Ryan Howard has been taking a dump all over bad pitching 1 week into the season. What we’ve seen thus far has been a visual treat. The strike outs are down and the damage is waaaay up. The results have been devastating to opposing pitchers. He’s authored a 1.256 OPS on the back of a .469 ISO!!! and .360 BABIP. That’s all good for an unworldly .513 wOBA. For reference, Barry Bonds’ peak season featured a .546 wOBA. Howard even made the lefty shift look real foolish by smashing a line drive single where the SS is “supposed” to play.
Of course, anytime you analyze one week’s worth of data, the “small sample size” warning comes into play. That’s where scouting moves to the forefront. From watching the past 7 games, I’m comfortable saying that something is different, and dare I say it, improved? Might this have to do with the aforementioned Bonds? Our favorite Smash and Bash lefty met up with the surly Ruler of Roids over the offseason to work on his swing. Beyond moving closer to the plate to improve his plate coverage, his swing just looks better. It’s easy to see that he’s staying on the ball more this year than in the past.
So what’s been measurably different in this one week? You might be wondering about those large ISO and BABIP numbers I reported earlier. Howard’s previous peaks in both numbers came in his MVP season when he had a .346 ISO and .356 BABIP. That BABIP was matched in his RoY campaign (.354) and has since dropped to .328, .285, and .325 from ’07 through ’09. Let’s ignore all this for a moment though, after all, the argument here is that a change has occurred. A change in plate approach could explain higher than expected BABIPs and ISOs.
What’s the next thing to look at? Howard has seemed to be more patient hasn’t he? Thankfully we have great data for that. Below are graphs of his swinging strikes in this season and April of ’09.
As you can (or can’t) see, there’s not much difference in what Howard is swinging at. He’s still fishing for the ball below the strike zone and off the plate outside. The one large difference I notice is the prominence of low sliders in his 2009 chart. He has yet to face many pitchers with good sliders this season. Let’s head over to fangraphs to see what his plate discipline numbers tell us.
In way of a quick explanation, stats with a Z in front refer to “in the strike zone” and those with O are “outside the strike zone”. Looking at this chart, a number of striking observations jump out. Howard is swinging at the same percentage of pitches in the zone and out of the zone as he always has. What has changed are his contact rates. He’s hitting almost everything he swings at in the strike zone and he doing more with pitches outside of the strike zone too. The result is he’s swinging and missing less than half as much as he used to. That’s just ridiculous.
Now to counterbalance that point, Howard has faced some pretty damn awful pitchers over the first 7 games with Roy Oswalt being the lone “good” pitcher faced. The teams in question have also been short on the LOOGYs that usually kill Howard in the late innings. Also, these numbers are ridiculous. So undoubtedly they will decline toward league and career norms as the season wears on and he runs into pitchers with better stuff.
Getting back to his ISO and BABIP, when you see a guy who hits the ball as hard as Howard does coupled with a strike out rate around 12%, .469 and .360 really aren’t all that preposterous. IF Howard can maintain something like these ridiculous contact rates, an ISO in the high 300′s and a BABIP north of .330 are not out of the question. And with those kind of numbers, Howard is going to be making tons of real and fantasy noise all throughout the season.
Going forward, we as fans should be looking at two things: is he actually better at making contact this year? and is he trading power for contact rate (and is the tradeoff worthwhile)?
So far so good for Howard and the Phillies, let’s hope they can beat the injury bug and stay hot.
Authors Note: I’d be very interested to see how Howard fared against the John Lannon’s, Craig Stammen’s, and Felipe Paulino’s of the world in the past. Maybe what we’re seeing is almost all bad pitching. That’s a hint for any guys from Fangraphs, THT, or elsewhere who stumble upon this humble analysis. Thanks to TexasLeaguers.com and Fangraphs.com for their great resources.