While the barriers between traditional and advanced baseball analysis are falling every day — hearing David Cone cite FanGraphs during a Yankees-Rays broadcast this week was awesome — there are still certain players who are a wedge between non-saberists and saberists. It’s always the same pattern: one side thinks Player X is awesome, the other doesn’t. Flame wars ensue. Each side cites statistics to back up their position, then declares that the other side’s statistics are worthless.
Ryan Howard is one of those players. Traditionalists love him because he posts huge home run and RBI totals; saberists say he’s overvalued because of those same stats. And so the fight continues — wOBA vs. HRs, WAR vs. RBIs. In the end, the debate isn’t about Howard at all — it’s about which stats you want to believe.
I noticed one of these pro-Howard, anti-WAR columns the other day and it made me curious: Can I explain why Ryan Howard’s 2011 season is overrated without using sabermetric statistics? Can I point out that his contract overpays him without using information that would turn off a casual baseball fan? As it turns out, it’s pretty easy to do — though it’s worth noting that saberists might be dismissing Howard’s RBI “skills” too quickly.
It doesn’t take fancy stats to show that Howard is having a down year on offensive. If you look at his rate stats, Howard’s posting career lows in batting average and slugging percentage. His on-base percentage is the second-lowest in his career. When looking at Howard’s rate stats in the past few seasons, the slide is pretty pronounced:
Even if you consider that Howard’s OBP and SLG will be lower because to his low average this season, he’s still reaching base considerably less often than he was two seasons ago — and he’s hitting for less power. While he was getting an extra base hit every 8.1 plate appearances in 2009, that decreased to once every 10.5 plate appearances last season and 11.4 plate appearances this year.
That’s not to say he’s not a valuable hitter — his on-base percentage and slugging both are still better than league average — it’s just that he’s not the same hitter now that he was two years ago. His offense is around 12% to 14% better than league average (measured by OPS), putting him in a similar category as players such as Nick Swisher, Chris Young and Billy Butler. Is that good? Sure. But does that make him one of the best sluggers in the game? Not at all.
But if these stats are true, then how does Howard put up such prolific RBI totals? He’s currently third in the majors with 74 RBIs, trailing only Adrian Gonzalez (78) and Adrian Beltre (75). This ranking can be chalked up to two things: opportunity and clutch hitting. Howard has come to the plate with runners in scoring position 141 times this year — tied for most in the majors — and he’s hitting .313/.418/.509 in those plate appearances.
So there’s a bit of skill and luck tied up in Howard’s 74 RBIs. If he were on another team, he wouldn’t necessarily have this many plate appearances with runners on base. But it’s impossible to deny that Howard has been exceptionally good when he’s needed to drive in runners. Not only that, but while “clutch” ability typically varies widely from year to year, Howard has consistently done better in his career with runners on. He has a career .929 OPS, but his OPS jumps to .978 with runners in scoring position. His ability to drive in runners seems to be consistent — he’s performed better with runners on base in nearly every season in the majors — so it’s possible saberists are selling him short by largely ignoring his RBI totals. Part of it might be luck, but part of it might be skill.
Still, the main reason saberists take shots at Howard is because he is treated — and paid — as if he were one of the game’s best first basemen. He clearly isn’t. Even if you give Howard a boost for clutch hitting, who would you prefer on your team: Howard or Joey Votto? Or Adrian Gonzalez? Or Albert Pujols? Or Prince Fielder? All these players have better offensive slashlines than Howard has this season (and last season, for that matter), yet Howard will make the most of them all.
It’s tough to argue that Howard deserves to be paid like he’s the best first baseman in the majors, no matter which stat you use. I’ll concede that Howard seems to have a talent for hitting with runners on base, but even that can’t compensate for his .342 OBP. He’s a fine player, but he’s not even the third-best first baseman in the National League.