Philadelphia Phillies: Answering the Ryan Howard Question in 2013

Pete Dymeck@PeteDymeckAnalyst IJanuary 31, 2013

PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 21:  Ryan Howard #6 of the Philadelphia Phillies reacts after striking out in the sixth inning against the Atlanta Braves during a MLB baseball game on September 21, 2012 at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Phillies defeated the Braves 6-2. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
Rich Schultz/Getty Images

The career of Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard has taken a tumultuous turn for the worse in the last three years.

For fans in the City of Brotherly Love, the love—or lack thereof—for Howard is rooted in the discontent of his strikeout while looking in the 2010 National League Championship Series versus the eventual World Series champion San Francisco Giants.

Then when you add on his eventful demise during the final at-bat of the 2011 NL Division Series versus the St. Louis Cardinals, where Howard suffered a torn Achilles and had to have surgery that would force him to miss the first three months of the 2012 season, one can easily see where the roots of this discontent stem from.

Simply put, the high hopes of Phillies fans have been squashed in recent years due to the fact that the Phillies have failed to live up to expectations since winning the World Series in 2008. The ensuing years were ripe with disappointment while clubs with weaker expectations persevered and triumphed over the more talented Phillies.

Any hopes of the Phillies being serious contenders for the NL pennant in 2013 are held by blatant homers. This current crop of players lack a cohesive identity. In their confusion, they also lack a serious face for the franchise.

The debate over who the face of the Phillies will forever rage on with the current roster. Many folks believe that the shortstop, Jimmy Rollins, is at the pinnacle of this club. Others think it is Chase Utley or one of the three aces (Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee or Cole Hamels). Others think it is the "Big Piece" Ryan Howard.

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Regardless of how one feel's, Howard has been the most productive Phillie since 2005. That year, Howard smacked 22 HR and 63 RBI in 348 PA while maintaining an average of .288. His Wins Above Replacement (WAR) for his rookie year was a modest 2.2. At the end of the season, Howard became the first Phillie to win the NL Rookie of the Year Award since third baseman Scott Rolen in 1997.

The following year, at age 27, Howard mashed 58 HR in 702 PA. He would drive in 149 RBI while hitting .313 on his way to winning the NL Most Valuable Player award, the first for a Phillie since third baseman Mike Schmidt in 1986.

Despite not cracking the majors in a full-time role until the age of 26, Howard made a big splash in his first two "full" seasons with the Phillies. Needless to say, he earned the recognition of "face of the franchise."

The downside to this success Howard was having was the frustration with his strikeouts. Howard averaged 191 K from 2006 through 2009. It was in 2007 where Howard would break the record previously held by Adam Dunn for most strikeouts in a season (199). In 2008, Mark Reynolds would break this record with 204 K only to break it again in 2009 with a still-standing record of 223 K.

Aside from the strikeouts, Phillies fans were please with Howards production. 

Through the 2011 season, Howard never hit for less than 31 HR and 108 RBI (aside from his rookie year). 

Signs of trouble in the future were coming though. From 2006 through 2009, Howard maintained an average WAR of 4.4 with a peak in 2006 of 6.2. In 2010 and 2011, however, Howard's WAR stood at 1.4 and 1.7, respectively.

For comparisons sake, in 2011 first baseman James Loney (Dodgers), first baseman Casey Kotchman (Rays) and first baseman Carlos Lee (Astros) all finished with a higher WAR despite weaker production at the plate. Of the aforementioned trio, no one outproduced Howard in homers, runs scored or RBI.

Quite frankly, the scare was on because it seemed that the word "downside" was becoming synonymous with Howard.

For sensible purposes, we can discount Howard's 2012 season due to him missing the first three months of the season and subsequent recovery while playing from his torn Achilles surgery.

In 2013, Howard will be earning a salary of $20 million with $25 million pressed against the luxury tax threshold. 

For payroll purposes, he is the highest paid hitter on the Phillies. He is also the most important facet of the Phillies offense. After all, Howard has led the Phillies in RBI each year from 2006 through 2011. In 2012, the Phillies finished 19th in team RBI, behind the even more destitute Minnesota Twins

By comparison, the Phillies finished 11th in 2011 in RBI, eighth in 2010, fourth in 2009 and eighth in 2008.

Therefore, a direct causal association between the production of Howard and the Phillies in scoring runs exists. For how long this pattern will endure is dependent upon the production of Howard and his ability to play a full season. Until proven otherwise, it is essential to note the influence Howard's bat has on the success of the Phillies.

For the Phillies to sneak up and maintain in a competition with the perceived NL East favorites, Washington and Atlanta, an imperative prevails for Howard to return to producing 30-plus home runs and 100-plus RBI. 

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