I'm calling it right now. Ryan Howard will win the 2009 NL MVP. I know it's a little early, we're still in February. But after the Phillies skipped another painful arbitration and gave Ryan Howard a three-year contract, I'm expecting big things.
Granted, predicting Howard will win the MVP isn't the most dramatic prediction one could make. He's already got one under his belt and he finished second in the voting last year. But this year will be different, and here's why:
Howard has been criticized the last two years for his dip in batting average. It often looked as if he was trying to crush every pitch a mile out of the ballpark, as if he was in a home run derby, despite the fact that he has the raw strength and power send one deep with less effort. He also tried to pull the ball a lot more than he had in the past.
His increased tendency to pull the ball is reflected in his splits from the past few seasons. In 2006, Howard pulled the ball in 31% of his at-bats. In 2007, it increased to 35%, then it dropped to 33% in 2008. That doesn't sound like so much. In fact, if anything, it sounds like random fluctuation.
However, his percentage of at-bats in which the ball went to the opposite field is a more telling statistic. In 2006 he hit the ball to the opposite field in 20% of his at-bats. In '07 and '08, that drops to 14% and 15%, respectively. Howard may not have pulled as many balls last year as he did in 2007, but he certainly wasn't hitting to the opposite field the way he was in 2006.
Okay, so now I've given a statistical reason for Howard's drop-off in performance from his MVP season, but I haven't given for the change in his hitting style. Well, that much is up for debate. I've heard only two compelling arguments for why Howard has hit less to the opposite field in the past two years than he did earlier in his career.
The first argument is that pitchers have adjusted to him. Some say that pitchers have "figured out" Howard and they know that they can pitch him inside, often inducing strikeouts with down-and-in breaking balls. I have no doubt that this is a strategy used against Howard, as its proven to be fairly effective. And pitching him inside would force him to pull more balls.
Here's the problem: this is not an overly complicated strategy. It's one that could have (and would have) been established and used very early on in his career if it were that simple. Maybe 50 years ago this would not be the case, but with the technology available today and the amount of film study that goes into game preparation, I have a hard time believing that teams just perked up in April 2007 and said "Just pitch him inside...duh."
Howard was at his best in terms of batting average during the first two years of his career. He hit .288 in 2005 and .313 in 2006. I'd be willing to believe that opposing teams hadn't "figured out" Howard through the 2005 season, but if it was really as simple as that, one has to think that such a strategy would have been employed by the end of 2006.
And yet Howard's 2006 splits suggest just the opposite. He actually got better as he went along. His OPS increased in each of the final three months of the 2006 season (July - 1.004, August - 1.214, Sept/Oct - 1.312) and he posted an absurd .385 batting average in the season's final month. If teams didn't know how to deal with him by then, why would that all drastically change during the winter of '06-07?
So this is where the other theory of Howard's performance comes in. It's all psychological. The 2007 and 2008 seasons were contract years for Howard. Many players perform better in contract years, anticipating the upcoming payday (see: Ramirez, Manny), but that never seemed to be the case for Howard. Everything I've read about him suggests that he struggles with having to prove his value and his reaction is to try to hit more home runs. This was even an issue in college. Howard pressed, hoping to increase his draft status, but instead his production fell off and he slipped to the fifth round (lucky for the Phillies).
If this is an accurate portrayal of how Howard thinks and operates (and to be fair it may not be, as I don't know Howard personally nor do I possess a degree in sports psychology), the Phillies should get more than their money's worth. Especially in 2009. One could argue that Howard will again press, trying to prove to the fans that he is worth the lavish contract, but really what does he have to prove? He already has an MVP trophy and he finished second in the voting last year. He will make $15 million this season (just $1 million more than the Phillies initially offered in arbitration) and he plays for the reigning World Champion. Sure, if he hits .200 in April he might hear some boos; this is Philadelphia after all, but he is in a perfect situation to have another season of 50+ home runs and, perhaps more significantly, get that average back in the .280's.
October is a long way away and who knows what will happen, but if Howard should take home his second MVP trophy, well, you heard it here first.