Bill Conlin: Suddenly there are more experts than strikeouts in Ryan Howard's slump

Posted: May 13, 2008

THEY HAVE SLITHERED through cyberspace like those seed pods from "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."

They have aligned themselves into three distinct groups: The "Tell Him to Try This" hitting coaches. The "Get Rid of the Bum" bashers. The "Just Leave Him Alone - He'll Be Fine" partisans.

Everybody has an opinion on Ryan Howard's third annual - and by far scariest - spring slump.

The bashers are the usual creeps who send their diminished brain cells into action whenever a Philly professional sports star makes the mistake of being vulnerable to adversity that is either self-inflicted or merely the normal ebb and flow that goes with playing a game for a living.

I direct the "Just Leave Him Alone . . . " folks to Mitch Williams, who is a passionate advocate of that approach. The Wild Thing is unwavering in his belief that you don't just have back-to-back seasons of 58 and 47 homers with a total of 285 RBI by accident. This is a brutally honest guy, by the way, who in 15 years has not attempted to deflect an ounce of blame for that pitch he made to Joe Carter in Game 6 of the Phillies' most recent World Series. "He'll figure it out," Mitch says, "just like he did the last 2 years."

Which brings us to "Hitting Coaches Inc." composed of just about anybody with at least one lifetime base hit while playing at any amateur level from tee-ball to college Division I.

It's amazing to me that the single act in sports said to be the most difficult to master - hitting a baseball thrown with speed and deception - has produced so many experts in how to do it. If Howard is any indication, for every Hall of Fame hitter there are at least 10,000 civilians who can break down a swing and tell you what makes it work or not work better than Ted Williams spellbinding an audience of scribes around an All-Star Game batting cage.

Most of these former line-drive machines correctly state that Howard stands too far off the plate with a stance that is much too open. For the record, he is setting up in just about the same stance he brought to the majors in 2005, when he was rookie of the year. The difference, of course, is what he does with the stance once it unfurls into the various components of a swing.

Charlie Manuel has explained it in a peanut shell. Howard is trying to pull everything. He is trying to hit "an 11-run homer" with every swing. He is swinging so early on everything he no longer lets the ball get deep into the strike zone the way he did during his flaming hot streaks in 2006 and '07.

My personal theory - hey, I was a high-school gap hitter - is that like a lot of tall hitters, he doesn't have a good knowledge of his very large strike zone. I'd like to see Manuel and batting coach Milt Thompson set up a simple drill that former Dodgers GM Branch Rickey devised to teach a flailing young outfielder named Duke Snider the strike zone. In "We Would Have Played For Nothing," Snider tells about Rickey bringing him to Vero Beach in 1948 for special instruction. There would be a pitcher, a catcher, an umpire, Rickey and several coaches, including the great George Sisler. Snider would be in the cage without a bat. His job was to call each pitch. Then the umpire would call it.

"I had to call every pitch," Snider said, "and it was amazing how many times I was wrong, [whether it was] a strike or a ball." He did it every day until his judgment improved enough that Rickey let him hit. But he had to tell Rickey where every pitch was after he hit it. Again, he was amazed at how many pitches he still called wrong. But Snider had demonstrated an ability to kill a lot of pitches just out of the strike zone. He was no longer swinging at balls too high, wide or inside to reach. Rickey's compromise was this: "Be ready to hit every pitch until you see it's a pitch you don't want to swing at."

Snider's strikeouts went down, his average went up and he was on his way to Cooperstown. It would be demeaning for any modern hitter to agree to such a drill, of course. Hell, it might even be cause for a grievance.

But let's hear what some of the College of Hard Knocks coaches have to say.

One guy claimed he was a college star of distant yore. Unlike the too-far-off- the-plate,

too-open majority, this Svengali of Swing offered this:

"OK. There's no way to suggest or convince you that I am right. We will just watch Howard and observe. If he begins to hit, it will be because his right foot has moved correctly to the right thus opening his stance and swings naturally . . . P.S. Boy, would I like to talk to Howard."

The line forms on the right.

Now, picture him striding toward first on a lefty breaking ball down and away . . . The horror . . . As for talking to Howard, he would have a better chance of seeing Don Corleone on his daughter's wedding day.

Here's a typical "Toldyaso": "I'd been saying for the past couple of years that if the league ever figured out how to pitch Ryan Howard, he'd be in big trouble. Well, it looks like they have and, at least for now, he is. They'd be better off with Moe Howard hitting cleanup."

Finally, this coach/basher manages to kill two birds with one stone:

"I think you should stick to your couch and all the potatoes that are affecting your brain and just listen to me when it comes to Howard. He does not have plate savy (sic), discipline or the rotation to get around with a square or semi-closed stance. Period." *

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