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 (www.billjamesonline.net, 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?
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