Is he still 'The Big Piece?'
Is Ryan Howard in decline? A lot of people would suggest that he is not the player that he once was. In some ways I'll agree with that.
He definitely is not performing to the level he did in 2006—his MVP year—and likely never will. However, I would suggest a large part of that is teams stealing hits from him by putting on the shift and also realizing they don't have to intentionally walk him.
One of the big complaints though is Howard himself.
His on-base percentage has continued to drop as have his power numbers. He is only on pace for 35 home runs this season and he is well below his career .371 OBP and .567 SLG marks.
However is it fair to compare Howard's current numbers to his career averages?
After all, he is famously a second half of the season player, so perhaps he could be expected to experience an uptake in numbers going forward. He has played in 74 games this year so in order to better judge his season I have taken his first 74 games worth of stats from each season starting with 2007 to see how they compare.
*The numbers in italics were final stats at the end of the season.
'07: 330 PA, .258 avg, 22 HR, 68 RBI, 103 K, 54 BB (22 IBB), .379 OBP, .557 SLG, .936 OPS
—Final: 648 PA, .268 avg, 47 HR, 136 RBI, 199 K, 107 BB, .392 OBP, .584 SLG, .976 OPS
'08: 320 PA, .221 avg, 19 HR, 63 RBI, 102 K, 39 BB (8 IBB), .319 OBP, .486 SLG, .804 OPS
—Final: 700 PA, .251 avg, 48 HR, 146 RBI, 199 K, 81 BB, .339 OBP, .543 SLG, .881 OPS
'09: 332 PA, .256 avg, 20 HR, 60 RBI, 93 K, 30 BB (2 IBB), .328 OBP, .535 SLG, .864 OPS
—Final: 703 PA, .279 avg, 45 HR, 141 RBI, 186 K, 75 BB, .360 OBP, .571 SLG, .931 OPS
'10: 321 PA, .296 avg, 15 HR, 55 RBI, 74 K, 24 BB (5 IBB), .352 OBP, .517 SLG, .869 OPS
—Final: 620 PA, .276 avg, 31 HR, 108 RBI, 157 K, 59 BB, .353 OBP, .505 SLG, .859 OPS
'11: 325 PA, .261 avg, 16 HR, 61 RBI, 84 K, 38 BB (7 IBB), .357 OBP, .504 SLG, .861 OPS
So the first thing that jumps out to me is the walks. They have nosedived since 2007. However, other than 2010 that does not indicate a significant change in plate discipline.
He was walked intentionally 22 times in 2007. So his non-intentional total was only 32 walks which is in line with the last few years. Likewise, this year he received seven intentional free passes so that would be 31 walks non-intentionally. This is a huge reason for the drop in his OBP.
To be honest, what I see here actually makes me feel optimistic.
His RBI's are right in line with his best seasons despite nearly two months of a makeshift top of the lineup in front of him. His HRs are a bit low but still competitive. His strikeouts are down and his walks are normal. His slugging is middle of the road for this span. His OBP is his second highest in that span. His OPS basically middle of the road as well.
Given that Howard is notoriously a second half of the season player, we can hopefully expect a generous boost in line with all those other seasons. If that happens, those numbers will carry him to what will seem like a typical Ryan Howard year at season's end.
However he is walking a tight rope. One of these years he'll no longer be able to turn on the afterburners for the second half of the season. There were signs of that in 2010; however, he also spent the last two months of the season split between the DL and playing through a power sapping ankle injury so I give him the benefit of the doubt there.
If the past is any indication, Phillies fans should sit back and enjoy the ensuing fireworks because Ryan Howard is about to hit his groove.