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Wednesday, February 22, 2012
Ryan Howard's big issue at the plate

By Jayson Stark


Strike One -- Howard's Real Achilles' Heel

Ryan Howard spent 24 minutes Wednesday in the Phillies' camp, talking about his Achilles' heel. That would be the Achilles tendon he blew out on the final pitch of last October's National League Division Series.

But before Howard ever made it in front of the cameras and microphones, his manager, Charlie Manuel, spent nearly as much time dissecting Howard's other Achilles' heel.

Ryan Howard


Howard




That would be the one that drives Howard's many detractors insane.

And what would that be? Every darned year, dating back to when he hit .313/.425/.656 in 2006, this guy has negated much of what he does best by swinging at fewer and fewer strikes.

Here are the facts, courtesy of FanGraphs: From 2005 to '09, Howard's first five full seasons, he chased only about 26 percent of all pitches outside the strike zone. But over the past three years, he has hacked at almost one-third of all nonstrikes -- including 33.1 percent of the time in 2010 and 31.8 percent last year.

Want to know how that's worked out for him? You can probably guess. According to ESPN's pitch data, Howard batted a piddly .143 (31 for 217, with only four doubles and two homers) last season -- and slugged just .189 -- when he swung at pitches outside the strike zone.

But when he swung at strikes? Slightly different result. He hit .324 (110 for 340, with 26 doubles and 31 home runs) -- and slugged .679.

If we subtract strikeouts, those numbers inflate to .410, with an .862 slugging percentage inside the strike zone -- versus a .265 average and .350 slugging percentage on pitches he made contact with outside the zone.

Sooooo ... we don't need to call in Tom Emanski to tell us what this guy needs to work on once his other Achilles gets healed. Do we? It couldn't be more obvious if we slapped it on every billboard in Florida.

And Ryan Howard's manager knows it all too well.

"It's a matter of him getting more selective," Manuel said Wednesday. "When he first came up, he looked for balls he liked to hit. ... Then the pitchers studied him and let him get himself out."

The year Howard hit .300, "that was the most disciplined and selective he's ever been," Manuel said. And the manager thinks he could do that again if he rediscovers that level of selectivity.

But when Howard was asked if he thought he could hit .300 again, he had a fascinating response: "Personally," he said, "I feel like I hit .300 every year. I don't know how many hits get taken away every year by the shift. ... But I feel like sometimes I'm doing the same things [at the plate that he was doing when he hit .300] ... because I'm playing on a different field."

So is that true? Well, ESPN's pitch data shows he hit .107 last season (12 for 112) on ground balls to the right side. The only left-handed hitter with a lower average on pulled ground balls was Prince Fielder (10 for 101, .099). Both those guys are among the most shifted-on hitters in baseball. But guess what? Fielder still managed to overcome it and hit .299. Howard, meanwhile, batted .253.

So how big a disadvantage is Howard really at? He should know that the average left-handed hitter batted only .176 on ground balls to the right side. Adrian Gonzalez and Joey Votto, two guys who use the whole field, hit just .165 and .160, respectively.

We're talking, in other words, about only a handful of hits a year. We're not talking about the 28 additional hits Howard would have needed to be a .300 hitter last season. And we're certainly not talking about the shift alone being responsible for the nearly 60 points Howard has lost off his on-base percentage since 2006.

That isn't about the shift. That's about selectivity. But I think we already mentioned that, didn't we?

And so did Ryan Howard's manager.

Strike Two -- The Jay Hey Kid


The most fun I've had all spring was watching Jason Heyward take batting practice in the Braves' camp the other day. He made so many baseballs disappear over the right-field fence that when he was through, Freddie Freeman just looked at him and said, "Wow."

Jason Heyward


Heyward




Heyward's "wow" factor was missing in action last summer. Couldn't get healthy. Couldn't handle getting pounded inside. Couldn't even get himself on the lineup card down the stretch.

But he seems to have really connected with new hitting coach Greg Walker and assistant hitting coach Scott Fletcher. And Heyward's teammates are buzzing about how good he's looked since getting his retooled stroke dialed in under the new regime.

"That's what we've been shooting for since Jan. 1," said Chipper Jones, after Heyward's monster BP round. "When he came in [to start his offseason hitting] on Jan. 1, it was an event. And in a month and a half, he's gone from flat-out ugly to flat-out dangerous. It's good to see that 2010 Jay Hey back again. He's the pivot man. He's the swing man in our lineup. If he's that 30-home run, .280-.300 guy, our offense is going to take off."

You don't need to be a descendant of Hank Aaron to know Heyward needed to make some significant changes, because the league has clearly adjusted to him. Check out his first two months in the big leagues in 2010 -- and how he's fared since:



As reminiscent as his BP session this week was of the shows he put on in Florida back in the day in 2010, it doesn't tell us how Heyward is going to deal with the heat on the inner half which swallowed him alive last season. On hard stuff in, he hit .169 and slugged .237 in 2011. That's a gigantic change from the first half of his rookie year, when he hit .268 and slugged .518 versus the same pitches in that same zone.

Then again, as ESPN Stats & Info guru Mark Simon detailed this month, Heyward scuffled against just about any kind of pitching on the inner half last year. And that's something he's got to fix if he's ever going to make an impact in the big leagues.

"There are so many intangibles to sort out with this guy aside from health," said one scout. "Is he willing to get closer to the plate? Is he willing to make adjustments to his swing? Let's assume he'll be healthy, and that's a big 'if.' Is he willing to make the necessary changes to get back where he was in the first half of his rookie year -- because his first half was much different than his second half?"

So far, the Braves see a hitter who has made those changes. Now it's time to see if they lead to the kind of results that will bear out the Braves' decision not to go out and add a big bopper last winter, because they still believed Jason Heyward could be That Guy.

"We're not asking him to go out and win a triple crown," said his manager, Fredi Gonzalez. "We're just asking him to be the Jason Heyward we know he can be."

Strike Three -- In Other News Dept. ...


• With Tim Wakefield packing it in, it means we have a new leader among active pitchers in career wild pitches. That would be A.J. Burnett, who had closed to within 10 wild pitches of Wakefield (134-124) and no doubt would have passed him this season anyway, even if Wakefield had kept flutterballing all year.

• Amazing Coincidence Dept.: What were the odds of Burnett getting traded on the same day this month that Wakefield retired?

• As the legendary Bill Chuck reports, however, Burnett is never going to catch Wakefield in career passed balls induced. Wakefield's lead in the clubhouse: 253-16.

• The only five "active" pitchers (i.e., pitchers who can be tracked down in someone's spring training camp at the moment) who are even within 50 of Burnett in career wild pitches:

Miguel Batista, 101

John Lackey, 97

Jeff Suppan, 89

Freddy Garcia, 84

Jamey Wright, 75

• If you missed the column I wrote the other day about the Cardinals' transition into Life After Tony And Albert (detailed this month), you missed this astounding fact:

The 2011-12 Cardinals are the first team in history to win a World Series one year, then return the next year without their manager and their leading home run hitter.

• Finally, speaking of the Cardinals, here's our Quote of the Week:

When Mike Matheny met with the media on his first day as the manager of the Cardinals, he did the entire session while leaning on a fungo bat. When he was asked if he actually planned to hit any fungoes, he quipped:

"I'm not too good at hitting fungoes. But when I was a player, I was real good at hitting it at people. So I think I'll be all right."