The 2011 season didn’t end the way it was supposed to, especially not for Ryan Howard. The Philadelphia Phillies blew a five-game NLDS against the St. Louis Cardinals, losing the final game 1-0 when Howard grounded out to end the season.
To literally add injury to the insult, Howard tore his Achilles tendon as he attempted to run to first base, providing one of the more forgettable images in recent Philly sports. Howard, who recently had surgery, will spend the offseason rehabbing from the injury, and it is very unlikely that he will be ready in time for spring training or even Opening Day. Even when Howard does return, he will have to use actual game time as a surrogate spring training, much like Chase Utley did this past year when rehabbing from a bout with patellar tendinitis.
What is unfortunate in terms of the timing of Howard’s injury is that the former league MVP will begin a five-year, $125 million contract extension this coming season. Howard’s contract is already being talked about as a colossal mistake for a Phillies team that owes a great deal of money already to Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay, with key financial decisions to make regarding Ryan Madson, Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels, and Shane Victorino to be made in the near future.
Those in support of Howard’s extension point to his power numbers; numbers that tell of Howard’s sheer value to his team. He has averaged 44 home runs and 133 RBIs per season since 2006, twice leading the league in home runs and three times doing so in runs batted in. He’s finished in the top five in MVP voting in each of his five full seasons as a starter thus far, winning in ’06, and he has a slew of accolades in addition: ’05 Rookie of the Year award, three All-Star selections, the ‘09 NLCS MVP award, and the fastest to both 100 and 200 home runs in major league history.
The Howard critics point to his poor defense, subpar baserunning skills, even his declining power numbers coupled with a large frame that is expected to break down quickly. Baseball Reference rates Howard’s defense as average or even slightly above average, and while he routinely ranks in the bottom five in the league in baserunning, the Phillies aren’t paying him for his defense or his speed on the basepaths; they’re paying him for his home runs and his ability to hold down the cleanup spot in the lineup.
That’s precisely where the problem lies with Howard. After averaging 50 home runs per year from ’06-’09, Howard has hit just 31 and 33 each of the past two seasons. His RBIs went from an average of 143 per year to just 112, and most frightening are his vastly declining OPS totals. As league MVP in 2006, Howard posted a .313/.425/.659 slash line with a 1.084 OPS. Those numbers are almost impossible to maintain, but look at the decline in Howard’s percentages over his career.
No one expected Howard to hit .313 again. His biggest problem isn’t even his .253 batting average he posted last year; it’s the steep decline in his walks and his home run totals, which has subsequently resulted in lower on-base and slugging percentages.
Last year, Howard hit 33 home runs with 116 RBIs, fine numbers for a power hitter. Are they worth $25 million though? No way. Not if you factor in a slugging percentage that didn’t even reach .500. Howard’s .835 OPS was just 19th best in the National League; light-hitting players such as Seth Smith (.830) and Miguel Montero (.820) nearly surpassed Howard’s total. FanGraphs particularly didn’t rate Howard well, putting him ninth among the 11 qualifying NL first baseman in Wins Above Replacement (1.6). At 32 years old, Howard isn’t at the best age to be starting a brand new five-year extension, especially when history doesn’t look kindly upon players of Howard’s size.
Howard is what he is. He’s a poor baserunner, a below-average defensive first baseman with an awful throwing arm, and a frustrating hitter who strikes out too much and doesn’t walk enough. He’s also a dangerous power hitter, one who is all but a lock to hit 30 home runs and drive in 100 runs each year, a guy who hit three home runs in the 2008 World Series and won the 2009 NLCS MVP award. In today’s day and age, contracts are extremely inflated (just look at Jayson Werth’s deal as proof of that), and Howard will never be worth $125 million for the next five years.
That being said, many teams around the league would be glad to have this guy. He’s a staple in the Phillies batting order and a big left-handed power bat who played a key role in the Phillies’ World Series championship in 2008. He’s also all but guaranteed to be a Phillie for life, so as much as Phillies fans can grow weary of him, they better get used to having Howard around. On a Phillies team publicly looking to get younger, Howard will be a constant on the Phillies for five more years.