Friday, May 26, 2017

Remembering Ryan Howard

With Howard's career likely over, it's time to do some reflecting (
It's been a couple weeks since the Braves released Ryan Howard from his Minor League contract, effectively bringing an end to the 37-year-old's career. The news didn't come as a shock to anyone who's watched him flail away over the past five seasons, but it's always sad whenever one of baseball's greats is told he can no longer play the game.

It's sadder still when one of those players starred during your childhood. When they retire, it feels like they're taking a small part of it with them. The player becomes great only in your memory, YouTube tributes, and grainy highlight reels. It also makes you realize how much time has passed since you first started cheering for them.

I wasn't a Phillies fan and never owned him in one of my fantasy leagues, so I can't say I truly rooted for Ryan Howard. But I remember the summer he exploded onto the national consciousness, establishing himself as a household name and one of the most feared hitters in baseball.

Bill Simmons once wrote somewhere that sports never matter more than when you're 14 years old. Now 10 (soon to be 11) years removed from that semi-magical age, I have to agree with him. The more I think back on it, the more sports memories I'm able to unearth from that time. It's like I'm drilling for oil, and the summer of 2006 is my Alaskan pipeline.

I think that's because I watched more Baseball Tonight (RIP) in that two-month stretch than I have before or since (this was in the dark ages before MLB Network, mind you). Every night, I'd go down into the basement and flip on BT or Sportscenter (whichever was on, though BT was infinitely better) while working out in preparation for eighth grade football.

So, yeah, I saw a lot of baseball highlights that summer, many of which involved Ryan Howard sending another meatball deep into the night.

By then, it was clear that Howard was having a special season. Expectations were high for him that spring, as they always are for players who've just won Rookie of the Year. Howard's were astronomical, though, given that his rookie numbers projected to 40 homers, 115 RBIs, and 325 total bases over a 162-game season.

Most people thought those numbers were Howard's ceiling. Few could have imagined that he'd blow them away.

Many rookies take a step back in their second season, especially strikeout-prone sluggers like Howard. The league adjusts to them, their weaknesses become exploited, and before long they look lost at the plate. There are strikeouts and pop-ups and growing pains, but it's all part of the process. The MLB learning curve is steep, sometimes taking years to master (just ask Jose Bautista).

Very rarely does a guy come up and rake from the start. A few of the all-time greats did -- Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Albert Pujols -- but many didn't, including Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Mike Trout. Some don't hit their stride until their 30s, like Raul Ibanez or Daniel Murphy.

Not Howard. He took off like a rocket ship, homering off reigning NL Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter on Opening Day and batting over .300 through the end of April. In May he barrelled through the stratosphere, slugging 13 homers and driving in 35 runs, but somehow did not win NL Player of the Month honors. Let me repeat that: A guy hit 13 homers and had 35 RBIs in one month and did not win Player of the Month. Some guy named Jason Bay (remember him?) did, with 12 homers, 35 RBIs, and a 1.090 OPS (72 points higher than Howard). 2006 was a different time.

When Howard didn't slow down in June (nine homers, 21 RBIs, .987 OPS), that's when I really began to take notice. Towards the end of the month, he ripped two homers and drove in all seven of his team's runs in a 9-7 loss to the Yankees while becoming the first player to hit a ball into the third deck in right field at Citizens Bank Park. When I saw his stat line in the box score the following day, I remember wishing the season would end already so I'd know what Howard's final numbers would like. My summer vacation had just started, and I was already pining for October.
Howard became an MVP frontrunner with his stretch run surge (Philly Phever)
A little more than a month later, after he'd been named to his first All-Star team and competed in the Home Run Derby, Howard produced the ultra-rare 0-for-0 stat line while playing a complete game. The Marlins walked him five times -- only once intentionally -- although I'm sure several were of the unintentionally-intentional kind. That was in the first game of a doubleheader. Florida pitched to him in the second game, but Howard made them pay with three hits, including a homer.

The five-walk game (which tied a Major League record) reflected a shift in how Howard was being approached. Prior to the All-Star break, he walked 31 times (five intentionally) in 352 plate appearances. In 352 PA's after the break, he walked 77 times, a whopping 32 of which were intentional. Only three men in baseball history received more intentional walks in a season; Barry Bonds, Willie McCovey, and Albert Pujols.

Seeing fewer strikes did nothing to slow Howard's roll in August, as he slammed 14 homers and drove in 41 runs (the highest monthly total since 1962) to win NL Player of the Month. He did not go more than three games without a tater, and he ended the month with six homers and 17 RBIs -- a great month for most players -- in his final nine games. When the dog days of August drew to a close, he had 49 homers (a new Phillies record) and 128 RBIs.

The Phillies, who had a losing record for much of the summer, had been out of the playoff picture for months by the time September rolled around, but their slugging first baseman continued to mash. After playing both ends of a doubleheader on the 2nd, he smashed three big flies in the first game of a second twin ball the following day and added two hits in the night cap for good measure. Following another multi-homer game on September 8th, he'd amassed 13 homers and 26 RBIs in his previous 16 games. With the season entering its final phase, Howard had found another gear.

And even though he had 56 homers with over three weeks to go, there was little talk of him reaching 60. The once-magic number had been cheapened by Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa surpassing it six times in the previous eight seasons, and fans had become de-sensitized to gaudy home run totals. Thanks to the tireless efforts of Congress and Jose Canseco, they'd recently become aware that America's pastime was teeming with bulked up roiders, causing the home run's once-mythic power to wane considerably in the public's eye. Howard's numbers were undoubtedly impressive, but were met with a collective shrug from the baseball world. Pretty cool, Ryan, but you're still a long way from 73.

Making matters worse for Howard was that, at precisely that moment, opposing pitchers and managers decided to stop pitching to him altogether. With teams battling for postseason berths and September call-ups trying to make names for themselves, no one could afford to get cute with Howard. So they hardly bothered, walking him 28 times (14 intentional) over his final 100 plate appearances. It was the closest thing we'd seen to the Barry Bonds treatment since, well, how pitchers were treating Barry Bonds that year, who was intentionally walked 38 times (one more than Howard) at age 41. The strategy worked, limiting Howard to just two long balls and 11 RBIs over his final 21 games. Despite reaching base 53 times via hit, walk, hit-by-pitch, or error during that span (excluding his two homers), he was driven in a mere eight times, indicating just how little protection there was for Philadelphia's cleanup man.

Howard was named Player of the Month again for September after slashing .385/.562/.750, and when the dust settled on October 1st his final numbers were extraordinary; .313/.425/.659 with 58 homers (the most ever by a player in his second season), 149 RBIs, 104 runs and 108 walks (37 intentional). His home runs and RBIs paced the Major Leagues, as did his 383 total bases. Still, one can only wonder what his stats might have looked like had opponents not waved the white flag in September, or if Charlie Manuel hadn't batted him fifth throughout the first half, thereby costing him several plate appearances. 60 homers, 160 RBIs, and 400 total bases were all within reach. As great as it was, Howard's season could have been legendary.

Even so, it was still pretty monstrous. So blinding were Howard's Triple Crown numbers that he momentarily convinced baseball writers he was better than the reigning NL MVP -- the best hitter in baseball, who also happened to be an elite defensive first baseman. After all it was Albert Pujols, not Howard, who led the Majors in slugging (.671) and OPS (1.102) that year while mashing a career-high 49 homers, winning a Gold Glove and leading St. Louis to a World Series title. Had he not landed on the DL for the first time in his career, he would have surpassed 50 homers as well and possibly 150 RBIs, in which case there would have been no debate as to which first sacker had the superior season.

While Howard followed up his MVP with several more remarkable seasons, he never again reached the heights of 2006. He never came close to batting .313 again, finishing at .258 for his career, and had only one other season with an OBP above .360. He never had another 50-homer season or slugged .600 again, as pitchers soon learned that he could be neutralized with breaking stuff low and away. He quickly became unplayable against left-handed pitchers and his body began to break down. After averaging 44 homers and 133 RBIs from 2006-2011, he was below replacement level in every season except one from that point forward. It was unfortunate that he fell off a cliff as soon as his five-year, $125 million contract extension kicked in, turning him into a punchline during his final seasons.

But even at the end, when his batting average fell below .200 and he could no longer hit lefties to save his life, the power remained. He went deep 25 times in his final season in just 331 at-bats, besting his rookie rate of 22 homers in 312 at-bats. The only difference was that his OPS was 214 points lower, and that he was a 36-year-old at the end of the line than a 25-year-old kid with his whole career ahead of him.

It's a shame Howard never got to DH (his natural position) full-time, as he had the size and strength to keep hitting home runs forever. The Yankees just should have put him in that Stadium and milked a few more seasons out of him for minimal cost. They still can, I guess, especially since he'd make a nice platoon partner for Matt Holliday, but the last thing Brian Cashman wants right now is another aging bat on his roster.

Man, 2006 really was a long time ago...

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