Ryan Howard has been the midst of trade talks for over a year now; well, at least the Phillies are talking about a trade. Howard has struggled the past three seasons and is still owed close to $60 million guaranteed. From 2012-2014 Howard slashed .233/.309/.412 with 48 homers (1257 PA), 96 wRC+, 9.1 BB%, and 30.5 K%. His strikeouts and lack of contact kill his numbers. Needless to say not many, if any, have shown interest in Howard, but after his quick start in 2015 he could be a slightly above average designated hitter for a contender at the trade deadline.
Who expected this? Howard is off to an impressive start. The 35-year-old has 10 home runs, is slugging .546 and has a 132 wRC+. But how is he doing this now after most people wrote him off before the season?
Aggressiveness. He is swinging at a career high rate (54.2%) and making contact at an increased rate from his previous 9 seasons (67.2%). By being more aggressive his walks are lower, nearly 7% lower than his career average, but he’s also seeing more pitches in the zone compared to his last five seasons (45%). Pitchers were throwing him pitches in the zone during his peak from 2005 to 2009 (~46%), but that rate dropped from 2010 to 2014 (~39%). His hard hit rate (43.4%) is also up 11% from 2014 and soft hit rate is a career low (6.6%).
Here is a graph from FanGraphs that shows his walk/strikeout ratio throughout his career. No, his 2015 BB/K isn’t good, but if it’s helping him find his pitch then it’s fine.
With Howard’s new-found aggressive approach his line drive and fly-ball rates are increasing while his ground-ball rate has decreased. That’s a good thing, because most of his ground-balls are sucked into the shift and a good percentage (26.3%) of his fly-balls go over the fence.
100+ plate appearances is a relatively small sample size, but it has still happened and his BABIP (.313) has been steady with his career average (.319). Here is a graph of his slugging numbers throughout his career. Notice Ryan Howard is nearly at his career high in slugging after a steady decline for seven seasons.
Now what has he been swinging at? Here’s his 2014 swing% chart:
2015 swing% chart: High pitches and outside pitches instead of high and inside like 2014.
From 2012-2014: He struggled against the off-speed pitch and breaking pitches, but still killed the hard stuff. (Brooks Baseball)
2015 season: Notice the change in slugging against off-speed pitches, but is still struggling against breaking balls. He has been hitting the hard stuff even better this year so far as well.
Howard’s hot start is likely unsustainable, but it’s obvious his new approach is working. Now is when pitchers will start to adjust by throwing less strikes, but what matters is his adjustments afterwards. If he is slow to adjust then he’ll probably have another league average offensive season, therefore being a replaceable player, but if he can adjust quickly then he has a chance at a .500 slugging and 125 wRC+.
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