The protection question

Posted: March 25, 2007

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Don't pitch to Ryan Howard.

Pitch to Pat Burrell instead.

That's the fear, isn't it? The bat is removed from Howard's hands? Teams intentionally walked Howard a franchise-record 37 times last season, 32 times after the all-star break. That practice could increase now that Howard, who hit .313 with 58 home runs and 149 RBIs, is just the fourth player in baseball history to win the rookie-of-the-year and most-valuable-player awards in his first two full seasons in the majors. (Fred Lynn, Cal Ripken Jr. and Ichiro Suzuki are the others.)

So the job seems to fall to Burrell. He simply must provide Howard better protection.

Yes, that would solve that problem.

Or not.

Is protection for Howard the most overblown concern about the Phillies this spring? Compared with Freddy Garcia's right biceps and a bullpen that has nobody in the Phillies' front office or coach's room particularly confident, yes.

"I do think it's overblown," manager Charlie Manuel said. "First of all, if [Howard] chases bad balls and gets himself out, that just shows he's overanxious and trying too hard. It's kind of natural. But at the same time, when he's feeling good and he's patient at the plate, he's getting good balls to hit. Then he'll hit homers. If he hits .300, he'll always have homers and always have production. If he does the same thing, if he stays within himself, he will always do that."

The importance of protection in a lineup is an interesting debate. Sabermetricians have studied it and have found no statistical evidence that a hitter's success affects the hitter in front of him.

In other words, Burrell could hit .258 with 29 homers and 95 RBIs like he did last season or .281 with 32 homers and 117 RBIs like he did in 2005, and Howard's numbers this season wouldn't be affected. As Burrell pointed out last month, Howard seemed all right last season with the protection behind him.

Manuel points out that Jim Thome hit 52 homers for the Cleveland Indians in 2002. Thome had a motley crew of Travis Fryman (.217, 11 homers, 55 RBIs), Karim Garcia (.299, 16, 52), Lee Stevens (.222, 5, 26), Milton Bradley (.249, 9, 38) and Russell Branyan (.205, 8, 17) hitting behind him.

Hardly Albert Pujols.

"Strong protection doesn't show up in the numbers," Baseball Prospectus cofounder Joe Sheehan said. "It's a belief system. It's something that really can't be addressed with evidence. There is weak protection. Weak protection means that the guy's intentional walk rate, and to a certain extent his walk rate, will go up. But that's it. That's the only effect. There's no effect on slugging, batting average, anything like that. It's been looked at 37 different ways."

Of course, intentional walks and walks seem to be the point. The Phillies want Howard to have a chance to hit as much as possible.

They don't want him to walk.

"You're right. You don't want Ryan Howard being walked in just about every runner-on-second-two-outs situation," Sheehan said. "But one of the reasons that it's complicated is platoon advantages. The average righthanded pitcher is probably going to try to walk Ryan Howard and pitch to Pat Burrell - not because of the protection, but because this guy is lefthanded and this guy is righthanded."

The numbers back that up. Righthanded pitchers intentionally walked Howard 34 times last season. After Howard, there are expected to be four straight righthanded hitters in the Phillies' lineup: Burrell, Wes Helms, Aaron Rowand and Rod Barajas.

(This is not a reason to have Jimmy Rollins hit fifth, by the way.)

"Will they walk him sometimes intentionally or pitch around him?" Manuel said of Howard. "Of course. But they would do that anyway. Anytime they don't put him on, if he's patient like he was last year, then he'll get good balls to hit and hit homers and knock in runs."

But it should be noted that some of the first words from an opposing manager's mouth this spring are: Who is hitting behind Howard?

"It's pick your poison," Houston Astros manager Phil Garner said. "If you've got Babe Ruth hitting behind Lou Gehrig, then what do you do? You take your best shot. You look at your guy on the mound and where he might best match up and that's what you're going to do. If the guy behind you isn't as big a threat, then you take your chances with the next guy."

The Phillies' front office obviously felt a need to improve the offense in the off-season when it made a push to sign free agent Alfonso Soriano. That indicated the Phillies thought the protection behind Howard was inadequate.

"You want to try to set up your lineup so each guy is supporting the other and plays their particular role," Phillies assistant general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "Protection plays some level of importance. I just don't know how high I would put it on the list. If you have other weapons on your club that are viable run producers, then it becomes less important. If you don't have guys who are getting on base and scoring runs and stealing bases and doing extra things, then it becomes more important."

But even if the Phillies had signed Soriano, it would seem difficult for Howard to match last season's success.

Guys don't hit 58 homers and knock in 149 runs every year.

"You could put anybody behind Ryan Howard this year, it really doesn't matter," Sheehan said. "What's going to happen is Ryan Howard is going to hit .275 with 46 homers, which would be an unbelievable year for anybody, and people are going to say, 'Well, Pat Burrell didn't protect him.' Because at this point, Pat Burrell is blamed for everything from weather patterns to kidnappings to low home prices."

Listening to baseball lifers such as Manuel and others such as Sheehan, it seems Howard has more control over his fate than many seem to believe.

If he's patient, the homers and RBIs will come.

"That's part of the adjustments that Ryan as a young player has made pretty well," Amaro said. "But he's going to have to make more adjustments as it goes. If he stays on his game plan, he should be fine. And he's shown as a young player he can make adjustments."


Contact staff writer Todd Zolecki

at 215-854-4874 or tzolecki@phillynews.com.

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