While the 2014 season is still in its infancy stage, Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard has already managed to produce an alarming statistic. In 13 at-bats over the course of the first three games, Howard has struck out seven times.
For those who have followed Howard’s career, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. He’s been prone to a high volume of strikeouts over the course of his career. In 2011, the last time Howard was healthy for an entire campaign, he finished fifth in the major leagues with 172 strikeouts.
During a three-year stretch from 2011 to 2013, Howard struck out roughly one-third of the time. His strikeout rate is much higher so far in 2014, as he’s fanned in over half of his plate appearances. While there are still 159 games to go, Howard is on pace for well over 350 strikeouts this year.
Considering this, should the Phillies harbor serious concerns right now over Howard’s strikeout problem?
Probably not. Outside of the frequency, Howard has hit fairly well. He’s collected four hits in the first three games, including a two-run home run on Wednesday night. In comparison, it took him twice as long in 2013 to record his fourth hit of the season.
Baseball is a game of failure, and a 30 percent success rate at the plate is considered impressive. If Howard can turn in a respectable average — he’s a career .271 hitter, and even that would suffice — it shouldn’t matter how he records his out.
If Howard’s alarming rate of strikeouts starts to drastically alter how opposing pitchers approach Chase Utley, then manager Ryne Sandberg should consider dropping Howard in the lineup. Utley, who regularly bats in front of Howard, could start seeing less pitches in the strike zone if Howard’s issues continue. If an opponent believes it can afford to pitch around Utley and instead go after Howard, that course of action seems like it would occur most of the the time.
As the team’s cleanup hitter, it’s imperative that Howard create some sort of danger from that position in the lineup. If his strikeout issues continue, Sandberg could be forced to move him down a spot in the lineup. That happened on Tuesday when Howard batted in the fifth spot against Texas Rangers lefty Martin Perez.
The Phillies shouldn’t stress too much about Howard just yet, but a permanent lineup change should be enacted if the problem persists longer than expected.