Big League Stew

Slumpbot .200: With salary set to soar, Ryan Howard in decline

Alex Remington
Big League Stew

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Using the best technology available to us today, SlumpBot .200 identifies a few players who are currently having a bit of trouble and then offers solutions for performance recovery.

Ryan Howard, Philadelphia Phillies

Data: .246/.342/.453, 18 HR, 73 RBIs, 1 SB, 0 CS, 49 BB/104 K

Malfunction: Ryan Howard is leading the National League in RBIs, and he's on his way to another 30-homer season. Still, if you look a little deeper, the 31-year-old is having a disappointing campaign and a terrible July, with just a .548 OPS in 14 games this month. That's a small sample size, but Howard's decline has been nearly linear: Beginning in 2006, his MVP campaign, his yearly OPS has been the following: 1.084, .976, .881, .931, .859, .795. This would all be worrisome in itself, but his contract makes it positively frightening. Starting next year, the Phillies owe him $125 million through 2016. Is Ryan Howard's bat turning from elite to ordinary?

Diagnosis: Ryan Howard has been one of the ultimate touchstones for the debate about just how useful RBIs are in measuring a hitter's value. The sabermetric answer, of course, is "not very." RBI totals have much more to do with a hitter's teammates — the ones who got on base in order to be driven in — than with the one driving them in.

As Joe Posnanski wrote a week ago:

Howard leads all of baseball with 296 runners on base. He had an amazing 60 game-stretch recently when he hit .223 … and he still drove in 47 runs in those 60 games.

But a low batting average is the least of it. Bill Baer at Crashburn Alley lays out the statistics of the matter: Ryan Howard is in the process of posting career lows in Isolated Power, Weighted On-Base Average, and hitting against left-handed pitchers. {YSP:MORE}

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The drop in Isolated Power — a measure of a hitter's ability to hit for extra bases, calculated by subtracting batting average from slugging percentage — has been particularly precipitous, declining from a spectacular .346 in 2006 to a more ordinary .207 in 2011, lower than his teammate Shane Victorino. Moreover, the collapse in his platoon splits suggests that Howard, who only has a .637 OPS against southpaws this year, may need to be removed from his everyday role when a left-hander is on the mound. Weighted On-Base Average is an overall measure of offensive performance, sort of like a more advanced version of OPS — another measure in which he's posting a career low.

The drop in his Isolated Power is particularly salient for a power hitter like Howard: It's 40 percent lower this year than it was when he won his MVP. But his walk rate this year has declined by nearly a quarter, from 15.3 percent in 2006 to 11.7 percent this year. (He has also cut his strikeouts, but not by quite as much.) If that weren't enough, Fangraphs has Howard as a below-average baserunner and below-average fielder.

That said, Howard is a notorious second-half hitter. For his career, he has an .867 OPS in the first half and a 1.007 OPS in the second half. So it's very possible that he'll catch fire for the rest of the summer and post the kind of numbers we got used to seeing from him before his injury-shortened 2010. However, I noted Howard's traditional second-half bounce in Slumpbot last June, and Howard proceeded to produce an .858 OPS in the second half after posting an .859 OPS in the first half. So it's quite likely that Howard's problems — especially his declining power and walks — are caused by something other than the calendar.

Reboot Directions: Ryan Howard is still a pretty good hitter, particularly in a year in which offense is down across the league. But he isn't very good, and his power has been on a linear decline for six years. Even if his Batting Average on Balls in Play climbs up 34 points to reach his career average, that overall decline is almost sure to continue.

Which other players are struggling?

Justin Smoak, Seattle Mariners .228/.323/.407, 12 HR, 43 RBIs, 0 SB, 0 CS, 44 BB/71 K
A year after scoring 513 runs in 162 games, the Mariners are on pace to score... 520 runs. A good example of that infinitesimal improvement is Justin Smoak. Smoak was the key return in the blockbuster Cliff Lee deal with the Rangers last year, a switch-hitting first baseman who had drawn Mark Teixeira comparisons since college but then had just a .678 OPS as a rookie. As a sophomore, he's bumped that up to .730, upping his OBP by 16 points and his slugging by 36 points. (He had a .920 OPS after April, but he's had just a .670 OPS since then -- almost equal to what he did last year.) Smoak is also striking out a bit less and walking a bit more last year, so his strikeout-to-walk ratio has improved from 1.98 to 1.61. These are all real improvements. But it's hard to figure out how far he has yet to go.

Smoak's Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) is .253 this year, and it was .255 last year, despite the fact that the league average this year is .291. It could be that Smoak has been profoundly unlucky two years in a row, or it could be that he's a player who makes a lot of bad contact. (While most pitchers tend to stabilize around a BABIP of .300, hitters can display much more variance.) The other trends are positive, at least. If he can continue improving his plate discipline and adding power, Smoak may well turn into the hitter everyone thought he was when the Rangers took him with the 11th pick of the 2008 draft. Much will depend on the effect of his BABIP on his batting average, however. If he can up his batting average by another 20-30 points, he could be a very useful player. But almost no one is capable of being a productive .220 hitter.

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Rafael Furcal, Los Angeles Dodgers .167/.217/.204, 1 HR, 9 RBIs, 3 SB, 2 CS, 7 BB/18 K
Furcal has only been on the field for 29 games this year, following successive DL stints for a broken thumb and an injured oblique. But when he's been on the field he's been almost invisible. Last year he played only 97 games thanks to injuries to his hamstring and back. On the other hand, it would be one thing if he had just lost his speed; instead, Furcal appears to have lost the ability to hit a baseball. In 108 at-bats this year, Furcal has 16 singles and two extra-base hits. Moreover, his walk rate has fallen from slightly above-average to significantly below average, from a 9.0 percent career mark to just 6.0 percent this year. The Dodgers' top prospect is shortstop Dee Gordon, and SBNation's Eric Stephen believes that the next two weeks are basically Furcal's last chance to interview for his old job before being permanently replaced by the new kid. If Furcal can't demonstrate that he deserves to remain in the Dodgers' everyday lineup, his days as a starting major league shortstop may be over.

Derek Lowe, Atlanta Braves 6-7, 4.37 ERA, 119 1/3 IP, 3.44 FIP, 1.39 WHIP, 1.93 K/BB
Derek Lowe hasn't pitched well since the end of April, which is when news emerged that he had been arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence. (If you want, you can view the police officer's 20-minute dashboard video of the incident and see whether Lowe seems inebriated to you.) Lowe has a 4.83 ERA in his last 15 starts, which isn't good, but then again, he posted a 4.67 ERA over 34 starts in 2009, his first season in Atlanta. Last year was his only season with the Braves in which his performance was even league-average.

But his walks have increased this year, which has hurt him. His BABIP is 12 points above his career average — but it's 14 points lower than it was in 2009-2010 with the Braves, the unambiguous moment when his career went south. When he came to Atlanta, his walk rate increased markedly from what it had been in Los Angeles, and that's the biggest reason he's been less effective. At this point, Lowe is basically a fifth starter: He's tremendously durable, as he's pitched at least 182 innings and made at least 32 starts in each of the last nine seasons. But he's making $15 million a year on a contract that runs through next year. The Braves have been trying frantically to unload his $15 million salary to any team willing to pay it, and it isn't hard to see why.

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