MLB Analysis: Is Ryan Howard Really a "Great" Player?


Ryan Howard is one of the most polarizing players in baseball. Some fans see an elite slugger, while others see an average player who is paid like an elite slugger.

The purpose of this article is to host a debate on the topic. Is Howard elite? Or is he basically an average all-around player?

Joining us today is John McCann, Phillies fan and author of John will be responding to the prompt, “Ryan Howard is an elite player,” while I will be responding to, “Ryan Howard is a roughly league average player.”

Ryan Howard is a roughly league average player

When people describe Ryan Howard as an elite player, I think part of the reason they reach this conclusion is because he's such an entertaining player. He's good at two things, hitting home runs and driving in large quantities of runs. It’s safe to describe both categories as among the most enjoyable events to watch in baseball. Chicks dig the long ball, but they'll also applaud the two-run single.

I make this point because I think some people are subconsciously confusing entertainment with on-field value. Basically, because Howard is one of the most entertaining players to watch, he must be good.

The problem with that line of thinking is that while Howard is good at a highly visible skill, his other skills are poor.

He is statuesque as a fielder, lacking completely in range. One can't help cringing when he throws to second base to start a double play, not knowing whether he's going to complete the throw, airmail it, or plunk the runner.

He's quietly terrible as a baserunner. While he doesn't create outs on the bases by making boneheaded plays, his immobility makes him one of the worst baserunners in the sport.

Fangraphs measures baserunning runs above average, which does not include stolen bases. It's simply a measurement of how well a player does advancing from base to base.

In 2011, Ryan Howard has been the second-worst in baseball, costing the Phillies 7.8 runs compared to an average baserunner.

Sometimes I imagine a scout grading Howard's five tools—hitting for contact, hitting for power, speed, fielding abilities, and throwing. Scouts use a 20-80 scale with 20 being very bad, 80 being extremely good, and 50 being major league average. Here's how I think a scout's report card might look, along with a brief justification.

  • Hitting for Contact - 30: In 2011, Howard has swung and missed on 14.5 percent of his swings. Only Miguel Olivo (19.2), Mark Reynolds (15.8), and Mike Stanton (15.0) have worse rates.
  • Hitting for Power - 70: Howard used to be a borderline 80 in this category, but he belted "only" 31 home runs in 2010 and has 33 in 2011. His power is probably on the decline.
  • Speed - 20: As discussed above, Howard is very slow.
  • Fielding - 20: Howard's a first baseman, so this category was never going to be above 40 (or below average), but Howard's a BAD first baseman, hence the low ranking.
  • Arm - 30: Howard simply isn’t good at throwing.

Imagine we are playing a video game. We can play as Mario, who is exactly average in all categories. Or we can play as Bowser, who has huge power when he hits, but he's pretty bad at everything else. The developers did extensive balancing so both characters are equally good—in fact, they are both exactly average—they just get there in different ways.

My argument is that Howard IS Bowser. He is basically an average player because he's so bad at everything besides hitting the baseball very hard. While he creates many runs with his power, his other skills chip away from that value.

To this point, I have played down the statistical side of the debate for a couple reasons. First, this isn't a new debate. Statistics have been used before, and I have seen the aftermath. It tends to be a pissing match over how much consideration home runs, RBI, and "made-up" stats like wOBA should receive. I think I speak for everyone when I say that debate is boring.

The second reason is that I don't think we need statistics to reach the conclusion that Howard is a fairly average all-around player. Reflect on that Bowser analogy while watching him play.

2004 24 4.80% 31.00% 0.375 15.60% 0.282 0.333 0.564 0.378 0.4
2005 25 9.50% 28.70% 0.354 14.80% 0.288 0.356 0.567 0.382 2.2
2006 26 15.30% 25.70% 0.356 14.00% 0.313 0.425 0.659 0.436 6.2
2007 27 16.50% 30.70% 0.328 15.10% 0.268 0.392 0.584 0.396 3.7
2008 28 11.60% 28.40% 0.285 15.60% 0.251 0.339 0.543 0.366 3.0
2009 29 10.70% 26.50% 0.325 15.70% 0.279 0.360 0.571 0.393 4.6
2010 30 9.50% 25.30% 0.332 14.60% 0.276 0.353 0.505 0.367 1.3
2011 31 11.90% 26.90% 0.294 14.50% 0.249 0.343 0.490 0.353 1.6
Total - - - 12.30% 27.40% 0.323 14.90% 0.274 0.368 0.560 0.385 23

Much of what you see above has already been discussed, so let’s start on the right with Wins Above Replacement (WAR). Fangraphs' version of WAR is pretty harsh when regarding Howard. A 2.0 WAR player is exactly league average, which is roughly how it views Howard.

It might be worth noting that according to Baseball Reference, Howard is a 2.6 WAR player—slightly above average—with the difference mostly coming from a more positive view of his defense. Either way, those numbers scream average.

Let's talk rates. Howard's .249/.3483/.490 line is a fairly typical for a power hitter. His wOBA, which uses linear weights to evaluate his hitting performance, is about 20 percent above average. That's good, but again, not elite. Scanning back a few years to 2006, you can see what an elite season actually looks like; his .436 wOBA that season was over 60 percent above average.

Howard is an important player for the Phillies. But given his fading, one dimensional skill set and merely good statistics, I find it hard to accept him as one of baseball’s elite.

And now I will turn the floor over to John. He will be arguing that...

Ryan Howard is an elite player

The premise that Ryan Howard is not an elite player based on sabermetric results is one side of a coin. Sure, Howard is not an elite fielder or base runner. Throws to second base? Not so much. But, he is elite when it comes to his power and production. More important to the discussion, where does he fit in amongst the current greats of the game? I tell you where—batting fourth for the Philadelphia Phillies.

Conventional thinking would have you believing in him as one of the games best based on his resume. He has won Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards, and he is the fastest in the history of the game to hit 100 home runs, as well as 150, 200 and 250, and he should own the 300 mark early next season.

Webster’s defines “elite” as "the choice part" or "the best of a class." I characterize it as someone that is at or near the top of what he/she does. In baseball terms, Howard is in this class of players.

In addition to the aforementioned awards, Howard has been the most prolific power hitter and run producer in the MLB since he started his first full season in 2006. In short, he has more home runs and RBI than any other player during that span. If Howard can get to 35 HR and 120 RBI this season, he will be one of three active players to accomplish the feat in five seasons or more (Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez being the others).

However, these figures cannot begin to measure his importance to the Phillies. I list a few other items such as:

  • Games Played: He consistently bats cleanup each and every game. He has averaged 154 games played per season from 2006 through 2010 and is maintaining a similar pace this year.
  • Game Changer: Opposing managers game plan around Howard. This is evidenced by much of the National League East loading up on lefty relievers in recent years in an effort to stop the Big Piece in later innings.
  • Statistics: Six consecutive years of 30/100 despite having next to no protection behind him during many of these years.
  • Excitement level: The excitement that Howard brings to a game is palpable. I watched him plant a pitch over my head in the right field bleachers when down 6-1 to the Marlins back on Aug. 26. I was on the edge of my seat hoping for something special, and he delivered. This is the type of anticipation and excitement that he brings to the table each and every time he comes to the plate.

The cons on Howard are his cost, speed, throwing arm, and spotty defense. He is also unfairly criticized for men reaching base ahead of him. I would argue that Howard has improved his defense each year and is passable at this point. But, base running and throwing? He is not being paid to steal bases or go from first to third on a single. Those items do not deter me from thinking of him as elite.

Also, some of the other “elite” first basemen don’t exactly shine with their glove. Pujols and Miguel Cabrera both have 11 errors and Prince Fielder has a whopping 14. I assume that their general managers would still consider them elite, and yet they do not match Howard’s raw power numbers.

As far as men on base in front of him, players like Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez also bat in very effective lineups yet fail to match Howard's raw production.

I try to look at the sabermetric side of a baseball player, but I cannot buy into an equal spread of hitting, power, running, throwing and fielding—the five tools. They don’t get twenty percent each, at least not for a first baseman.

Howard’s value to the Phillies is weighted; it should be calculated with about a 75 percent weight on his power and production. He is not expected to steal bases or throw runners out. As long as those items don’t cost you runs by committing errors, or that injurious “caught stealing,” then they are a non-factor. His strengths lie in his ability to plate runners, a skill at which he has been at the top of the MLB game since he came into the league.

The bottom line is that Howard is very entertaining to watch, and the Phillies would not be the same without him. He puts butts in the seats. Yes, chicks dig the long ball, and he hits them at a higher rate than other player since 2006. Ryan Howard is one of the faces of the most successful teams in baseball. Not surprisingly, that team designation surfaced once Howard was on the scene.

Elite? You betcha!

Read more great baseball stuff at The Hardball Times.


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