Digging Deep: Ryan Howard

January 8th, 2012 by Mike H. | Filed under Baseball, Phillies.
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On April 26, 2010, the Philadelphia Phillies and Ryan Howard agreed to a contract extension worth a minimum of five years and one hundred twenty five million dollars. 2012 will be the first year of that extension and it is very possible that Howard starts the season on the 15-day disabled list. On the day the extension was signed it took only a couple of hours before MLBTR reported that not-so pleasant reactions to the signing.

  • Rob Neyer of ESPN: “[This contract] is a testament to old-school ignorance.” He also went on to refer to this contract as “a big bowl of wrong.”
  • Keith Law of ESPN: “[This deal] is an overpayment in both years and dollars.”
  • Matthew Carruth of Fangraphs.com: “Say hello to baseball’s newest worst contract.”
  • Keith Kaduk of Yahoo.com and Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports both expressed the idea that the Phillies were better off waiting, but Rosenthal understood the Phillies thought process.

So needless to say, most reports went on to say that this was not the best move for the Phillies. Amazingly, Jon Heyman did say that the contract was just about right for Howard, so take that for what it is worth. This was the offseason that potentially could have been even deeper at first base as Ryan Howard, Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, and Adrian Gonzalez all would have been coming into free agency.

Since then Gonzalez was traded to, and extended by, the Boston Red Sox. Pujols signed a ridiculously rich contract with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, and, as of the time of this post, Prince Fielder has remained a free agent. We all think we know how much worse Howard is offensively than the rest of the first baseman in the league, but let’s take a look into some next level stats. Be prepared, this is a very in depth piece.

Before we start, I’d also like to add Mark Teixiera of the New York Yankees to this comparison for one specific reason: to add the actual market setter. A lot of people think that Howard set the high water mark for power slugging first baseman. When actually it was Teixiera who signed the first mega deal in the 2008-2009 offseason. So let’s start with the available contracts.

  • Ryan Howard: 5 years/125 M (25 M AAV)
  • Albert Pujols: 10 years/250 M (25 M AAV)
  • Adrian Gonzalez: 7 years/ 154 M (22 M AAV)
  • Mark Teixiera: 8/180 M (22.5 M AAV)
  • Prince Fielder: Unsigned

While Howard is the elder statesman of the group at the ripe old age of 32, Teixiera and Pujols are both within 6 months of being 32 as well. Gonzalez is basically two years younger and Fielder is roughly four years younger than Howard. Outside of Fielder, who is as of yet unsigned, Howard’s contract is tied with Pujols for the highest AAV (Average Annual Value), but it is shorter in length and in total dollars than everyone. So while it is very possible to expect decline as these players age, the Phillies won’t be tied to Howard as long as the other players.

While researching this piece, I decided the best way to compare the five first baseman was to start the comparison point in 2006. This was the first year that all five players were full time starters for their respective teams. Now many will point out that I am trying to ignore what Teixiera and Pujols did early in their careers, but I am clearly trying to paint a clearer picture in the long run. The first comparison is the most easily compared stats in production.

For as highly touted a power hitter that all these players are, is anyone surprised that Howard has the most home runs and runs batted in? Now I can’t really fault Gonzalez for his low levels as for the majority of his career was played in Petco Park in San Diego and those spacious parks in the NL West. I am surprised that Teixiera’s numbers are that far behind Howard’s as Teixiera has played the majority of his career in home run friendly ballparks of Texas, Anaheim, and New York. Some will try to point out that Howard’s numbers are inflated by playing his entire career in Citizens Bank Park. Unfortunately, that argument holds no water as, while the splits are close, Howard has hit six more home runs on the road (146) for his career than at home (140).

As we all know, home runs and RBIs are no where near any way to evaluate a player’s offensive ability. Home runs for the most part are balls that were mistake pitches and RBIs are a stat of opportunity. So let’s dig a little deeper into the stats. For my comparison, the stats I’ll be using are:

  • K% – The percentage of at bats that result in a strike out.
  • BB% – The percentage of at bats that result in a walk.
  • RC – The numbers of runs created directly or indirectly.
  • OPS+ – On base plus slugging as compared to the league average.
  • ISO – Total Bases minus singles. Stat measures hitting for extra base hits.
  • SecA – Total Bases plus walks and stolen bases minus hits and times caught stealing. 
  • X/H% – Percentage of hits that are extra base hits.
  • AB/RBI – Number of at bats between runs batted in.

Obviously, Ryan Howard’s main concern is his alarming strike out rate. His other numbers seem to be sustained thru 2009 and dipping in 2010. If you remember, Howard may have originally caused his Achillies tendon problem in August of 2010 in Washington. Hopefully his numbers bounce back once he is fully healthy.

Pujols is the definition of a beast. He’s got ridiculous strike out and walk rates, which have bumped up some of his other peripheral stats. The number that sticks out the most to me is K%. Ryan Howard strikes out almost three times as much as Pujols. Over 600 at bats, the difference equates to 107 strike outs per year. I mean, WOW. Could you imagine how much a different hitter Howard would be if he even cut his strike out rate down to 20%? The remaining numbers that favor Howard are purely due to Howard hitting fourth and Pujols hitting third in their respective lineups.

Adrian Gonzalez’ numbers on the surface can be a bit deceiving. The fact that he played for an offensively challenged Padres team and in a power sucking Petco Park, not to mention three of the remaining four parks in the NL West. Looking at the advanced numbers, Gonzalez has a comprable OPS+ rating, a lower walk rate, and significantly lower ISO, SecA, and W/H% stats. So, while Howard is striking out significantly more than Gonzalez, Howard has a significantly better chance to not only hit a ball out of the park, but to hit for any kind of extra base hit.

Mark Teixiera is being paid a mere 2.5 M less than Howard per year and his contract could possibly be up at the same time if Howard’s option isn’t picked up. So Teixiera is paid 22.5 M per year and has a lower walk rate, OPS+, ISO, SecA, W/H%, AND a worse AB/RBI rate, yet Teixiera is worth every penny and Howard is “a big bag of wrong”? Come on. You are going to tell me that Teixiera’s defense and ability to switch hit are primary factors to justify offensive deficiencies when comparing the two.

Finally, we come to Prince Fielder. Originally thought to be one hell of a consolation prize to whoever lost out on Albert Pujols, Fielder is still available with the Nationals and Mariners thought to be front runners for his services. Fielder’s youth is exciting compared to his production, but his body type and plate approach could potentially be playing large factors into why he isn’t signed to a lucrative contract. As Fielder gets older, his overweight-ness will only slow him down both offensively and defensively. Anyone reading this must’ve seen Fielder on TV or in person at least once in their lifetime and must notice that Fielder is swinging as hard as he possibly can at any given moment. That type of over exersion may ultimately lead to a shoulder or elbow injury.

So if you look at these, or any number of other stats, you’ll see that Howard’s offensive production is hampered purely by his strike out rate. It effects his onbase percentage and related stats primarily. His peripheral power stats are comprable or better than the majority of baseball. Too many people associate Howard purely with his number of strike outs and his contract status.

The most notable reason I see for all the strike outs is Howard’s distance from the plate while batting. From my untrained eye, it appears that Howard has a higher rate of success when he is closer to the plate. When he backs off the plate, pitchers can use that six inches off the edge of the plate more effectively, as Howard is more likely to swing and miss due to his inability to actually reach the ball. The fact that Howard has been in the league for so long and has been unable to adjust and adapt to the pitch selection is also a main contributor. Could the “right” hitting coach solve this problem? Is it a solvabe problem?

As far as the contract goes, as I said earlier, Howard is tied for the highest the contract with the highest AAV, but has the least number of total years and the lowest amount of total money. I think this was one of Ruben Amaro’s smartest decisions as GM. He overpaid slightly in terms of annual value, but kept the term short. I really do think that by the time that Larry Greene, or any other possible future suitor to replace Howard in the future, is ready for active duty, that this deal will look to be more of a bargain than a “testament to old-school ignorance.”

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22 Responses to “Digging Deep: Ryan Howard”

  1. Johnny G says:

    Great research Mike! Really great job, man.

  2. Vinny says:

    Im a Phillies fan and i live in philly…and ryan howard is already wayyyy overpaid at 5 yrs 125m period…if he was a free agent this offseason..he would be playing for a 1 yr 10m dollar contract to see how his achilles was thru the year… and thats at 32 ..next year free agent year 33 and any further decline well its just common sense that he wouldnt get anywhere near 25 m a year for 5 years…fielder is 28 and people are makig trades instead of signing him……phils overpaid by at least 75m …wow

  3. Kyle K. says:

    Pujols is definitely worth more per year than Howard, and they’re being paid the same. You can revisit the argument in 2017 when Howard is properly paid for an old guy with declining skills and Pujols is still making $25 million a year. But for now, Howard is overpaid and Pujols is probably a little underpaid.

    A-Rod’s is pretty bad, but this is probably worse. A-Rod still gets on base better than Howard does and he’s playing 3B. Zito’s is really bad but it only has 2 years left on it at this point, so as of 2012 it’s really not too horrible. (It will go down in history as an all time bad contract though.) And yeah, Wells probably has the worst contract in baseball right now. But I’d put Howard #2.

  4. rbt says:

    Nice try, but comparing Howard’s contract to the others mentioned doesn’t begin to justify it. Just because others are stupid doesn’t mean it’s OK to be stupid too.

    (As an aside, you state that Teixeira is viewed as “worth every penny.” I have NEVER heard anybody say that, or say anything other than that was an insane contract too.)

  5. Bernard says:

    Watch and See…you will hate Howard by the end of this deal

  6. Bernard says:

    I will bet my life savings that Howard isn’t even worth $80 million of this contract by the time he’s done. Which will be before the 5 years are up. Have you watched him play? The dude can’t hit a breaking ball to save his life. Not to mention over his career he has put up less WAR than all of the other 1st basemen you’ve mentioned. Yes fielding counts, and Tex’s gold glove defense makes the rest of his infield better. Can’t say the same with Howard who is a career -20.1 runs at first to Tex’s +35.6. So two comparable 1st basemen, I’m taking the one with the glove for less money. Sorry buddy, but looks like you’re looking through rose colored glasses. And btw, this is not an indepth piece, read Amazin Avenue or even Fangraphs if you want analysis.

  7. Pujols is worth twice what Howard is worth? Pujols may be a much better player than Howard, but he doesn’t produce twice what Howard produces. Howard is overpaid, but his contract isn’t the worst in baseball. That goes to either A-Rod, Vernon Wells, or Barry Zito.

  8. Paul E says:

    Truly over rated…..Ironic how the contract extension kicked in as he lay in the foul grass, writhing in agony, he and his team mates defeated by an inferior ballclub. It will only worsen.

    Amaro overpaid and/or gave extra years to Polanco, Ibanez, and Howard. Hopefully, Hamels will get the good money he has a chance to possibly earn if healthy.

    If Howard, with his busted Achilles tendon, were to join this year’s free agent class of 1B, he’d be signing a 1 year deal at about $11,000,000 AND the Phillies probably wouldn’t have even offered arbitration. Oh well, zero down and one hundred fifty million to go…….

  9. Mike says:

    How do Teixera and Gonzalez “create tons of revenue” while Howard does not? I’ve never seen Teizera or Gonzalez on any national advertisements. Also, despite his faults, Howard is still the face of the franchise (at least in terms of hitters). Chase Utley may be the man but Howard is probably better known by baseball outsiders because of his commercials and the relatively small number of black ballplayers in the game today.

    In any event, did the Phils overpay? Yes. Did they overpay drastically? No. If Pujols has 5 great years and 5 lousy years, is his value worth $50 mil a year for the first 5 years and worthless the last 5? Maybe if Howard’s power slips he’ll finally learn to hit for more contact.

    • DAP says:

      Howard’s power has already slipped, and I wouldn’t count on him becoming a “contact hitter”. At that point he would be worth even less.

  10. Kyle K. says:

    This is a good effort but it falls flat.

    The biggest problem with your analysis is that you’re looking back to 2006. I know you explained that you chose it because that was the first year all these guys were full time starters, but that’s not the point. Looking back over the previous six seasons is a good way to evaluate who HAS been worth their contract or not worth their contract. It’s a pretty bad way to see how good they WILL be during the next five. Conveniently, Howard had a great 2006. But that was many moons, many at bats, and many scouting reports ago. Take that year of the analysis, just run it from 2007-2011, and he looks like a much worse player while all the other guys except Pujols look better.

    More importantly, just look at the last 2 seasons, a much better way to look forward. Teixeira and Howard now look pretty mediocre compared to the other three guys, who are all clearly way above those two. While the Angels may regret the Pujols contract 8 or 9 years from now, I would bet my house and everything I own on him significantly outperforming Howard for the next 5 years. I’d make a similarly strong bet on Gonzalez and Fielder since they’re so much younger. Once all their careers end it’s possible that Howard from age 32 to 37 looks a lot like Fielder and Gonzalez from age 32 to 37. But Howard’s current contract kicks in when he’s 32. Gonzalez’s started when he was 29 and will end when he’s 36. Fielder’s will start when he’s just 28. It’s tough to say how well either of those guys are going to age, but OBP is the valuable offensive skill that ages best and they are both way better at it than Howard. The odds of them aging better than Howard is are strong.

    One last question- if Howard’s achilles problem started in August 2010 and didn’t fully heal last offseason… how is it going to heal this offseason?

    Howard’s contract isn’t as bad as hyperbolic writers on Fangraphs make it out to be, but it’s pretty bad. He’s already not worth $25 million a season and that’ll be the case even moreso in a few years. The fact that he was the MVP in 2006 and had a great 2007 and a great 2009 doesn’t change any of that.

    • Mike says:

      Howard finally had surgery on his achilles tendon. If he had done so a year ago, we might not be having this debate.

      • Kyle K. says:

        No, we still would be, because he wasn’t that good in 2008 and wasn’t that good in 2010 pre-injury. You’d still be making the argument that this contract is worth it because of how good he was in 2006 and 2007. So we’d still have plenty to discuss.

  11. DAP says:

    I you are a Phillies fan, I could understand trying to justify the contract, but to say that its a “bargain” is a huge stretch. Ryan Howard is pretty good but obviously getting worse, can’t hit lefties, and can’t hide in an AL lineup as a DH.

    The only way to justify a contract like this is to say, Howard is the face of the franchise, and we want him to stay a Phillie. Even then its an overpay, but most folks understand you have to do that sometimes.

    The only good deal among the players mentioned is probably Adrian Gonzalez, since he is in his prime right now, not declining.

  12. Matthew says:

    Great article Mike. My perception has always been that Howard was overpaid and just put up good counting numbers because of the great lineup he was in for so long, and where he played his home games. It’s cool to see someone take the time to dig a little deeper here and really compare these guys using a more progressive approach. Interesting to note how similar Teix and Howard are (but only the Phillies get criticized for their signing while the Yankees get a free pass).

    And while Brian C. makes a point about the extra revenue Albert will bring in (as an Angel fan, I already know) I think he pretty much missed the whole point of your post.

  13. Brian C says:

    The problem with this ‘logic’ is that it ignores the reality that the Phils are paying the same avg per year to Howard that the Angels pay Pujols. Pujols is worth double what a player like Howard is worth. The revenue a guy like Pujols pulls in is much higher than that of Howard’s. Of the five 1B’s mentioned, Howard is easily the weakest overall player. He’s worth 15-18 per year if he’s a .270 hitter with 45-50 HR. At .250 and 30ish HR and 175 k’s, he’s worth 12-15 million. He’s been in steady decline the last few seasons. If his numbers slip even further this year (as can reasonably be expected) he’s an albatross (he’s already an albatross). Is there another team in baseball dumb enough to pay Howard over 20 million? I doubt it. What’s the difference if Howard’s contract is shorter if you’re paying too much to begin with? Pujol’s value comes from revenue. Teixiera plays in NY (is also flat out the better hitter, if you don’t see it, I can’t help you) and Gonzalez plays in Boston (see Tex comment), of course they get paid. They create tons of revenue. Howard isn’t a top five 1B. Relative to value, he’s borderline top ten. Can’t ignore reality.

    • Campana says:

      I can’t find anything in your comment that convinces me that Howard is not worth his contract, especially when compared to these other players. What makes you think “Pujols is worth double” when he doesn’t even produce the same power numbers? Then let’s look at Howard compared to Teixara. Teixara has a negligible edge in BA and OBP, but Howard wins out in SLG, HR and RBIs. Plus, you continually comment that Pujols and Teixara’s value “comes from revenue”. Are you saying they are paid huge contracts because of the market they play in? If you are, then you must also be agreeing that Howard is paid because of his offense and not some non-baseball attribute such as jersey sales. Besides, Philly is practically as big a market as Anaheim, NY or Boston, so the argument makes no sense. Your arbitrary value estimates such as “250 and 30ish HR and 175 k’s, he’s worth 12-15 million” are just that, completely arbitrary with nothing to support them. Give us a more convincing argument Brian, otherwise your just another butt-hurt whiner who can’t stand that the Phillies have such a good team.

      • DAP says:

        campana “What makes you think “Pujols is worth double” when he doesn’t even produce the same power numbers?”

        Howard had a SLG of .488 in 2011. Pujols had a .540 in his down year. 50 SLG points is alot, and no one in their right mind would try to argue that Howard is even close to being as good a Albert Pujols.

        No, Teixiera’s deal isn’t much better, but it helps that he plays Gold Glove defense and is a switch hitter, while Ryan Howard is reduced to Willie Harris vs lefties.

        • Campana says:

          You’re comparing nothing but SLG numbers for both hitters crappiest years, but you think that makes him worth “double”? You think Pujols should make 50 million per year batting in 99 RBIs? I would never say Howard is a better all-around player than Pujols, but Howard’s effectiveness at hitting in runs has not been matched, and to say Pujols is worth “double” is just ridiculous. The double amount of time on his contract is even more ridiculous. Howard for 5 years was a great move, and that’s one major point of the article

          • DAP says:

            no i wouldnt say double. thats definitely an exaggeration. But, Howard certinly isn’t worth what Pujols is, based on his production. I think Pujols was an over pay also, by the way. Maybe no in salary but certainly in years. And, as I said before, sometime overpays are warranted… maybe even Howard’s was warranted. But, it’s still an overpay.

          • DAP says:

            Also, I dont use WAR very much, but if someone uses WAR, they could easily make the argument that Pujols is worth twice as much as Howard. Howard is at 2.7, Pujols at 5.4. Exactly double.

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