Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Should Ryan Howard be more aggressive?

Pat Andriola postulated that Ryan Howard's not helping himself by putting more balls in play as he gets older, leaning back on the Moneyball adage that sluggers should try to take more walks as they age. Howard instead had cut down on his high K rate and his walk rate by being more aggressive.

A brief look at his swing rates: With pitchers pitching around him more than ever (the 42.4% pitches thrown in the zone are the lowest rate he's seen in his career), Howard is swinging at more balls out of the zone (32.6%, up from his usual 25-27%) even though he's swinging at nearly 9% fewer balls in the zone, and is by a hair running the highest contact rate (69.7%) of his career. It's not a drastic move on his part, but Howard is to some extent being more aggressive at the plate despite pitchers pitching around him more than ever.

There are various ways to look at the issue. Howard is slow so while he could draw more walks he'd clog up the basepaths when he does, hindering the efforts of hitters behind him in the order. On the flip side, by swinging more he's generating more outs, even if he might generate more power.

But let's focus on the numbers. I decided to use his batted ball rates to estimate a difference between his current approach and his previous approach, and then estimate numbers based on the suggested approach (be patient, take more walks) to compare.

So let's take his current averages on balls in play and estimate how he would do. Howard's career numbers by BIP:

GB: .205 AVG, .209 SLG
FB: .417 AVG, 1.382 SLG
LD ISO: .338

For his line drives, we'll use his isolated power to determine his LD slugging but use a static .732 average for LD since LD averages tend to fall in the same range regardless of player.

Now this season he has seen a noticeable decline in his power. His isolated power on flyballs, at .965 over his career, has dipped sharply to .560. His 2010 numbers:

GB: .257 AVG, .257 SLG
FB: .240 AVG, .800 SLG
LD ISO: .235

Now, GB rates tend to be consistent for a player over his career as footspeed is a big factor. So for this projection I'll use his career AVG/SLG of .205 and .209. I expect his current .257 AVG will regress over time. I'll use his 2010 FB rates as those are largely determined by power and ability, and for his LD rates I'll again use the standard .732 AVG and tack on his revised ISO for 2010 to get a LD slugging of .967.

So here are the batted ball averages I'll use as we continue:

GB: .205 AVG, .209 SLG
FB: .240 AVG, .800 SLG
LD: .732 AVG, .967 SLG

Let's take these revised averages and apply them along with his career walk, strikeout and batted ball rates over 500 hypothetical plate appearances to estimate how this new and dis-improved Ryan Howard would hit if he didn't change a thing:

Walk: 12.6%
Strikeout: 32.2%
GB %: 39.1%
LD %: 23.2%
FB %: 37.7%

AB: 439
H: 94
TB: 169
BB: 63
K: 161
AVG/OBP/SLG... OPS: .214/.314/.385... .699

Yeah, that's the look of a player that's done. So can't blame Ryan Howard for trying to change his game.

Now, let's take his current batted ball rates and his current walk and K rates to estimate how he'd do over 500 hypothetical PAs.

Walk: 7.6%
Strikeout: 25.6%
GB %: 43.5%
LD %: 22.1%
FB %: 34.4%

AB: 462
H: 111
TB: 194
BB: 38
K: 128
AVG/OBP/SLG... OPS: .240/.298/.420... .718

Still not good, but better than he would do otherwise. He'd get on base less, but he'd hit for higher average (on average) and he'd hit for more power.

However, we should also estimate how he'd do with the advised approach, taking more pitches and trying to draw more walks. To estimate his walk and K rates, we thankfully have a relatively close approximation of a season where he saw a similarly low number of pitches in the zone: His spectacular 2007 season. That year he saw 44.4% of pitches hit the zone, and in that season he drew walks in a career high 16.5% of his PAs. However, he also whiffed a career high 37.6% of the time.

Let's make some assumptions: Given he's watching 57.6% of pitches miss the zone, if he were to take pitches accordingly he could almost match that 16% walk rate. He's going to K a lot, but his eye has improved from 2007 and his K rate will be a bit lower... more like 35%. He's still going to strike out a lot as age erodes his already limited ability to recognize and make contact with pitches in the zone, and as he takes more pitches to try and work more walks and/or wait for pitches to hit.

Let's assume his current batted ball rates will match his batted ball rates going forward and estimate a line over 500 hypothetical PAs.

Walk: 16.0%
Strikeout: 35.0%
GB %: 43.5%
LD %: 22.1%
FB %: 34.4%

AB: 420
H: 82
TB: 142
BB: 80
K: 175
AVG/OBP/SLG... OPS: .195/.324/.338... .662

Ewwwwwwww. If Ryan Howard were to take the suggested approach, he'd draw more walks... at the expense of pretty much everything else, and his collapse would be even MORE pronounced than had he done nothing.

So maybe, by electing to get more aggressive, Ryan Howard is on to something. All that aside, he is in a loaded lineup full of great players, and he's going to drive more of them in by hitting the ball than by drawing free passes, and I go back to the first point about his slowness clogging up the basepaths and limiting the hitters behind him when he does take walks. And most of all, he just signed a ridiculous $125 million extension, and they're not paying him to draw 80 walks. They're paying him to swing the bat and drive in his teammates.

But the averages themselves show that the suggested approach of patience, whether it worked for David Justice in a bygone era or not, would not work for Ryan Howard. It would kill his career faster than he would by staying the course and waiting for collapse. His increased aggression may not get him on base as much, but it's probably going to extend his career a couple years longer...

... assuming, of course, that this is a permanent adjustment and not just the product of random noise from his first two months of the season. But if and when he needs to adjust, history indicates he's better served playing to his strengths as a power hitter and focusing on hitting the ball, rather than playing to his weaknesses and trying to work ball four before taking strike three, and clogging the basepaths.

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