Data: .281/.339/.443, 8 HR, 33 RBI
Malfunction: The Phillies owe Ryan Howard $145 million from 2011 to 2016, and he hasn't done much lately to give them confidence that he's worth the cash. Since signing his massive contract extension on April 26, he's batted a fairly pedestrian .290/.362/.452. But he's really gone south in the last couple weeks, as the Phillies have. The team is 4-10 since May 18, and over that span, the Phillies' cleanup hitter has batted .220/.328/.340, with just two HR and six RBI. Sustained slumps from Werth, Utley, and Victorino have similarly hamstrung the team, but the team views Howard as their offensive cornerstone, and ponied up the bucks to prove it. If their bopper isn't bopping, they're hard-pressed to score runs.
Diagnosis: Bill Baer at Crashburn Alley breaks down the slump, and suggests that Utley and Werth may have less to worry about than Howard. What's most troubling is that Howard hasn't only seen his batting average slip, he's seen his power production vanish, with just two extra-base hits in his last 14 games. Baer writes:
"72 percent of (Howard's) hits are singles compared to 50 percent last year and 49 percent in 2008. Additionally, his walk rate is 3 percent lower and he is hitting 7.5 percent more ground balls and 7 percent fewer fly balls. More ground balls means more singles and fewer fly balls means fewer doubles and home runs. This could be a function of how opposing pitchers are going after Howard as he has seen lefties in 35 percent of his PA this year and has seen even fewer pitches in the strike zone than he did last year, 45 percent to 42 percent."
Reboot Directions: It could conceivably just be one of those things. Over his career, Howard has been much better in the second half, with just an .867 career OPS before the All-Star Break, and a 1.041 OPS afterward. So he may just need to heat up. The Phillies' struggles are easy to describe: they lost some key hitters to injuries and their 3-4-5 hitters all fell into slumps at the same time. The dirty little secret of Howard's game is that while he strikes out a lot, his walk rate is decent rather than ideal — in the last two years, he's walked 156 times, compared to 385 strikeouts. His decent-not-elite plate recognition can help magnify his slumps. Now that it's already June, he'll probably turn it around soon enough, but this slump exposes his weaknesses as a hitter, to say nothing of the Phillies' weaknesses as a team.
Jayson Werth(notes), OF .295/.371/.580, 9 HR, 33 RBI
Just two weeks ago, I wrote that Werth was the Phillies' "secret weapon," who was hitting so well in a contract year that he was likely playing himself out of the team's price range. He was leading the league in OPS then. But since May 18, he has seen his OPS drop 127 points: he's 7-for-42 with just two walks, a terrible 16 strikeouts and a golden sombrero on Memorial Day. He's flailing right now, and needs to get his plate recognition back.
Chase Utley(notes), 2B .276/.394/.514, 10 HR, 24 RBI
Though Jimmy Rollins(notes) and Ryan Howard beat him to the hardware, Utley has been the team's MVP for the past several years. Even he hasn't been immune to the Great Slump, however. Since May 19, he's 9-for-46 with just three extra-base hits. However, unlike Werth, he has seven walks to five strikeouts, so at least he's preserved a sense of the strike zone. Howard may be the hitter who makes most fans reach for their tape measure, but Utley's the leader of the team, and once he starts hitting again, the whole team will.
Shane Victorino(notes), OF .252/.309/.444, 8 HR, 33 RBI, 11 SB
Victorino was in the middle of a breakout year, on pace to break his all-time career high of 14 homers with plenty of room to spare, before the Slumpression broke out. Since May 18, he's 10-for-54, but like Utley his BB/K speaks well of him: he has six walks against six strikeouts, so while his bat has run cold his eye hasn't deserted him. He'll turn it around soon enough.
The Phillies haven't had to deal with second place too often the last two years, but despite the offensive Ice Age, they're still just a game and a half out in the division. As soon as they stanch the bleeding they'll return to their usual imposing selves. But until at least two of Howard, Utley, Werth, or Victorino start hitting, the Phillies will continue to play as listlessly as they have been.
- Ryan Howard