The Philadelphia Phillies were forced to start four different players at first base in their first four games to start the season in the absence of Ryan Howard, as he recovers from an Achilles injury.
Those four players—Ty Wigginton, John Mayberry, Jr., Laynce Nix and Jim Thome—have combined to bat .191 so far this season.
That’s a far cry from the .283 batting average posted by Howard through the first 16 games of last season.
The Phillies have been forced to start the season without their starters on the right side of the infield, as Chase Utley joins Howard on the disabled list. These absences have played a hand in the Phils ranking 15th in the National League in runs and near the bottom of the league in home run total.
So far this season, Phillies’ first basemen have hit eight RBI while striking out 17 times. Through 16 games last season, Howard had driven in 15 runs.
For a team that ranks 15th in the National League in RBI, Howard’s return could bring with it the run production that the Phils have been searching for early on in the season.
However, with Howard waiting to be cleared to increase his workouts, and after having not played a game in spring training, the first baseman’s return date may still be up in the air.
Howard’s absence also forces the team to take Hunter Pence out of the five-hole in the lineup and move him to the clean-up spot. Currently, Phillies’ five-hole hitters have hit just two extra-base hits this season, the lowest total in the National League.
Pence’s move to the clean-up spot has resulted in a .258 batting average to go with seven RBI and four extra-base hits.
The Phils finished last season with 54 home runs and 212 RBI combined from the fourth and fifth spots in their lineup.
The Phillies as a team, however, have collected 129 hits so far this season, tied for sixth-best in the National League. They also are averaging 77.1 at-bats per home run, the second-worst average in the National League and an area where Howard’s presence could have it effect felt following his return.
But until then, how can the Phillies get by without Howard in their lineup? And how can the team recover if his absence continues to stretch further into the season?
The Phillies as a team have had 151 at-bats in which they were ahead in the count, as opposed to a major league-leading 219 at-bats in which they were behind. They are also batting .219 with runners in scoring position.
While Howard was able to bat .298 and hit 78 RBI with runners in scoring position last season, this season’s clean-up hitter has managed a .235 batting average and five RBI with runners in scoring position.
As Pence continues to fill in for Howard at the clean-up spot, and as the Phils continue to struggle to score runs, his performance with runners in scoring position may become even more crucial.
Another player whose performances in Howard’s absence could be crucial is Mayberry, who is batting .175 with two RBI so far this season. Stronger performances from Mayberry could allow the Phils to start him at first and play Juan Pierre, who is batting .326 to start the season, in left field more frequently.
Placido Polanco’s presence at the top of the Phil’s lineup could provide Pence with more opportunities to drive in runs. However, Polanco’s .192 batting average and .222 OBP have led to limited opportunities early on in the season. If his offense comes around, the team may not only have more opportunities for driving in runs, but could also improve on their collective .283 OBP.
These factors could not only improve the team’s offense now, but also position the lineup to receive a significant boost when Howard returns. Once Utley returns as well, these improved performances could provide the Phils with the offensive production from the first half of their lineup that they have been searching for early on this season.
The Phillies’ recent play has demonstrated that Howard’s contributions, as well as his presence in the lineup, play huge roles in the success of the offense.
However, until he returns, the Phils may have to do their best to get by while leaning on the current lineup to adjust quickly to new roles.