I want to share a leaderboard with you that I can’t stop thinking about. These are the top-five National League first basemen in the second half by wRC+:
I cannot fathom a more perfect depiction of the frustratingly beautiful juxtaposition of expected/unexpected outcomes which is so integral to this absurd bat-and-ball game we watch each day. It would be easy to pick Votto, Freeman, Goldschmidt and Gonzalez as top offensive performers among National League first basemen. But Ryan Howard?! That Ryan Howard?!
The thing about Howard is that it’s not as though he snuck onto that leaderboard. He has a 191 wRC+ in the second half! Only four other players in all of MLB have a higher wRC+ since the All-Star break: Votto, Gary Sanchez, J.D. Martinez, and Jose Altuve (min. 60 PA).
What’s more, Ryan Howard’s offensive surge is in true old-school Ryan Howard fashion, which is to say he’s hitting the snot out of the ball. Thanks to a remarkable seven home runs in just 66 plate appearances, he’s posted a .403 ISO and .742 slugging percentage. Of the 294 players with 60 or more plate appearances this half, 142 of them — nearly half! — have a lower OPS than Howard’s SLG%.
Although there are obvious plate-appearances issues to consider, it’s feasible to oversimplify the situation and state with at least a modicum of accuracy that Ryan Howard has been among the most productive hitters in baseball over the past six weeks. This is notable on many different levels, but the most basic is that, in the first half of the season, he was quite literally among the worst hitters in the majors.
Here’s where I’d typically tell you about the adjustments Howard has made and the ways in which he’s manufactured such a remarkable turnaround, but I frankly don’t have that analysis to provide. His swing and contact rates have been steady, which indicates to me that his 25.8% strikeout rate doesn’t represent a sustainable improvement on the 29.8% mark he’s posted over the past five seasons. He’s 36 years old and has a case for the title of slowest position player in Major League Baseball. His approach hasn’t changed, which means left-handed pitching and low-and-away breaking stuff remain his fatal flaws. In short, he’s still Ryan Howard. Only, now, he’s a Ryan Howard who’s hitting the snot out of the ball.
What has changed for Howard this season is he’s finally being used as a platoon player. He’s stepped to the plate against left-handed pitching in just 10% of his plate appearances this season. (It should come as no surprise that he’s posted a truly abysmal .107/.103/.214 slash line in those few appearances against lefties.) For me, the most important thing a coaching staff and an organization as a whole can do is put their players in positions to succeed. It makes me crazy when players are put in roles for which they clearly aren’t suited, whether that be a fielding position or a bullpen role or a regular spot in the lineup against left-handers. For years, the Phillies have put Howard in a position to fail by playing him everyday, but now, finally, he’s being put in a position to succeed and, for the moment, he’s doing just that.
Ryan Howard’s days as a productive regular ended the moment his Achilles tendon gave way and left him in a gut-wrenching heap along the first-base line at the conclusion of the 2011 NLDS. Nothing the Phillies could have done in the ensuing years would have made him a significant asset to a major-league lineup. Equally important is the fact that his presence in the lineup hasn’t been the difference between the Phillies sustaining their 2007-2011 success and, well, what actually happened to the Phillies. As Matt Swartz effectively pointed out for The Hardball Times, the fate of the post-2011 Phillies was pre-determined separately from Howard’s fate and contract.
There, I finally said the magic word. Contract. Ryan Howard has one and, as you may have heard, it’s been among the worst of them in baseball from a team perspective. But, while that’s important in analysis of things like his trade value and the Phillies’ roster considerations, it’s important to set that aside when talking about what’s actually happening on the field. It’s easy to default to an embarrassingly reductive explanation of Howard: bad contract, bad player. While there’s undeniable truth to those descriptors, it misses a massive piece of who Howard is as a player and that piece is someone who can post a 191 wRC+ over six weeks.
Don’t get me wrong: Howard’s value to a major-league team is minimal, at best. He’s a one-dimensional player whose recent turnaround is fueled entirely by the fact that his BABIP has jumped from .157 in the first half to .368 in the second half partly because his ground-ball rate has dipped and partly because, well, do I really have to write the word snot again? And in a way, this hot streak can’t, or at least shouldn’t, come as a surprise. After all, his 376 career home runs are more than all but 74 major leaguers have hit in their careers. He wasn’t just a slugger who lucked into a massive contract, he was the best power hitter in baseball for an extended stretch of time. From 2006 to 2009, he hit more home runs than anyone in the game and owned the highest ISO in baseball. His 198 home runs during that four-season stretch left him just barely shy of a 50-homer-per-year pace at a time when power was declining across the league.
I bring all this up because the stretch during which Ryan Howard currently finds himself is driving home a reality in which I work hard to stay grounded: the worst player in major-league baseball is an astonishingly great baseball player. Replacement-level players — and even those who are below replacement level — are still professional athletes capable of phenomenal feats and, in Ryan Howard’s case, that manifests itself in prolific displays of power.
Ryan Howard has become a punch line due to a contract extension, but he’s also one of the best power hitters of this generation. It’s not enough to get him to Cooperstown — and it may or may not be enough even to get him a minor-league contract with an American League team next spring — but it’s allowed him to tear the cover off the ball of late and that’s something worth enjoying as he enters the final weeks of his Phillies career.
Corinne Landrey writes for FanGraphs and MLB.com's Cut4 site. Follow her on Twitter @crashlandrey.