As the Philadelphia Phillies sink deeper into a lengthy rebuilding process, one player has come to stand for all that went wrong for the team as its core aged, broke down, and eventually left the team a smoldering ruin of the World Series contender it once was. That player is Ryan Howard. The mere mention of Howard’s name draws disdain or frustration from most Phillies fans. When he steps to the plate, a pallid look of despair crosses the face of even the most strident lover of the City of Brotherly Love’s ballclub. “Here comes a strikeout,” they utter under their breath. “We never should have signed this guy,” crosses their lips in a monotone voice that has come to accept that Howard will never be the player he once was.
— MLB Stat of the Day (@MLBStatoftheDay) September 2, 2015
Maybe you don’t have it quite so bad, remorseful Phillies fan.
Over the past ten years, Howard has driven in 1,062 of those runs. His peak years — 2006 to 2009 — were some of baseball’s best run-producing seasons of all time and coincided with the best run of Phillies’ baseball in franchise history. Miguel Cabrera has never had a 140-RBI season. Howard has three. Albert Pujols, who claimed two MVP awards during Howard’s best stretch, never reached 140 RBIs. While the RBI is hardly the statistic to stand behind when it comes to determining a hitter’s value (Pujols very deservedly won his two MVP awards in 2008 and 2009 with Howard finishing second and third), Howard’s job with the Phillies was to drive in runs, and drive them in he certainly did.
The trouble for Howard began on the last play of the 2011 NLDS against the St. Louis Cardinals. As Howard’s groundball out was making its way to Pujols at first, the Phillies slugger was crumpled on the ground, halfway up the first base line. With a ruptured Achilles tendon, Howard would never be the same again. Fortunately for Howard, the ink was already dry on his five-year, $125-million contract extension. Unfortunately for the Phillies, the ink was already dry on the five-year, $125-million extension that had been handed to Howard.
Howard had signed that extension in 2010, on the heels of a 45-homer, 141-RBI season. Had he not missed a few games in 2007, Howard would have produced four consecutive 140-plus RBI seasons. He was the fastest player ever to reach 100 home runs, and had generally been durable and an average defender in the field. By 2010, though, pitchers had begun getting wise to Howard’s deficiencies as a hitter (slider away, repeat), and the rampant spread of defensive shifts began robbing him of a few hits here and there. Still, Howard remained one of the most productive middle of the order hitters in the league. There would have been no way to predict the rapid physical decline Howard would find himself up against.
Howard played just 71 games in 2012 after coming back from the Achilles injury. A torn meniscus cut his age-33 season down to just 80 games in 2013. Now, with three years to go on that extension, the whispers began regarding Howard’s status as the cornerstone of the Philadelphia Phillies. Howard bounced back to play 153 games in 2014, and he has appeared in 119 of the Phillies’ 133 games this year. Noticeably slimmer, Howard has looked rejuvenated this year, but in a skeleton crew batting order, pitchers have mostly feasted on him. Still, the power is there. Howard’s .453 slugging percentage is his best since 2011, and when he makes contact, the result is still as majestic as it ever was. Even at 35 years old, the raw power with which Howard terrorized the league in his 58-home run 2006 season is still there, even to the opposite field.
Howard’s towering home runs always had a special feel to them, and even as it’s painfully clear he is a shell of the player he once was, that feeling is still there. Ryan Howard will go down as one of the most under-appreciated players in the history of the game, mostly due to the monumental weight of the expectations created by his historic first five seasons in the league. Over those five seasons, starting with Howard’s 22-homer explosion in 88 games during his rookie year, there was no bigger threat to deliver a tape measure home run, and arguably no better run producer in baseball. Yes, Howard had his flaws. He became a pull-happy, strikeout-prone hitter even before injuries sapped his lower body strength, but the Phillies would have been nowhere near becoming the team that ran roughshod over the National League for the better part of six seasons without him. Through all of the ups-and-downs, Howard was always willing to work on himself — become a better fielder, trim weight, work on his swing. There is risk involved in every contract signed by a professional athlete, and there was plenty of risk involved in signing a 6’4″ first baseman generously listed at 250 pounds to a massive extension beyond the age of 30. That’s on the Phillies though, not Howard.
Ryan Howard will not go down in the game’s history as a Hall of Famer. His contract will always be pointed to as a case study for what happens when a team pays a player approaching his mid-thirties for past performance. Perhaps Howard would have been better suited waiting for free agency and becoming a DH as Prince Fielder did, but he wanted to stay in Philadelphia, and the Phillies wanted him back. The franchise’s decline, combined with Howard’s own physical decline, will turn him into a cautionary tale for many years, but that takes away from what Ryan Howard was for many years in Philadelphia. There was no better run producer over an extended period of time at the first base position than Ryan Howard, and that is the way he should be remembered, not as the crumpled figure, a sunk cost, holding his ankle on the first base line.