- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Ryan Howard has heard the talk. Let’s just say it hasn't been his favorite spring training storyline of all time.
That storyline goes kinda like this:
Ryan Howard -- part-time player $25 million platoon player yada, yada, yada.
“Yeah, I’ve heard people talk about that and about whatever,” Howard said Wednesday, after drilling an RBI single against Blue Jays left-hander J.A. Happ in the Phillies’ spring opener. “But I don’t think about that. I’m not focused on it.”
What he’s focused on, though, is being anything but a platoon player, that .224/.300/.428 career slash line against left-handed pitching notwithstanding. No matter how logical that platoon-player stuff might seem to everyone else, the Phillies’ first baseman has other plans.
And they involve spending the next six months (and beyond) as the cleanup hitter -- against everybody.
“Yeah, absolutely. That’s my goal as a baseball player, or just myself, period,” Howard told ESPN.com. “I want to be out there, playing against everybody. I don’t want to have to sit against somebody because they don’t think I can hit that guy or do this, or whatever. I want to be out there competing. If a guy gets me that day, he gets me that day. But next time he comes around, I’m trying to even the score.”
Well, so far, so good. Counting the Phillies’ intrasquad game Tuesday, Howard is 3-for-3 against left-handed pitching this spring, including a long home run to center field Tuesday. OK, so you can repeat after us: It’s only spring training. Nevertheless, if he can keep on hitting 1.000 under the palm trees, he can put his favorite spring plotline to rest.
But if not -- and not would be a heavy favorite in Vegas, by the way -- then we probably haven’t heard the last of this discussion.
It would be one thing, you see, if this talk was coming only from sabermetricians, talk-show geniuses and about 2 zillion people on Twitter. What makes it more interesting is that it’s also come from Howard’s manager (Ryne Sandberg) and general manager (Ruben Amaro Jr.).
Check out these pithy quotes from a radio interview Amaro did over the offseason:
“Ryan has never been a great hitter against left-handers,” Amaro said. “But when he is in there and he does enough damage against right-handers it’s tough to take him out of the lineup. Now, if we feel like he’s not performing against the left-handers then we put someone else in there to hit. If he proves to us that he cannot handle hitting left-handers, then Ryne may have to put someone else in there to hit against left-handers.”
Sandberg, meanwhile, has voiced similar thoughts. So clearly, he is watching closely this spring. And here, he said Wednesday, is what he’ll be looking for when Howard faces the left-handed portion of the population:
“I want to see if he can make them throw the ball off the plate,” the manager said. “Be patient. Be relaxed in those situations. Get a good ball to hit. Make the pitcher come to him. I mean, I've said it before. I know he can hit balls in the strike zone, right-handed or left-handed pitching. So if it means being patient and taking walks, that’s for the betterment of the team. And be a baserunner. Let the guy behind him hit.”
But swinging at strikes has, increasingly, become an issue for Howard. According to FanGraphs, he’s chased more pitches outside the strike zone in the past two seasons -- 37 percent in 2012, 34 percent last year -- than at any time in his career. So Howard concedes he needs to swing at more strikes, period.
“Righty or lefty, that’s the name of the game, is getting good pitches and swinging at strikes,” he said. “Hitters’ strikes.”
He also admits he has asked Sandberg to give him as many opportunities to face left-handed pitching as possible this spring.
“I just wanted to do it, just to be able to see it,” he said. “To be able to see more [left-handers]. To start working on an approach. Just seeing left-handed breaking balls, left-handed pitches. Trying to work on picking up the ball sooner. And it’s spring training, where you’ve got the opportunity to go out and do it. So why not do it?”
No matter how this turns out, though, Howard has come into spring training healthier than he’s been at any time in three years. It’s now 28 months since he blew out his Achilles. And after five months of intensive conditioning, it’s finally healthy enough that it isn't an issue anymore. And neither is his arthroscopically repaired knee. So even he sees the difference in his health and agility between last spring and this spring.
“I can do everything,” Howard said. “I mean, I was able to do everything last [spring]. But then once it kind of started nagging, it was tough going out there and trying to play on it. But this year, being able to go out there, having a full offseason to be able to do agility drills, lifting, everything I wanted to do this offseason as far as that area goes, actually getting back to running this offseason, and now doing everything that’s asked of me in spring training. So yeah, that’s probably the biggest difference between this year and last year -- being able to do everything that’s been asked of me.”
And so far, “everything” includes handling those guys who insist on pitching left-handed against him. But there are still five weeks until Opening Day. So this is one Ryan Howard plotline that won’t be going away -- whether he’s tired of it or not.