There’s a reason why people get hung up on a guy like Ryan Howard.
Playing long ball in fantasy, of course, is a losing game. Power guys are often slobs who whiff, make errors, and fail to get on base. But you knew that already.
This is kind of who Ryan Howard has always been, but when he was going good, Howard would hit for decent average and do extremely well in the slugging and OPS categories. When he started going bad, which was about four years ago, these stats began to shrivel up like Tommy Lasorda’s sack and Ryan Howard became a not-very-productive, and not-very-popular, fantasy baseball player. Gettin’ nerdy with it, the stat page says he’s chased more pitches outside the strike zone in the past two seasons than at any point in his career.
We know that all signs point to the Phils stinking on ice. We know their offseason has resembled a scene from “Toxic Avenger IV.” We know that the book on Howard is a best seller around the league burned on bonfires in Philly: Can’t hit lefties, can’t hit breaking balls, and really can’t hit breaking balls in the dirt thrown by lefties. And we know that Howard, who has missed the majority of the past two seasons with various injuries, has not exactly taken care of himself, what with the weight and the not working on his swing.
In each of the last two Springs he swore up and down that he was healthy, and that this would be his turnaround year, and then he turned around and got injured again.
Well, heading into 2014, he’s doing it again, but this year he is obviously leaner and reportedly in the best shape he’s been in years. It appears as though he can actually “run” (read: jog as if he’s trying to catch a subway) the bases, and in his first Spring Training game against some schlubs who looked like they were pulled from a nearby softball game, Howard went 2-2 with a HR, and both hits were against – you guessed it – left-handed pitching. In his second game, against the Blue Jays, another knock, this time with a ribbie, against lefty J.A. Happ.
Here’s the most positive and interesting sign of all: Howard has actually asked new manager Ryne Sandberg if he can have a steady diet of left-handers during Spring Training. Well lookie here! Ryan wants to eat his vegetables! Good boy, Ryan!
I can’t give you any statistical mumbo jumbo as to why Howard will bounce back, and I promise you this column is no homer-fanboy wet dream.
My thought is that the loosey-goosey, leave-’em-alone-and-let-’em-play mentality of Charlie Manuel, who gets an eternal pass from me for 2008, was not the right medicine for Howard. Leaving Howard alone to work it out for the last four seasons worked about as well as Champ Kind’s advice to let Ron and Veronica work it out during their epic slugfest in “Anchorman.”
I hate the hiring of Sandberg as manager, but it is apparent that he is firmly up Howard’s butt with some simple advice: If you have a good eye and get a good pitch to hit, it doesn’t matter if you’re facing a lefty or a righty. Duh! And all this talk from Sandberg and Ruin Tomorrow Jr. about a platoon? If Howard struggles against lefties, you could see Darin Ruf in there, but for some reason the Phillies hate Ruf so I think Howard will get every chance to figure it out.
For some perspective, it might be helpful to pull the case file of another left-handed hitting first baseman, one Mr. David Ortiz.
Like Howard, Ortiz put up some arcade-game-type numbers in his late 20s (119/47/148/.300 in 2005, at age 29 for Big Pappy; 104/58/149/.313 for Howard in 2006, at age 26). And, like Howard, Ortiz began crapping the bed around his age 33 season.
Follow that trajectory for Oritz and you arrive at today, where he’s coming off a year in which he posted 84/30/103/.309 with an OPS of .959.
Where that trajectory takes Howard, now at age 34, is the kind of mystery that would make Rustin Cohle craft little figurines out of beer cans.
If he stays healthy, and I think there’s an 80 percent chance that he will, I project stats on par with what Ortiz did last year: 86/36/107/.289 and not as close to 200 punch-outs as one might expect. In a 5-cat league, it might not be a bad idea to punt on first base in the early rounds and go with Howard later; he won’t be nearly as useful in anything more complex than that.
Howard will be decent in 2014. The Phillies, not so much.