Friday, July 11, 2008

Ryan Howard is Underrated

Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard may be the single most feared slugger in Major League Baseball over the past few seasons, and yet somehow the guy remains underrated. How else can you explain that the man who will be the National League leader in both homeruns and rbi will likely be left off the N.L. All-Star team when next Tuesday's mid-summer classic takes place? Should he not make the squad, Howard would be the first player in 60 years to be leading his league in both categories and still not make the team. The problem for some who make the selections, and who evaluate ballplayers, is that Howard strikes out at an even more prolific rate than he homers, and that his batting average of .234 is too low. However, there are a number of problems with criticizing Howard for these perceived shortcomings. First, as pointed out in today's Philadelphia Inquirer by writer Todd Zolecki, the folks at baseball think-tank Baseball Prospectus did research on the relationship between teams' strikeout rates and run production for a period covering over a half-century, from the 1950-2002 seasons, and found no correlation whatsoever. In 2005, after taking another look at the strikeout-runs correlation, they noted that each strikeout only costs a team about 3/100's of a run. Ryan Howard strikes out a lot, but that is highly overrated. If he struck out 50 fewer times, but instead 30 of those were groundouts and 20 were decent-length flyouts, would he be viewed any better? His average certainly would be just the same, and just as poor. However, again average is another deceptive statistic. A batting average determines roughly how many times out of every ten at-bats a player will get a hit. If one player will get 23 hits for every 100 at-bats, and another player will get 27 hits for every 100 at-bats, does that make the latter player much more effective? In fact, does it make that player more effective at all? Fact is that so far this season, Howard is the former player, while Kevin Kouzmanoff of San Diego would be a prime example of the latter. Howard is hitting .234 while Kouzmanoff is hitting .274 with 11 homers and 37 rib. Kouzmanoff is hitting 40 points higher. Who would you rather have on your team, now or in the future? Another factor to consider is that Howard has fallen into a pattern of starting slow and finishing big over the course of a season. Two months ago, he was hitting just .163, but has hit a solid .272 since that time. The fact is that Ryan Howard is one of the best run-producers in all of baseball, and scoring runs is the name of the game. He leads the majors in homers and is 2nd in RBI. Health allowing, he is going to smack close to 50 homeruns again this year, and drive in close to 140 runs. The final argument on Howard's all-star worthiness should be the production of others at the position so far in 2008. The other leading contenders would perhaps be N.L. starter Lance Berkman (.348/22/70), Derek Lee/Cubs (.304/15/55), Adrian Gonzalez/Padres (.279/22/70), and Albert Pujols/Cardinals (.348/18/49). Both Gonzalez & Pujols have been named as reserves for the N.L. squad, and are deserving for consideration. But Howard's 27 homers and 83 rbi lead both of them, even factoring in that Pujols spent some time injured. This time of year, every team can look around and find a couple of players on their roster who they believe should have been all-stars but who fail to make the final cut. On the Phils' roster most would probably try to make the case for Pat Burrell & Cole Hamels. But I think that an even more compelling case can be made for Ryan Howard, who because of an over-emphasis on his strikeouts and low average has somehow reached the status of underrated ballplayer. If the Phillies were to actually lose his 50 homeruns and 140 rbi, they would not replace them, perhaps ever again.

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