"This is a game where you don't hit every day," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said before a recent Grapefruit League game. "Babe Ruth didn't hit every day."
As good as Howard has been and as much as he has accomplished during his five big-league seasons, the sense that he can get better is not lost on Manuel or Howard.
The quest has continued at this spring training with an adjustment that could easily go unnoticed to the naked eye.
"Right now, I like where he's standing in the [batter's] box," Manuel said. "That's all we talk about when we talk about his hitting. Ever since I first met him, I've talked to him about standing closer to the plate and, at times, he has, but he's never stuck with it. Right now, he's probably standing the closest he ever stood. He's got good plate coverage, and he's cutting down the area the guy can throw the ball in.
"By cutting down the area the pitcher can throw the ball in, you're also cutting down the area for mistakes like chasing bad [pitches]. I like exactly where he's standing right now."
Howard is trying to like it, too.
"I'm just trying to find a spot where I can feel comfortable covering both sides of the plate," he said. "I want to be in a place where I don't tie myself up on an inside pitch, but I can still get my arms extended to reach the outside part of the plate. I've always been pretty far off the plate to make sure my arms were extended. There's an adjustment in my vision and depth perception because of where you are in your stance and where your head is."
Recently, it was brought to Howard's attention by Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci that the Phillies' slugging first baseman was being force-fed more breaking balls than any other hitter in the major leagues. The numbers came courtesy of the remarkable number-crunching people at Stats Inc.
Some of the highlights:
Howard saw 1,127 breaking balls last season, 196 more than any other hitter in baseball.
Howard was the only lefthanded hitter in the top 15 on that list.
The percentage of breaking balls Howard saw as a rookie was 21.34 percent, a number that climbed to a career-high 39.66 percent last year.
Verducci theorized that the New York Yankees may have rewritten the scouting report on Howard during their six-game World Series victory last fall by throwing Howard breaking balls an astonishing 57.4 percent of the time.
Howard responded by hitting .174 - his lowest average in seven career postseason series - with one home run and three RBIs. He struck out a World Series-record 13 times, and 10 of those, according to Stats Inc., were on breaking balls.
"I guess it's to be expected," Howard said when asked about the steady diet of breaking balls. "If the pitchers are going to make that adjustment, then it's my job to make that adjustment as well and stay within myself."
Before the Yankees get too excited about their plan of attack against Howard, they should consider the slugger's history against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Howard is a career .190 hitter against Los Angeles in the regular season, but in two postseason series he has batted .314 with two home runs and 10 RBIs in 10 games.
Howard called the breaking-ball figures "an interesting piece of information."
Verducci said he considered Howard "something of a late-inning liability" because managers can neutralize his tremendous power by matching up lefthanded breaking ball pitchers against him. He pointed out that Howard is a career .298 hitter in the first six innings of a game and a .237 hitter after the seventh.
Manuel cautions against reading too much into the numbers.
"Throw him the ball, and he'll hit it," the Phillies' manager said. "That's how I look at it. I've seen him hit curves, I've seen him hit sliders, and I've seen him hit change-ups. When he's not hitting, he does one thing wrong: He's not tracking the ball. If he's following the ball and tracking the ball, he can hit anything in the world. They can throw him all the curveballs they want."
There is evidence from Howard's five seasons in the big leagues that he can hit breaking balls, he can hit lefthanders, and he can hit .300.
It's true that Howard's career average is .237 after the sixth inning, but that average is skewed by the 2008 season, when he batted just .139 (26 for 187) after the sixth inning. Take away that season, and he's a career .268 hitter after the sixth inning.
It should also be noted that all those breaking balls didn't stop Howard from hitting .279 with 45 home runs and a league-leading 141 RBIs last season.
More walks, however, could be the key to taking Howard from an extraordinary power hitter to a superhuman slugger who is also capable of hitting .300.
"What I talk about with him is he should be over 100 walks every year," hitting instructor Milt Thompson said. "He just needs to be patient at some points during the game when they're trying not to pitch to him. Don't go outside of the zone and try to do something because we have other guys in the lineup that will try to pick you up."
During his 2006 MVP season, Howard walked a career-high 108 times and batted a career-high .313 despite seeing curveballs 29 percent of the time.
"That year, he hit with a little more patience, and he hit everything they threw up at him," Manuel said. "He hit lefties pretty good, too."
Howard, a career .226 hitter against lefties, batted a career-high .279 against them in 2006.
"I know he can do it again and so does he," Manuel said.
So does Thompson.
"The other thing I talk to him about is concentrating on hitting the ball to left-center field," Thompson said. "The year he won the MVP he hit 27 home runs to [the opposite] field. No hitter has ever done that. I tell him when you can hit the ball out to the other side of the ballpark, there is no reason to even think about pulling the baseball."
But it's only natural for Howard to look for an inside pitch when three infielders are playing on the right side of the diamond.
"It's in his head," Thompson said. "When they put the shift on you, you have to be thinking they're going to try to pound you inside. When he gets away from not worrying about the shift and just concentrating on the pitch he wants to hit, then he'll drive the ball to left-center field."
Howard's resume is already remarkable. You can break down the splits and analyze the pitches coming at him, but the numbers next to the first baseman's name validate his greatness. Still, there's a sense he can be even better.
"He has worked really hard this off-season," Thompson said. "He's really concentrating on trying to get his left-field stroke back. I still think when he gets it all together that he has a chance of breaking the RBI record. And the home run record, too."
Contact staff writer Bob Brookover at 215-854-2577