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.”