?
Finally, can we agree that defense and base running are pretty important? Maybe Fangraphs and James think they are too important. I don’t know. But they are not inconsequential.
Where does that leave us? With a first baseman who can’t run, doesn’t field his position well, and has seen his offensive production decline over the last five seasons. A hitter who still possesses power — he was 8th among MLB first basemen in ISO in 2011 and 5th in home runs — but is no longer an elite slugger. A hitter with a bum leg.
Last night, Howard’s ankle finally gave way. On the final out of the Phillies’ season, Howard injured his achilles tendon running out of the batter’s box. Doctors think the tendon is torn, and that could mean a lengthy rehab for Howard. He could miss all of spring training and possibly the start of the 2012 season.
This is clearly bad news for Howard. Is it bad news for the Phils? I’m not so sure.
Howard will likely be replaced in the lineup by John Mayberry Jr., who posted a better batting average (.271) and slugging percentage (.513) than Howard this season. He also hit home runs at about the same frequency as Howard (roughly 1 every 19.5 plate appearances).
Mayberry’s greatest weakness has always been his too-high strikeout rate. But he’s getting better!
In all minor league levels, he struck out 22% of the time. It peaked in 2009 when it was at 26% in AAA. Since that point, he looks to have made an effort to bring the rate down. Here are his AAA and MLB K%’s from 2009 to 2011:
Year: AAA K%, MLB K%
2009: 26.3%, 38.3%
2010: 20.3%, 30.8%
2011: 18.9%, 18.5%
He has seen a steady improvement in his strikeouts. Using batted ball data, the change can be attributed to his contact % going from 68% and 55% in 2009 and 2010 to 77% in 2012.
Of course, Howard has been known to strike out a few times himself. His career rate is 27%, and he was at 26% in 2011.
On defense, Mayberry only played 100 innings at 1B this season, and that was the first time he’d played the position in his major league career. But he didn’t embarrass himself and given a full offseason to prepare, he’d likely be at least an average defender. As a base runner, he’s better than average and has the speed and athleticism to be a stolen base threat.
Put simply: I think even before Howard’s achilles injury, Mayberry had a chance to be a more valuable player in 2012.
Now, thanks to Howard’s injury, we might get to see if I’m right.