An MVP Case for Ryan Howard
Ryan Howard and Albert Pujols
Ryan Howard and Albert Pujols

Posted Oct 10, 2006


As always, Philadelphia baseball historian John Shiffert looks backward to put today’s issues into context. Among the current topics is the Most Valuable Player Award candidacy of the Phillies’ Ryan Howard.

The 2006 season was that it was a good year for young players. Among the pitchers, Justin Verlander’s 17 wins drew a lot of attention, but so did Francisco Liriano, Jeremy Bonderman, Scott Kazmir, Cole Hamels, Josh Johnson, Jered Weaver and a host of other young arms. Indeed, there have been few better years for young pitchers.

That’s not to say the young hitters didn’t make some noise as well. In fact, two young stars, the Minnesota TwinsJoe Mauer, and the Philadelphia PhilliesRyan Howard, both had years for the ages. Mauer became the first catcher to win the American League batting title and Howard led the major leagues with 58 home runs and 149 RBIs, both drawing comparisons to noted feats from the past.

Mauer, at the age of 23 and after playing just 166 games in two previous major league seasons, made headlines by becoming just the third catcher to win a batting title, going 181-521 for a .347 average. There are two ways to look upon Mighty Young Joe’s feat… either he was lucky to win the crown, or he really accomplished something quite unusual. Actually, he did both. From the first point of view, several catchers have hit for higher averages than Mauer, and came away without a title. In fact, there exists a current backstop who once hit .362 for a season, and .346 in another. That’s right, Mike Piazza. The best he’s done in the batting race is second once, third twice and fourth once. And while Mike may feel bad about that, imagine how another catcher, who like Piazza was also from Norristown, Pa., might have felt. The Phillies’ Jack Clements hit .394 in 1895 – the all-time batting average record for a catcher, and didn’t even lead his own team. Fellow Phillie Ed Delahanty hit .404 and Cleveland’s Jesse Burkett hit .409, and Clements was only third in the National League.

On the other hand, Ernie Lombardi and Bubbles Hargrave, the two catchers who did win batting titles, were somewhat lucky. Lombardi’s second crown (.330 in 1942) and Hargraves’ 1926 title (.353) wouldn’t have counted under the present rules – neither of them had 3.1 plate appearances per game (477 total for a 154 game season) in either season. Only Lombardi’s .342 average in 1938 would have been good for a crown under the current rules. Just for the sake of comparison…

 

G    

AB  

R  

H   

2B

3B

HR

RBI

BB

SO

BA 

OBP 

SLG

Hargrave

105 

326 

42 

115

  22

8

6

  62  

 25

17

 .353 

.406  

0.525

Lombardi '38

129 

489 

60 

167

  30

1

19

  95  

 40

14

 .342 

.391  

0.524

Lombardi '42

105 

309 

32 

102

 14

0

11

 46 

  37

12

 .330 

.403  

0.482

Mauer

140 

521 

86 

181

 36

4

13

  84 

  79

54

  .347 

.429  

0.507

Taking nothing away from Lombardi, one of the feared hitters of his time and a Hall of Famer, despite also being the slowest runner of his time, there shouldn’t be much doubt from these numbers that, except possibly for Lombardi’s 1938 season, Mauer had the best overall year among batting title backstops. And, Mauer surpassed Lombardi’s ’38 figures in every category except home runs, RBIs and slugging.

Another way to look at Mauer’s accomplishment is to make a quick check on just how often catchers lead their league in any major hitting category. You have to go back to 1992, when Darren Daulton led the National League with 109 RBIs and Mickey Tettleton led the American League with 122 walks, to find a catcher who led his league in a hitting category.

So, it seems safe to say that Joe Mauer had a pretty good year. What then are we to make of Ryan Howard’s second season in the majors?

AB

H  

2B

3B

HR

RBI

BB

SO

BA

OPB

SLG

581 104 182 25

58 149 108 181 0.313 0.425 0.659

If that’s not enough to make a pitcher ill, it was enough to earn Howard 37 intentional walks, most of them late in the year, and some under highly unusual circumstances – leading off an inning in extra innings, loading the bases in extra innings, etc. Although it’s not particularly significant, it is interesting to note that Howard’s line would have gotten him the National League Triple Crown in 1988. And while Howard clearly had a better year in 2006 than anyone not named Albert Pujols (and this will be debated for some time), this is not a statistical line that’s easy to explain. While tying for 10th place all-time in home runs in a season, Howard also struck out 181 times, and still managed to finish eighth in the National League in batting average. Do the math – when he hit the ball, Howard batted .455 (182 for 400)… he still had more singles than extra base hits (98 to 84).

From some observation during the year, it appears that the best explanation would seem to be that this was one relatively young (he turns 27 on November 19) hitter who, while he may not have great plate discipline, should not, under any circumstances, be thrown a strike, because he ended up with a hit 45 percent of the time. And, since he has more power than the old Philadelphia Electric Company, a significant number of those hits will leave any park, be it Citizens Bank or Yellowstone National.

The way Howard was pitched would seem to confirm this up. One way to typically retire power hitters is to throw them pitches on the outside corner. (This technique works well with Howard’s teammate, Pat Burrell.) However, after a couple of months, the realization sunk in that those pitches were ending up in the left and left center stands with numbing regularity. So, it was time to try to bust him inside, and not let him extend his arms. That didn’t work either. His bat is so quick, and he’s so strong, that he’d just muscle inside stuff out to right. So, as a last resort, everyone started walking him, leading to a tremendous on base percentage.

A final word on Howard’s year. The metric that he was measured against late in the year, having hit the most home runs ever by a second year player, is a false one. Due to the presence of Jim Thome (and his 89 home runs in 2003 and 2004) in the Phillies’ lineup, Howard spent at least two years in the minors that, under other circumstances, he would have spent in the majors. As it was, he got into 19 games at the end of the 2004 season, and was finally called up for good halfway through 2005, when Thome went on the DL with an elbow injury. Prior to 2006, Howard had played in just 107 major league games, with 351 at bats and 24 home runs.

What is far more relevant is to compare Howard’s year against other 26 year-olds, recalling that hitters as a whole tend to peak at age 27. In this measurement, Howard is only third in home runs in a season for players age 26. Seems like Roger Maris was 26 in 1961, and that Babe Ruth set his third consecutive yearly record at the age of 26 in 1921 when he hit 59. Here’s the entire top 10 for age 26. Note that Albert Pujols, in 2006 was… 26.

Name                           HR Year Season
Roger Maris 61 1961

5th

Babe Ruth 59 1921

7th

Ryan Howard 58 2006

1st

Alex Rodriguez 57 2002

7th

Ralph Kiner 54 1949

4th

Cecil Fielder 51 1990

1st

Albert Pujols 49 2006

6th

Ken Griffey, Jr. 49 1996

8th

Harmon Killebrew 48 1962

4th

Juan Gonzalez 47 1996

6th

Both Ruth’s and Fielder’s records are a little misleading. The Babe, as you surely know, spent his first four full years as a pitcher, moving part-time to the outfield in 1919. Fielder, on the other hand, had spent four partial seasons in the major leagues, and then had gone to Japan for a year before returning home and beginning his reign of terror. Killebrew had a somewhat similar tale. A bonus baby, he sat on the Washington Senators’ bench for four years (and heaven only knows, the Senators could have used him in those years) before finally getting a chance in 1959.

So, age 26 is a pretty good one for power hitters… and it sure was for Ryan Howard.



John Shiffert be signing “Base Ball in Philadelphia” at the 15th Annual Reunion Weekend of the Philadelphia Athletics Historical Society on Saturday, Oct. 21 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Days Inn on Easton Road (just north of the Willow Grove exit of the Pennsylvania Turnpike) in Horsham, PA. If you can’t make it, you can go to www.mcfarlandpub.com for more information on the book, or you can order it through the Historical Society’s website, www.philadelphiaathletics.org.


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