If you noticed an alarming pattern during Ryan Howard’s at-bats in the 2009 World Series it was probably his .174 batting average and 13 strikeouts in the six game series. What is even more alarming though, is the strategy the Yankees used to isolate the Phillies best power threat. Throughout the six game series Ryan Howard saw 101 pitches. 40 of those were fastballs, 36 were sliders, 22 were curveballs, and 3 were cutters. That’s right, in a six game series Ryan Howard saw a fastball less than 40% of the time. That is absolutely unheard of when comparing pitch selection by pitchers in the MLB. Phillies fans could rest easily going forward if the trend stopped there, but thanks to phenomenal research by Tom Verducci and Stats inc., it has been proven that we have quite a bit to worry about.
Let’s start from the top. In the first six innings of a game, Ryan Howard is a .298 career hitter. Any Phillies fan would take that from the big man any day of the week, but after the first six innings that average drops to a very mediocre .237. There are a lot of fluky reasons this could occur if we were comparing a week, a month, or even a season of stats, but when comparing his whole career this is a real issue. Late in games managers have the option of using left-handed relief specialists who live and die by their breaking ball, which is obviously the reason for the substantial drop in production.
When comparing the amount of breaking balls Howard sees compared to the rest of the MLB it is not a competition. Last season over the course of 2009 Ryan Howard saw 1,127 breaking pitches and number 2 on this list was Dan Uggla at 930 breaking pitches. Howard now sees way more breaking balls than anyone else in the big leagues and its only getting worse. Each year the amount of breaking pitches has increased for Howard and so has the amount of at-bats he has against left-handers per season. The average left handed hitter faces a left handed pitcher in 18.5% of their plate appearances. Howard on the other hand faces lefties in a whopping 35.8% of his at-bats, most in the big leagues.
Here’s where the numbers start to get really alarming: Last year when facing a breaking ball, Howard either swung and missed or fouled the pitch off 73% of the time. 73% of the time against a breaking ball it was a strike against Howard. 27% of the time the ball was put in play and that doesn’t mean it was for a hit. You have to assume at least 15% of the balls put into play were recorded outs. That should give you an idea of how often he successfully reaches base against breaking balls. Finally, Howard saw 1,127 breaking balls last year and hit exactly 3 home-runs off of left-handed breaking balls. With those types of struggles it is amazing he puts up the final numbers he does season in and season out.
What does this all mean? Managers, Scouts, and Pitchers are beginning to figure out the secret to shutting down Ryan Howard. You bring in a left-handed reliever late in a game with a half decent breaking ball and chances are Ryan Howard is not going to hurt you. Now of course opposing pitchers cannot throw breaking balls 100% of the time against the big man, but throwing them 40% of the time is really causing an issue. Howard’s biggest issue with the breaking ball is chasing them out of the strike zone and that is something that has some hope of being corrected. To wrap this all up simply, Howard sees the most left-handers in the MLB and the most breaking balls in the MLB. Howard’s batting average has gone down against both almost every season since his rookie year, placing him dead last in both categories. My suggestion is until Howard figures this whole curveball thing out, let Werth hit clean-up against left-handed starters to make the opposing manager make a tough decision. Let Werth get an extra at-bat against the lefty starter (who he kills), or burn an extra arm out of the pen. When you force even a Major League manager to make a tough decision, a fair amount of the time it’s the wrong decision.
You have to wonder though, if Howard could just hit respectably against breaking balls, what type of numbers would he be putting up each season?