JAWS and the 2022 Hall of Fame Ballot: Ryan Howard

The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2022 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. For a tentative schedule and a chance to fill out a Hall of Fame ballot for our crowdsourcing project, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

2022 BBWAA Candidate: Ryan Howard
Ryan Howard 1B 14.7 19.2 16.9 1,475 382 12 .258/.343/.515 125
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

As the Phillies looked to turn the corner from pretenders to contenders in the new millennium, they signed future Hall of Fame slugger Jim Thome to provide some middle-of-the-lineup thump via a six-year, $85 million contract in December 2002. Outwardly at least, they didn’t appear to expect much from their fifth-round 2001 draft pick, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound first baseman with 80-grade raw power but notable contact issues and questions about his defense. Thome’s presence kept Ryan Howard in the minors long enough for him to hit 46 home runs across two levels in 2004, his age-24 season. But when Thome suffered a season-ending elbow injury the following year, Howard stepped in and flat out stole the first base job.

Howard won the NL Rookie of the Year award in his abbreviated 2005 season, leading the Phillies to trade Thome to the White Sox that winter, then followed up by launching 58 homers and claiming NL MVP honors in ’06. He became a cornerstone of the Phillies’ five straight NL East titles from 2007 to ’11, a run that included a World Series win over the Rays in 2008, and another NL pennant in ’09.

At a time before the lessons of Moneyball had been fully absorbed on a league-wide basis, Howard’s big home run and RBI totals led to massive paydays, while his limitations in the field and on the basepaths — which had already become significant factors as he’d filled out to a listed 250 pounds — were overlooked. Unfortunately, an Achilles tendon rupture, suffered on the final play of the 2011 Division Series agains the Cardinals, turned his biggest contract into an albatross. Midway through that deal, an ugly legal fight within his family over the handling of his finances came to light, a heartbreaking turn of events that couldn’t have made his on-field struggles any easier.

Howard was born in St. Louis, Missouri on November 19, 1979, along with his twin brother Corey. His father Ron was an engineer for IBM, while his mother Cheryl, was a marketing manager. According to a 2007 New York Times profile by Michael Sokolove, Cheryl’s father played sandlot ball with Willie Mays in Birmingham, Alabama.

When Howard was two years old, his father found him watching a baseball game on television and swinging his little red plastic bat. “It was such a natural swing,” Ron Howard told Sokolove. “At that moment I knew he’d be some kind of baseball player.”

Growing up, Howard played soccer, basketball, and football (briefly), but baseball remained his focus. He starred at Lafayette High School, hitting a school record 17 homers. Though several colleges showed interest, none offered a situation to his liking. He agreed to enroll at Southwest Missouri State, where coach Keith Guttin told him that if he played as a freshman, he’d receive scholarships for his remaining years. Howard agreed, and hit .355 with 19 homers, earning Missouri Valley Conference Rookie of the Year and Collegiate Baseball Freshman All-American honors in 1999. He received his scholarships, and in three seasons, totaled 50 homers.

Howard spent the summer of 2000 with Team USA (as did fellow 2022 ballot newcomer Mark Teixeira, then a third baseman). But as Baseball America summarized, he “entered 2001 viewed as a first- or second-round pick and perhaps a lefthanded version of Frank Thomas. Then he caught a bad case of draftitis and slogged through a mediocre spring” that included his setting a school strikeout record. He slipped to the fifth round, where the Phillies chose him, signing him for a $230,000 bonus.

Howard began his professional career at Low-A Batavia, where he hit .272/.384/.456 with six homers, “displaying tape-measure power and good strike-zone knowledge,” as BA’s scouting report noted. The next year, at A-level Lakewood, the 22-year-old slugger hit 19 homers but struck out 145 times. He nearly won the Florida State Leagues triple crown in 2003, then mashed 46 homers and hit .291/.380/.637 split between Double-A Reading and Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. He also struck out 166 times, a cause for concern among some talent evaluators. Still, he received a late-season call-up, striking out against the Braves’ Jaret Wright as a pinch-hitter in his debut on September 1.

With Thome entrenched at first base — a puzzling signing given the 32-year-old slugger’s presumptive path towards becoming a designated hitter — Howard found playing time hard to come by. He made just five starts that September, while coming off the bench 14 times. In 42 PA, he hit .282/.333/.564 with two homers, both of which came as a pinch-hitter; the first was a two-run shot off the Mets’ Bartolome Fortunato on September 11, the second a game-tying seventh-inning solo homer off the Expos’ T.J. Tucker.

Howard began the 2005 season ranked 27th on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects list, but he started the season back in Scranton just the same. Opportunity knocked when Thome missed 19 games in May due to a lower back strain; Howard went 6-for-28 with a homer off the Cardinals’ Jeff Suppan in his absence before being sent back down. When elbow tendinitis sidelined Thome again in late June — for the remainder of the season, as it turned out, since he wound up needing surgery — Howard returned, and he clobbered the ball. He hit .288/.356/.567 (133 OPS+) with 22 homers in just 88 games en route to Rookie of the Year honors.

Thome understood that he’d lost his job to the younger slugger, and graciously waived his no-trade clause to facilitate a trade to the White Sox. “When I leave the game of baseball someday, I want people to recognize that I always put my teams first,” he told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “That’s what I love about the game — being part of the team. I see in Ryan Howard what someone saw in me when I broke into the big leagues. And now it’s time for both of us to seize the opportunity ahead of us. It’s a win-win situation.”

Howard seized the opportunity and steamrolled NL pitchers. He homered off the Cardinals’ Chris Carpenter on Opening Day, and put together some astonishing stretches: 10 homers in 20 games in May and June, and then — after making his first NL All-Star team and winning the Home Run Derby at PNC Park — 28 homers in 54 games from July 14 to September 8, giving him 56 for the season. Though he added just two more homers over his final 21 games, he finished with a .313/.425/659 line, and league-leading totals of 58 homers, 383 total bases, and 149 RBIs; his slugging percentage and 167 OPS+ ranked second. He beat out Albert Pujols in the NL MVP voting, though Pujols’ 8.5 WAR trumped his own 5.2.

The Phillies hadn’t been to the playoffs since losing the 1993 World Series, though they had been knocking on the door, with three straight second-place finishes in the NL East. With Howard, second baseman Chase Utley, shortstop Jimmy Rollins, and staff ace Cole Hamels leading the way, they finally got over the hump in 2007, winning 89 games and the first of five straight division titles. Howard couldn’t match his previous year’s performance, but his 145 OPS+ was good for ninth in the league, and both his 47 homers and 136 RBIs ranked second. On the other hand, his 199 strikeouts broke Adam Dunn’s short-lived record, set just three years earlier, but in turn Howard’s record would be surpassed by Mark Reynolds just a year later.

In the Division Series, the Phillies were swept by the Rockies. Howard was one of two Phillies to collect three hits, but his lone homer came with his team trailing by seven runs.

That winter, Howard became eligible for arbitration for the first time, and he and the team couldn’t come to terms before the hearing. The Phillies offered $7 million, but Howard and agent Casey Close countered with $10 million. When the case went to trial, Howard won, setting a record for the largest arbitration salary awarded to that point.

Howard led the NL in homers (48) and RBI (146) again in 2008, but his OPS+ dipped to 125, and his WAR to 1.8, due to shaky defense (-4 Defensive Runs Saved) and baserunning (-3 runs). The Phillies again won the NL East, and while Howard began the postseason in a 2-for-19 funk (albeit with six walks, three of them intentional), he began heating up, hitting .364/.447/.697 from Game 3 of the NLCS against the Dodgers through the World Series against the Rays. His two-homer, five-RBI performance in Game 4 put the Phillies one win away from their first title since 1980; though Howard went hitless and struck out three times, they won Game 5 to secure just their second championship in franchise history.

While basking in the afterglow of that championship, Howard was offered a $14 million contract by the Phillies, but he and Close countered with a figure of $18 million. Wary of losing again in arbitration — and with a player who had averaged 51 homers and 144 RBI over the previous three seasons, that seemed entirely possible — the Phillies hashed out a three-year, $54 million extension. Howard responded with a very good year, hitting for a 141 OPS+ with 3.8 WAR while clubbing 45 homers (third in the NL), and driving in a league-high 141 runs as the Phillies won 93 games and another NL East title.

He opened the postseason by tying the major league record for consecutive playoff games with an RBI (eight); only Lou Gehrig (1928-32) and Alex Rodriguez (2007) had managed the feat before. Howard drove in 14 runs in those games against the Rockies and Dodgers, including a game-tying two-run double off Colorado’s Huston Street in the ninth inning of Game 4; when Jayson Werth followed with a double, Howard scored what proved to be the series-clinching run.

In the NLCS, Howard simply ate the Dodgers alive, hitting a two-run double off Clayton Kershaw in a Game 1 win, homering off Vicente Padilla in a Game 2 loss, opening the scoring with a two-run triple off Hiroki Kuroda in a Game 3 rout, and opening the scoring with a two-run homer off Randy Wolf in a Game 4 win. Despite a hitless Game 5, his .333/.524/.933 performance earned him NLCS MVP honors. But while he doubled twice in the World Series opener against the Yankees — one of the two games the Phillies would win — he went just 4-for-23 with three RBIs while striking out 13 times in the six-game defeat.

Though Howard was already signed through the end of the next season, in April 2010 he received a whopping five-year, $125 million extension, covering his age-32 to 36 seasons (2012-16). The extension made him the game’s second-highest paid player in terms of average annual salary, behind only Rodriguez. As in comedy, timing is everything when it comes to contracts.

While certainly a stroke of good fortune for a well-liked, hard-working and loyal player from a team that could afford it, the contract’s dangers were readily apparent. Though he had averaged 50 homers and 143 RBIs while hitting for a 145 OPS+ from 2006-09, Howard had averaged a modest 3.4 WAR during that span because he was a net 21 runs below average according to DRS — already DH-caliber. By locking in such a big deal a year and a half ahead of schedule, without any apparent discount, the deal appeared to be a high-risk one for the Phillies, particularly if Howard declined on both sides of the ball, which seemed probable given his age and body type.

In explaining why the Phillies made the move when they did, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. had high praise for Howard:

“We just felt it was good timing for us. We felt No. 1, he’s one of the elite offensive players in the game. We could have waited another year and a half or so and dealt with it later on, but the fact of the matter is we decided he is that important to our organization and to our club and to our future.”

…”Ryan has clearly dedicated himself to being a very complete player. He’s worked on his defense. He’s worked on his body. He has a special attribute with his power and his run production that not many in the history of this game have been able to accomplish… The numbers don’t lie. He’s also one of the most durable players we have. Ryan’s basically ready to play 162 games. I think that means a lot.”

Alas, Howard’s 2010 and ’11 seasons were indeed a significant step down. In two very statistically similar seasons, he averaged 32 homers, 112 RBI, a 127 OPS+ — acceptable offensive numbers — but -13 DRS and 1.2 WAR. The Phillies’ regular season success made that downturn easier to overlook, as their seasons of 97 and 102 wins were the best of their five-year run, with the latter a franchise record. Their postseason results contrasted with that success, however. Howard went 10-for-33 but didn’t drive in a single run as the Phillies made it as far as the NLCS in 2010 before losing to the Giants in six games. While Howard’s three-run homer and sacrifice fly helped carry the Phillies to victory in the 2011 Division Series opener against the Cardinals, he went just 1-for-16 the rest of the way.

Adding injury to insult, Howard stepped into the batter’s box with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 5, with the Phillies trailing 1-0 against Carpenter, who had held the team to three hits in a sterling effort. On a 2-2 pitch, he hit a groundball to second base, then stumbled out of the batter’s box, got up limping, and made it only as far as the first base coach’s box before easing himself to the ground and being tended to by trainers. The contrast between the Cardinals’ celebration and his own visible pain was about as stark as any sport can produce.

Howard had ruptured his left Achilles tendon. “I was trying to run, and I felt a pop,” he told reporters. “It felt like the whole thing was on fire. It felt like I was on a flat tire. I tried to get up, but couldn’t go.”

Howard had actually been dealing with problems in his lower left leg since spraining his ankle in August 2010, which led to a 19-day stay on the disabled list that season. He had been sidelined by pain in his Achilles in the weeks leading up to the injury; diagnosed with bursitis in his left heel on August 23, he missed one game, then six more from September 18-23 after receiving a cortisone shot, a questionable move from a medical standpoint. From a rather damning report by the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Frank Fitzpatrick the following May:

“According to one recent survey of orthopedic physicians – many of whom unhesitatingly prescribe cortisone for tennis elbow or rotator-cuff problems – two-thirds would not use it to treat an Achilles injury.

…”There wouldn’t be any way that you would back me into the corner on anybody [with an Achilles problem] to go ahead and inject them,” said Dr. Michael Schafer, an orthopedic consultant to the Chicago Cubs and chairman of the orthopedic surgery department at Northwestern University Hospital. “I’ve been in practice since 1974 and been involved in sports all my life. When it comes to the risk of an Achilles tendon tear, I’m concerned about cortisone.”

The article quoted several other experts and studies echoing such concerns, with a heavy tilt against such use of a cortisone shot. In response to the piece, Amaro told reporters, “The cortisone shot was treated for some (other) issue he had. It was not part of the Achilles’ injury. We didn’t feel it was an issue. That was resolved by the time he had his injury. One thing had nothing to do with the other.” The GM did not specify what that issue was, and Howard did not comment.

His career was never the same. Over the life of the five-year extension, he hit just .226/.292/.427 for a 95 OPS+ with -39 DRS and -4.8 WAR. A stitch abscess helped delay his return from the injury until July 6, 2012, and he played in just 71 games that year, then 80 the following season before undergoing surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee. The abbreviated 2013 season marked the only time in that stretch that he produced an OPS+ above 100 (115, via a .266/.319/.465 line) or a positive WAR (0.5), though his 11 homers were a career low. While he returned to play 153 games and hit 23 homers in 2014, his 92 OPS+ and -1.2 WAR were dismal, and the picture was about the same over the final two seasons of the deal, during which he played only 241 games.

The Phillies didn’t fare very well either, declining from 102 wins to 81, then two years of 73, and them bottoming out at 63-99 in 2015. Charlie Manuel, whose teams had won at a .551 clip during his tenure, was fired in mid-August of 2013, and Ryne Sandberg, his successor, lasted only 278 games before resigning in late June of ’15, with Pete Mackanin taking over. Rollins departed in free agency after the 2014 season, with Hamels and Utley traded the following summer, and Amaro fired in September, with Matt Klentak taking over.

In November 2014, the Philadelphia Daily News published a report by David Murphy detailing the Howard family’s in-fighting and allegations of financial mismanagement. Early in his career, Howard paid twin brother Corey $92 an hour to handle his business and marketing arrangements and followed the direction of his father to have the family manage his income via a company he incorporated called RJH Enterprises, to which he contributed about $8 million. When Howard later turned his marketing and promotion duties over to Close, his agent, his brother sued him for $2.8 million for breach of contract, and Howard counter-sued, alleging that his brother was engaged in a conspiracy with other family members to defraud RJH. When Howard sought to remove his family from his finances, his father proposed that he pay each of his parents $5 million. The parties reportedly settled out of court, but it was a grim chapter of Howard’s career.

On the field, though Howard’s 25 homers in just 362 PA in 2016 represented his highest total since his injury, his .196/.257/.453 line made it impossible to justify playing him regularly, let alone trading him to save the team some money. Instead, he split first base duties with 24-year-old rookie Tommy Joseph, after platooning with Darin Ruf the year before. As Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal observed, “Howard remained dignified and humble throughout his final trying years with the Phillies.”

Howard’s deal included a $10 million club option for 2017, which the team declined, making him a free agent for the first time in his career. Buoyed by the fact that he hit .262/.324/.608 in his last 140 PA as well as the work he was doing with a personal trainer, the 37-year-old first baseman told Rosenthal that he believed he “still had a lot left in the tank.” But interest in his services wasn’t forthcoming; even as of April 2, 2017, the Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo reported that Howard hadn’t received any offers. Days later, he signed a minor league deal with the Braves, but he hit just .184/.238/.263 in 42 PA at Triple-A Gwinnett before being released a month later. In August, he signed a minor league deal with the Rockies, but his .192/.185/.442 in 54 PA at Triple-A Albuquerque couldn’t even compel them to call him up once rosters expanded in September.

The message was clear, though Howard took until September 2018 to formally retire. He made the announcement via The Players’ Tribune, thanking the fans of Philadelphia, his “teammates turned brothers,” and his wife and kids; notably absent from the piece were his parents and siblings. “My career, man, it had some interesting bookends. But in between? During the heart of it all? I’ll tell you what — it was a dream come true,” he wrote.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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2 years ago

Man talk about one of the most feared hitters in baseball during his prime. His raw power was incredible. You held your breath every time he put a ball in the air because you felt like he could muscle it out even if it was off the end of the bat.