One of the reasons, if not the reason, I got into baseball writing was to challenge conventional wisdom. Challenging conventional wisdom is what we learned from Bill James and from Billy Beane, and it is the reason we tend to speak unfavorably of Joe Morgan.
Since moving to Philadelphia, one bit of local conventional wisdom I have been quick to challenge has been the notion that Ryan Howard is one of the greatest run producers of all time. This hasn't made me incredibly popular amongst my local readers and fellow writers (Jamie Ambler?), but it is a notion to which I have never warmed.
Are You Saying Ryan Howard isn't a Good RBI Guy?
There can be no doubt in that during the last five baseball seasons, Ryan Howard has established himself as one of the premier RBI men in Major League Baseball. Howard has led the National League in RBI in three of the last four seasons and the only reason he didn't lead the league in 2007 was because Matt Holliday won the RBI crown in a season-ending tiebreaker game with San Diego.
(By the way, counting one-game playoffs to be regular season games: There's a rule worth revisiting.)
How unique is Howard's performance over this period? Consider the following:
Since the advent of the American League in 1901, only six players in Major League Baseball have led their league in RBI's three years in a row: Ty Cobb (1907-1909), Babe Ruth (1919-1921), Rogers Hornsby (1920-1922), Joe Medwick (1936-1938), George Foster (1976-1978), and Cecil Fielder (1990-1992).
If not for the Colorado Rockies and San Diego Padres finishing the 2007 season tied for second place in the NL West, Howard would have become the first player since 1901 to lead his league four years in a row; consider also that Howard only played 144 games in 2007, and you have to say "wow."
So How Can You Say He Isn't a Great Run Producer?
Nevertheless, given the potency of the Philadelphia Phillies lineup over that period and the general discrediting of the RBI as an indicator of value, however, I have been quick to discredit any sort of significance that has been placed upon Howard and his RBI totals.
After all, from a statistical perspective, Howard is not the best hitter in the National League; indeed, he is not really even the best hitting first baseman in the NL, and he may not even be in the top five.
And so my theory went thus: If you were to plug Albert Pujols or Adrian Gonzalez into the Phillies' lineup, not only would they easily lead the NL in RBI, but they may even set the National League record for RBI in a season.
This is not an unsupportable conclusion to reach, for Howard's RBI have not been a one man show.
In 2006, when Howard first led the NL in runs driven in, Chase Utley led the league in runs with 132, and Jimmy Rollins didn't finish too far behind with 127.
In 2007, Howard did not lead the NL but finished with an astounding 136 ribs nonetheless, and that season, J-Roll led the NL in runs scored with 139 while Utley and Aaron Rowand each scored over 100 runs.
In 2008, when Howard once again led the NL, the Phils had three guys score 100 runs, and when he did it again in 2009, they had four guys score 100 runs.
Doesn't it seem like Pujols, Gonzalez, or any other elite hitter would be able to easily pace the National League in this category if they had the luxury of hitting behind Rollins, Utley, and company?
Good Point. Maybe Ryan Howard Isn't Actually a Great Run Producer.
But then a funny thing happened: the 2010 season came along and challenged everything we know to be true.
Remember when we used to think that the Phillies had an "American League-style" offense? Not any more we don't. We have become a team that plays a ton of one-run nail-biters.
Remember when we used to think that the Phillies were the type of team that won games with an elite offense in spite of their pitching? In 2010, our pitching has become our strong suit, and it is our offense that makes us want to look away.
As an aside, this is no reason for panic and no knock on this team. In fact, I believe that an argument could be that the 2010 team, with a simply dominant front three of Halladay, Hamels, and Oswalt, is more well-equipped to win the playoffs than either the 2008 team or the 2009 team. But I digress.
Where was I? Right. The 2010 Phillies offense has been terrible.
And it isn't really their fault; The 2010 Phillies have suffered injuries to every major offensive contributor other than Jayson Werth, who himself has had mysterious issues at the plate. If this team had been healthy, who knows what we would have looked like on offense.
Which brings me back to Ryan Howard, and my point.
Hitting behind scrubs and subs this season, with an incredibly inconsistent and unspectacular lineup, and himself having suffered injuries and hitting slumps, Howard has nevertheless collected 95 RBI this season.
Which, somehow, puts him fourth in the National League and only five RBI behind league leader Carlos Gonzalez of the Colorado Rockies. Somehow, in an injury-plagued and slump-marred season, Howard has only three fewer ribs than Pujols and four fewer than Joey Votto, both of whom are having significantly better overall seasons, and whom most watchers expect to be vying for the NL MVP.
Unlike previous seasons, you can't discredit this one. You can't point to Utley and Rollins and say that anyone would produce runs behind those guys. You can't point to the Phillies offense and say it is designed to score runs. You can't even really credit the Phils' ballpark.
When all is said and done, the point is becoming undeniable: Ryan Howard is one of the greatest run producers of all time.