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Is Ryan Howard Worth $18 Million?

If you asked Michael Scott, or certainly Kelly Kapoor, that very question, there is little doubt they would answer, "No, Ryan Howard is worth nowhere near that much money." But we're talking about a different Ryan Howard.

We're talking about the hulking, slugging, often whiffing, defensively bungling first baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies. We're talking about the MVP of the National League in 2006, the cleanup hitter for the 2008 World Series champs, and the man who is seeking a record payout in his current arbitration case. Is Ryan Howard worth $18 million, as he has submitted? (Or put another way, is one year of Howard worth two years of Prince Fielder?) The Phillies think not. They think he is worth something closer to $14 million, which is the number they submitted.

Let's take a closer look.

Howard's case is based largely on the historic nature of his first three-plus big-league seasons. His rate of one homer every 11.7 at-bats is second in big league history (min. 2,000 at-bats), behind only Mark McGwire -- but ahead of Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds and every other slugger in history. (Incidentally, you might be interested to know that Adam Dunn is sixth all-time.) In just three full seasons (and parts of two others), Howard has amassed a lot of hardware: a Rookie of the Year (2005), an MVP award (plus two other top-five finishes), two NL home run titles and two NL RBI titles.

And of course, Howard's case is also predicated upon the $10 million salary he won via arbitration in 2008, a record for a player in his first year of eligibility. Most players, an especially young superstars, get hefty raises via the arbitration process. But 80 percent?

Here is the part where we go sabermetric on him.

It doesn't take too much digging to find fatal flaws in Howard's game. He's not the all-around stud that, say, fellow first baseman Albert Pujols is. For one thing, there are those strikeouts. Through the 2004 season, no player in major league history had ever struck out more than 195 times in a season. Howard, though, struck out 199 times in both 2007 and 2008. Then there's the defense. According to Baseball Prospectus (subscription required), Howard had a FRAA (fielding runs above average) of minus-14 last year, which means the Phillies' defense would have allowed 14 fewer runs in 2008 with an "average" defensive first baseman instead of Howard. (Pujols, for comparison's sake, was plus-13.)

But it's when you dig into some more complex stats that Howard's flaws really begin to show. In BP's VORP ratings (value above replacement player, which measures a player's total offensive output, adjusting for ballpark and position), Howard ranked 47th among all position players in 2008, between Ryan Doumit and Troy Glaus.

At Bill James's website (, subscription required), Howard checks in with 24 win shares in 2008, tied with San Diego's Adrian Gonzalez for sixth among all first basemen. (Lance Berkman was first with 36.)

And the folks at Fangraphs, as you can see here (no subscription required), ranked Howard as fifth-most-valuable among Phillies position players. (Click on "Glossary" in the upper-right corner to learn more about what the numbers mean.) I'm certainly not going to sit here and argue that Shane Victorino is a more valuable player than Ryan Howard, but the point is, there exist the sabermetric means of reaching that conclusion.

Now, there are also folks out there who would scoff at all these numbers and who would argue that Howard is a transcendent player simply because of his game-changing power, and that none of those complex numbers are anywhere near as important as the fact he has driven in 149, 136 and 146 runs the past three seasons.

There's nothing wrong with that viewpoint. But to those folks, I would ask only one additional question: How valuable can Howard really be if he can be neutralized in the late innings of a game by a capable left-handed reliever? I'll bust out some stats one last time to illustrate:

2008 Howard versus RHP: .263/.366/.601 (batting average/on-base/slugging)
2008 Howard versus LHP: .224/.294/.451

Put another way, when Howard faces right-handers, he is Alex Rodriguez (.965 OPS). But when he faces lefties, he is Ryan Theriot (.745 OPS).

I guess by now it is clear where I fall in response to the question posed in the title of this post. Anyone else care to opine -- particularly those of you would answer in the affirmative?

By Dave Sheinin  |  January 23, 2009; 9:17 AM ET
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How many MLB batters have fans on the edge of their seats to watch?

I sure wish the Nationals had him.

Posted by: clandestinetomcat | January 23, 2009 11:43 AM | Report abuse

"...and that none of those complex numbers are anywhere near as important as the fact he has driven in 149, 136 and 146 runs the past three seasons."

I think along these lines. Take the rest of those complex numbers and save them for your fantasy draft. For everyone on the insider talking about how terrible he is while quoting the errors and strike outs, let me ask you - how many MVP's do you have on the Nats and Orioles? Did either team have a player finish 2nd in voting last year?

Howard is a special player and deserves to get paid. He single handedly got the Phils into the post season with a killer September surge. Let's not forget that, even though he looked bad at times in the playoffs.

I think the Phils offer of $14 million is more than fair, especially considering what Fielder has signed for. It should be interesting how this plays out, but you can't go into spring training next month with your clean-up hitter unhappy or unsigned. They need to compromise and get it done. Pay the man.

Posted by: PhilliesPhan | January 23, 2009 11:57 AM | Report abuse

Oh yeah - having Chase Utley on the shelf until possibly June with that hip injury and surgery (gasp!) gives Ryan a huge bargaining chip.
They need the big man now more than every to survive until Utley returns to the line-up.

Posted by: PhilliesPhan | January 23, 2009 12:00 PM | Report abuse

what do the Nationals and Orioles have to do with Howard's arbitration case?

Posted by: sect104 | January 23, 2009 12:14 PM | Report abuse

Howard's RBI totals are *more* a sign that Rollins, Victorino/Werth, and Utley are good players capable of getting on base at a high rate than they are a sign of Howard's ability.

Posted by: ScottMCollins | January 23, 2009 12:14 PM | Report abuse

Certainly Howard isn't actually worth $18 million, but the Phillies don't live in a state bubble. Is $2 million or even $3-4 million worth a happy Ryan Howard? Probably.

To PhilliesPhan: I'm sure you remember Howard's awful first half though, right? If he had played even close to his expectations in the beginning of the year they wouldn't have needed his killer September to jump over the choking Mets on their way to the title.

Also Runs Batted In is the most overrated statistic in baseball -- just because it's always appeared on the back of baseball cards doesn't mean it should be taken more seriously than VORP.

The least complex stat of all has got to be OBP and Howard got on base less than 30% of the time against left handed pitchers -- that's Pedro Feliz territory. Certainly he's a great hitter and should be paid like one, but his awful splits make him too one dimensional and I think teams are beginning to realize that he's not the player people thought he was.

I know it takes effort and this is the reason that people shy away from these "complex" stats, but really all VORP, WAR, WinShares, etc. do is take "normal" stats (Hits, OBP, Extra base hits, HR, etc.) and see if the player is actually as good as people think.

Posted by: noahthek | January 23, 2009 12:35 PM | Report abuse

To ScottMCollins: Good observation, but not exactly true. While it's correct that Howard came to the plate with lots of runners on base (483, to be exact, which ranked eighth in the majors), he drove in the third-highest percentage of those runners (20.3 percent) of anyone in the game (min. 500 PAs).

(In case you're curious, the only hitters who ranked ahead of Howard in OBI% were David DeJesus, at 21.5 percent, and Josh Hamilton, at 20.7 percent.)

SOURCE: Baseball Prospectus

Posted by: Dave Sheinin | January 23, 2009 1:02 PM | Report abuse

Big phan here, was at (the first installment of) WS Game 5. If a guy wears Phillies pinstripes, I love him.

But $18 million? C'mon. Those strikeouts are killer. He's one dimensional, and doesn't produce all those RBI without Utley, Rollins, Victorino, etc. (With all respect to Dave Sheinin, percentages don't score, runners do. A percentage only exists because the runners are on base in the first place. RBI is an important, but overblown, stat).

If he hit more consistently, struck out less consistently, and fielded a ball better than a guy in a straight jacket, I'd say "show him the money." But until then, he's "only" worth the $14 million. ;-)

Posted by: chrisduckworth | January 23, 2009 1:31 PM | Report abuse

I agree with Clandestine... Howard puts butts in the seats. That's worth a lot to the owners. But from a purely baseball- performance standpoint he's not a complete player and so he doesn't deserve top-tier money.

Posted by: kerewin1971 | January 23, 2009 3:01 PM | Report abuse

Awesome post, thanks Dave. We love it when you go all sabermetric.

Posted by: BobLHead | January 23, 2009 3:47 PM | Report abuse

Here, here! Dave beat with the obligatory (and free) fangraphs post. thanks for saving me the work! Nice argument. I'm waiting for Boz's counterpoint.

Posted by: jca-CrystalCity | January 23, 2009 5:51 PM | Report abuse

This perfectly illustrates why Adam Dunn isn't the solution for the Nats, at least not at the price he's demanding. Guys who hit lots of home runs and play bad defense get overpaid because many GMs are ignorant of how much that bad defense offsets their offensive numbers. Jim Bowden being one, unfortunately, because he already acquired Josh Willingham, who's as bad as Dunn in the field while putting up significantly lower offensive numbers.

For this team, moving in the right direction isn't spending $56 million on Adam Dunn. Pick up an undervalued free agent (i.e. someone with good defense and an OK bat), then plow the rest of the money into acquiring young talent (paying Crow what he wanted last year, picking Strasburg this year, etc).

Follow the Oakland A's Moneyball philosophy. Identify things that are undervalued and spend your money there. Right now, defense is the #1 undervalued talent in baseball.

Posted by: saltydog75 | January 24, 2009 3:43 PM | Report abuse

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