Ryan Howard vs. the StatheadsApril 29, 2010
Earlier this week, the Phillies gave first baseman Ryan Howard a contract extension through the year 2016. This contract makes him the second highest paid player in baseball, and seems to ensure that he will be a member of the Philadelphia Phillies for the forseeable future. They locked up one of the franchise’s greatest players for years to come. This should be a good thing, right?
Not if you believe the statheads.
Who are the statheads? The statheads (or sabermetric experts as they’d prefer to be called) rose to prominence in the early 2000s with the book Moneyball by Michael Lewis. Moneyball showed how the Oakland A’s realized that they couldn’t compete financially with the larger market teams such as the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. If they wanted to remain competitive, they would have to find some sort of advantage.
The advantage they found was sabermetrics. By taking a deeper statistical analysis of the game, they found certain statistics – such as on-base percentage and defensive ratings – that helped teams win, but more importantly, weren’t overpriced like traditional stats like home runs and batting average.
Thanks to the publicity of Moneyball – and more importantly, because the A’s were successful with their approach – sabermetrics went from the fringe of baseball analysis to the forefront. Suddenly, we were bombarded with a wave of new statistics: OPS, WAR, UZR! The statheads claimed that these statistics were the real judges of how good a baseball player is. What about the old statistics that everyone used to measure players by such as wins and RBIs? According to the statheads, those statistics are too dependent on outside factors.
To an extent, I understand where they are coming from. I’ve seen lousy pitchers accumulate high win totals, merely because they pitch for good offensive teams. And RBIs are largely dependent on how many runners are on base when the batter comes to the plate. But on the other hand, sometimes players can’t be summed up just by advanced statistics.
And that is where Ryan Howard comes in.
Statheads hate Ryan Howard. To them, Ryan Howard is the type of old school player who was overvalued before the statistical revolution. According to prominent statheads like Keith Law of ESPN.com, Howard isn’t a great player. To them, he’s actually a liability. Sure, he hits a lot of home runs (Overrated!) and has a lot of RBIs (Only because the Phillies lineup provides him with so many opportunities!), but because he hits poorly against lefthanders and strikes out too much, he is a detriment to the team.
Not unexpectedly, the statheads were apoplectic when the Phillies gave Howard a contract extension. Not only were the Phillies giving a huge contract to a player based on overrated statistics, but they were also giving a lot of money to a player whose performance would surely decline during the life of the contract.
Another big statheads trend is to compare players due to statistical similarity, and based on those comparisons, they make projections on the remainder of their careers. They figure that if players have had similar stats up until this point in their career, then it is logical that the rest of their careers will play out the same way as well.
While this seems like a reasonable idea, it’s unclear just how accurate these projections are. These projections ignore the fact that every player’s career path is different. Just because one hitter went into a decline at age 34, doesn’t mean that another player with similar stats will as well. Another major flaw in the projection system is the abundance of performance-enhacing drugs in the last 20 years. While these players might have been completely clean, it is strange that we saw certain players (Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens) have career upswings right around the time they should have been declining. And we also saw some players (Sammy Sosa, David Ortiz) drop off tremedously right around the time stricter drug testing was put into effect.
One valid concern raised is that traditionally, large sluggers in Howard’s mold have not aged particularly well. Howard has worked to counter this, losing 30 pounds over the past two years and undergoing a rigid training regimen. Still, large bodies do tend to break down sooner than smaller ones, and Howard is about as large as they come in baseball.
So it’s clear that the statheads are opposed to the contract. But how do I feel about it? I’m happy, but I do have some concerns.
My biggest opposition to the contract is that it wasn’t necessary to do at this time. They had Howard signed for the next two seasons. And while he might have been a free agent and able to cash in on the open market in two years, first base is one of the easiest positions to fill. There might have been a number of good first basemen available, such as Prince Fielder.
But in recent years, the Phillies have shown great fear of competing in free agency. The whole Roy Halladay-Cliff Lee maneuvering was done specifically so that they wouldn’t be bidding on a free agent pitcher. I understand their fear of the open market somewhat. It only takes one team making a ridiculous free agent offer to a player to drive his price up.
For an example of this, see the Phillies pursuit of Jim Thome in 2003. The Indians probably thought Thome would never leave, but along came the Phillies with money to spend and the desire to bring in a big name, and the Indians could no longer afford him.
But while open bidding can be frightening, there is also a good chance that the market for Howard wouldn’t have been as open as the Phillies thought. After all, there are only a few teams in baseball who can afford the type of contract that Howard would have demanded (and was ultimately given). If none of those teams were going to be willing to offer up the money, then Howard’s demands would have to come down.
And since Howard was still two years from free agency, I’m not sure why they gave him such a long and expensive contract. Usually when a player signs before free agency, there is some concession on his part. Some players prefer the comfort of security rather than the uncertainty of free agency. There didn’t seem to be any concession on Howard’s part. So if the Phillies were just going to give him what he wanted, why didn’t they wait?
And my biggest reason for trepidation about the deal is because I don’t want the contract to become a burden on the Phillies budget. I don’t want to hear “Well, we don’t have money to pay other players because Howard is making so much.” People are already fearing that outfielder Jayson Werth will be leaving as a free agent after this season because the Phillies seem maxed out on their budget. While the Howard deal probably doesn’t affect Werth’s status (The new contract is actually an extension that doesn’t start until 2012) it might affect their ability to retain players like Cole Hamels and Jimmy Rollins when their contracts come due.
But those concerns aside, I like the deal.
The two most difficult things to find in baseball are a legitimate ace pitcher and a power hitter to anchor the lineup. Howard certainly anchors the Phillies lineup. The guy is almost guaranteed to hit 40+ home runs and have 120+ RBIs every season. The statheads will point out that his on-base percentage may not be the best on the team, but his job is not necessarily to get on base, but rather to get the runners home. And he is clearly succeeding. (Side note: I find it funny that the same people who claim that Howard only gets a lot of RBIs because of the Phillies strong lineup, also criticize leadoff hitter Rollins’ low on-base percentage. You can’t have it both ways.)
And if the guy is such a liability like some claim, then why are the Phillies succeeding? Why have they won three straight division titles, two pennants, and a World Series with Howard as their cleanup hitter? Why have they led the NL in runs the past two seasons? I don’t think they’d be able to do all this if Howard was truly a liability.
Another aspect of Howard that often overlooked is the way that he changes the game. In a late game situation, with runners on base, there are few, if any managers who will not bring in a lefthander to face him, assuming they don’t just go ahead and intentionally walk him. You can be sure that when a pitcher is brought in to face Howard, he is going to be as careful as possible. Howard usually deposits mistake pitches into the seats.
While he can be gotten out by a good lefthander, the fact is that there are very few good lefthanded pitchers out there. One reason why the Yankees had success against Howard in the World Series was because they had multiple effective lefthanded relievers that they could bring in to face him. They might be the only team capable of doing that.
There’s another factor that statheads often overlook (and sometimes deride because it can’t be measured by statistics). While “clutchness” is extremely subjective and hard to define, Howard definitely seems to have it. I’ve seen him go through hot stretches where he absolutely carries the team. In September 2008 when the team was fighting for the division title, Howard was delivering big hit after big hit to carry the team to the postseason. Last year in the playoffs, his memorable game tying double in the NLDS was only the highlight of the way he destroyed the Rockies and Dodgers pitching during the Phillies march to the World Series.
Looking past his contributions on the field, there are other reasons why locking up Howard was a good idea. Barring an unforseen injury or career downturn, when his career is done he will be in the discussion of greatest Phillies hitter ever. While it’s unfair to compare stats between the 1980s and 2000s, Howard’s power stats will likely eclipse Mike Schmidt on top of the Phillies all-time list. While in theory it’s easy to say “Oh, the Phillies can just find another first baseman,” in actuality it’s a huge blow to a team and its fanbase when a star player and franchise icon leaves. Howard was one of the key players who helped end Philadelphia’s championship drought, and fans have grown attached to him. It would be devestating to many of them if Howard were to ever leave.
For years, Phillies fans were used to ownership not spending a lot of money on players. They knew that the Phillies were never going to bring in the big money free agents. But things have changed, and now the Phillies are among the financial powers of the league. They’re paying big money to their star players, and I can’t possibly complain about that. It’s much better than being a fan of teams like the Indians who see CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee depart because the team knows they can’t re-sign them once they become free agents. It’s comforting to know that Phillies management is willing to pay what it takes to keep their star players in town.
So in the end, I am glad that Howard got his contract. I salute the Phillies for doing so, and look forward to several more prosperous years with Howard leading the way.