Ryan Howard's Declining Numbers: Reason to Worry for Philadelphia Phillies?

Victor FiloromoCorrespondent IJune 9, 2011

PHILADELPHIA - JUNE 8: First baseman Ryan Howard #6 of the Philadelphia Phillies bats during a game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Citizens Bank Park on June 8, 2011 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images)
Hunter Martin/Getty Images

Despite the fact that he hit his 13th home run of the season last night against the Los Angeles Dodgers, it's hard to watch Ryan Howard and admit that he's performing well in 2011.

Truth is, with a $125 million extension set to kick in next season, Howard is not playing like a superstar this year. Sure, it's hard to lay blame at Howard's feet for the contract itself.

After all, he wasn't the one who had the final say in his negotiations (point to agent Casey Close).

He didn't force the Phillies to give him that money. That decision lies at the feet of General Manager Ruben Amaro, Jr., and time will tell whether or not it's worth it. Plenty has already been written about that contract, seeing that it was given to him last April, but it's time to face the facts.

Howard is not a superstar player, and it's hard to imagine a world where he is worth that money. In fact, he's become downright frustrating to watch this season.

Where has the power gone? More importantly, where has the patience gone? A 15.3 percent walk rate in his MVP year in 2006 and a 16.5 percent walk rate in 2007 has dipped to just 9.7 percent this year after a dismal 9.5 percent last year.

He often looks confused at the plate, not more evident than the past few nights at Citizens Bank Park. In what world should we be happy with someone who has a .325 on-base percentage and has hacked at pitches in the next county over the last few games? How can we be happy that he has an .803 OPS, a year after he posted a career-low .859 OPS in 2010?

It's not a shock that he is on the decline. At 31 years old, Howard isn't getting any younger. The Phillies are getting old quickly, and they know their time to win is right now.

That being said, Howard is such a key portion for the team's future, with an extension yet to kick in that runs through 2016, with a team option for 2017.

How could a player with a Rookie of the Year in 2005 and MVP in 2006 be fading so fast? Is it that easy? Is he gone forever?

Not likely. May was a very ugly stretch for Howard, when he posted a .208/.317/.434 slash line. June has started no better, even with Howard hitting a homer last night. More alarmingly, he has hit .225/.271/.325 against left-handers, making him all but useless against southpaws.

He is yet to hit a home run against a lefty this season. Therefore, there are certainly reasons for concern. As Howard has gotten older, pitchers have made adjustments. It appears he has been unable to make them himself. He still has a .291 BABIP this season, so throw out most of the arguments that the defensive shift is taking away from his numbers.

The adjustment numbers are staggering. In 2009, Howard posted a 1.064 OPS against a starting pitcher in his third at-bat of the game against them. In 2010, it was at .904.

How about this season?

In his third at-bat against a starting pitcher this year, his OPS is .464. Yes, you read that right. He is 6-for-43 with five walks against a starter in his third at-bat in a game against them this year. The adjustments are being made on one side, but Howard is not adjusting on his end.

Yes, the .161 BABIP might have something to do with that, but the .255 on-base percentage is appalling.

He is also essentially utterly failing to hit the ball the opposite way, something he did so well earlier in his career. He appears to be trying to pull everything, and he's pulling everything all right, directly into the shift. He's almost become predictable at this point, and that's not a good thing.

The shift has become a serious weapon because he fails to hit the ball to left field often enough anymore.

His career is far from over. Let's understand that. And, a lot of the statistics, despite the negative mood of this very article, say that Howard will probably bounce back eventually. After all, he had a .911 OPS in April and drove in 27 runs, looking like one of the best players in baseball.

He is going through a bad stretch right now, as is the entire Philadelphia offense, and this may be a bit of a reactionary opinion.

That being said, he isn't even in the discussion anymore as one of the best first basemen in baseball, and that's troubling. It's likely more frustrating to many Phillies fans, knowing that they could be watching the decline of Howard even before the lengthy and costly extension kicks in next April. 

He needs to be more patient. He needs to take more pitches. He needs to not be afraid of hitting the ball the other way. The numbers show that Howard has just eight opposite field hits this season. In his MVP campaign in 2006, he had 38. He's far off the pace, and that is a bad sign.

When Howard is hitting the ball the other way, he is very dangerous. Teams have to change their shifts around, and he becomes less predictable.

Right now, it will be more of the same if he cannot make the adjustments.

On the bright side, his luck will likely improve in terms of home runs, as just 18.6 percent of his fly balls are home runs this season (his career mark is at 29 percent). That being said, it's not always about the home run ball for Howard.

There's a long way to go in the 2011 campaign. It's only June 9, and Howard has plenty of time to turn this around. Plenty of people will be able to forgive his poor performance in May and June if he comes up large in September and October, myself included.

Throw the contract out the window and look at what Howard is doing. It's not fun to watch on most nights when he's struggling. If he is able to flip the switch though, opposing pitchers will have a lot on their plate.

For their own sake, the Phillies can only hope that switch is flipped sooner rather than later.