By: Brian Mangan
Ryan Howard has had a long, successful career, winning an MVP, making three All-Star teams, and clubbing 334 career home runs along with 1,058 RBI. However, through no fault of his own, Howard has always been a polarizing figure dividing old- and new-school thinkers.
Howard is presently in the middle of a whopping 5 year, $125 million extension, one which the Phillies offered to him two years before he would have been a free agent. It was a move that stunned baseball observers, and truly solidified the “sides” of the Howard debate. Was Ryan Howard a premier first baseman, as evidenced by his three seasons with 48+ home runs and three years leading all of baseball in runs batted in? Or was Howard overrated by the old-school stats, and was he, instead, a defensive liability with “old man skills” who didn’t warrant that size of commitment? As usual, I suspect the answer is somewhere in the middle.
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Howard has struggled mightily since signing that extension in 2010. His 2010 season was a down year by his standards (.276 average, 31 HR, 108 RBI) but was one which most teams would be glad to have from their first baseman. The 2011 season was even more of a struggle, as Howard posted career-lows in average, on-base percentage and OPS. To make matters even worse, Howard suffered a gruesome achilles tendon injury in the final play of Philadelphia’s 2011 season, rupturing it while attempting to run out a ground out. He has been a shell of himself ever since.
Beyond the old-fashioned stats, it is easy to see why sabermetrically minded critics didn’t like Howard or the contract given to him. Despite the RBI, Howard’s poor defense and baserunning mitigated his offensive contributions. From 2006 to 2011, Howard hit 43.6 home runs per year and drove in an average of 133 runs per year. But he averaged only 3.1 WAR over that time and, aside from his monstrous 2006, posted 3.1, 2.7, 4.4, 1.0 and 1.5 WAR the other five years during that stretch.
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Howard’s failures can’t be blamed solely on the achilles tendon, as two of those pedestrian years (2010 and 2011) both took place before the injury. Since then, Howard has failed to eclipse 23 home runs, .266 average, or put up even 1 WAR in any of the last three seasons.
However, lost in all the discussion of what Howard isn’t, and lost in his status as a flashpoint in the baseball/sabermetric communities, is an appreciation of what he is. Howard is an outlier. We may never know why, or how, but he is an outlier. He’s an RBI machine, and he’s confounded everything that baseball analytics have ever thought they knew about the idea of “clutch” hitting in baseball.
As a sample, here’s the great Joe Sheehan over at Baseball Prospectus, from an article published in 2004:
Over the course of a game, a month, a season or a career, there is virtually no evidence that any player or group of players possesses an ability to outperform his established level of ability in clutch situations, however defined.
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Fangraphs is one of my favorite websites. Once a year, a writer over there gives out an “award” called the Joe Carter-Tony Batista Award, intended to recognize the players whose RBI total most exaggerates their actual offensive value. It is a fun read, but the reason I mention it is because it it is shining example of how most sabermetrically-inclined baseball writers openly mock runs batted in as a measure of value. The measure they use is RBI/wRC, and the higher the total, the “worse” you were relative to your RBI total. Howard was 2nd in baseball by this measure from 2007-2009, first in 2011, and was first again in 2014.
Everybody knows that a player can “luck” into a season where they drive in a lot more runs than expected. Most people also know that a player who hits in the middle of a strong batting order is going to, on average, drive in more runs than a player of the same ability in a different environment. Would it be better to have a higher wRC? Of course it would. But wRC is just a means to an end, scoring runs.
So, when it comes to Ryan Howard – when do we give up? When do we admit that Ryan Howard is “clutch”? And how do we ascribe value to such a thing?
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Let’s talk about Howard’s accomplishments. Aside from leading the National League in RBI three times, take a look at the chart below. Listed in the chart are the RBI and number of runners on base for Howard and for the average major leaguer with the same number of plate appearances. Next to those columns, is the number of RBI divided by the number of runners on base.
Everyone knows that a slugger batting behind talented 1st and 2nd place hitters will get accumulate RBI than the average player over the course of the season. But Ryan Howard not only beat the average based on exected runners on base, but beat it compared to actual runners on base. And he has done it every single year, even in 2012 and 2014 when his OPS+ was below league average. Sure, those figures also count when he drove himself in on a home run – but why shouldn’t those count? (Note: Even if you were to subtract 6 RBI from his 2013 season, giving him only 5 home runs in 286 plate appearances, or make similar deductions in other years, his RBI % is still above league average).
Howard’s incredible clutchness goes beyond RBI, in which he lead the National League in three times. Take a look at the following chart put together by ESPN’s Mark Simon in 2010 when Howard was in the prime of his career.
Howard has consistently hit better in situations that might be considered “clutch” either on a micro or a macro scale. Howard has hit better with runners in scoring position, in high leverage situations, in close games, and down the stretch of the season.
His overall batting line is .265/.355/.526 for an 881 OPS over 5,666 plate appearances (and dropping by the day, sadly, as he continues to struggle). Let’s compare some splits.
His first half batting line is .257/.336/.497 for a 833 OPS in 3,023 plate appearances, so his second half is necessarily better. But how about September? In September, Howard’s line is .283/.396/.590 for a 986 OPS in 1,071 plate appearances, almost two seasons worth of plate appearances. In 2007, when Howard’s Phillies were chasing the Mets down the stretch, he hit 11 home runs in September for an 1043 OPS. In 2008, he was even better, carrying the Phillies to a playoff berth thanks to a September where he hit .352, clubbed 11 home runs, and posted a 1274 OPS.
His line with runners in scoring position is also demonstrably better than his overall line. Howard has batted 279/.407/.537 in 1,807 plate appearances with RISP — essentially three whole seasons worth of data. As a bonus, Howard has hit .296/.333/.622 with 13 home runs over 150 plate appearances with the bases loaded.
You could go on and on about Howard, because everywhere you look there are additional splits which would confirm his clutchness:
- When the game is within 4 runs is .269/.361/.533
- When the margin is greater than 4 runs drops to .238/.314/.478
Perhaps you’d prefer the splits by leverage?
- High leverage: .292/.383/.566, 949 OPS, 1,262 plate appearances
- Medium leverage: .268/.358/.542, 899 OPS, 2,316 plate appearances
- Low leverage: .248/.336/.487, 823 OPS, 2,080 plate appearances
I think about this often as I think about the MVP award that Howard won, beating Carlos Beltran (and Albert Pujols) in 2006. By advanced measures, Beltran had a better season, besting Howard 8.2 to 5.2. But Howard beat Beltran in home runs, RBI, on-base, slugging, and games played. So maybe the voters didn’t get it wrong.
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For what its worth, writers at Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus seem to have acknowledged Howard as an outlier. Fangraphs did so while arguing that Howard wasn’t deserving of his huge contract (well, duh).
Baseball Prospectus took a look at this issue in the middle of 2012, when Ryan Howard was in the middle of an awful year. Here’s what they had to say: “What’s important is that Howard is still doing it. In the middle of a terrible year, in which he has become a very poor hitter, he is still doing the thing that got him paid in the first place.”
When it comes to statistics, there will always, by definition, be outliers. A certain percentage of players will be two, or perhaps even three standard deviations away from the mean. The great Cyril Morong took a look at whether Ryan Howard was a clutch home run hitter back in 2011, determining that he did not believe him to be one despite the fact that Howard hit home runs with runners on base 19.9% more often than he did with the bases empty. In justifying this conclusion, he explained that there necessarily will always be outliers, players who are at the tail ends (both high and low) of a normal distribution. Morong is right, technically.
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Maybe Ryan Howard isn’t clutch, because maybe “clutch” doesn’t exist. But the truth of the matter is that Howard has been so clutch for so long that we will never know, because he will retire long before his career statistics have the opportunity level out.
But maybe, just maybe, clutch does exist. And maybe, just maybe, Ryan Howard is clutch. As a person with one foot firmly planted in sabermetric circles, and another foot planted in a history of baseball cards, and legends, and watching ballgames with Dad as a kid in the 80’s — I for one would like to believe that Howard is as magic as he appears to be.
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Brian Mangan is the co-founder of the Read Zone, and is an attorney who lives in New York City. A lifelong Mets fan, Brian has no problem giving credit where credit is due, even to Phillies.