Phillies' Howard working on moving closer to the plate

Ryan Howard loosens up at batting cage yesterday in Clearwater.
Ryan Howard loosens up at batting cage yesterday in Clearwater.
Posted: February 19, 2011

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Among the few certainties in life: On April 15, the tax man will come calling, and 2 months beforehand, folks will talk about Ryan Howard moving closer to the plate.

As the slugging first baseman walked into the clubhouse after the latest edition of stance-related questions, he smiled and said, "Nobody was telling me to move closer to the plate when I was hitting 58 home runs."

There is some element of truth to that. But after a year in which Howard hit "only" 31 home runs and posted a career-low .505 slugging percentage, manager Charlie Manuel has renewed his longtime quest to move his slugger closer to the strike zone. And despite Howard's joke about the matter - and a severe ankle sprain that might have contributed to his drop in production - he has shown some signs of acquiescence.

"We're negotiating that," he told reporters with a smile. "We're negotiating getting closer to the plate."

Howard said that he worked on the change in his offseason hitting sessions and that he will continue to do so during Grapefruit League play. The reason for the shift is twofold. First, it will allow Howard to cover more of the strike zone, which opposing pitchers have taken to attacking with offspeed stuff away.

During Howard's MVP season of 2006, 17.6 percent of the pitches he saw were sliders, according to FanGraphs.com. Since then, he hasn't gone through a season seeing fewer than 20 percent sliders, including 23.7 percent last year.

Manuel also thinks that by covering more of the strike zone, Howard will be in a better position to drive balls to rightfield, rather than muscling pitches to left and left-center.

"It's not like we want Howard right up on top of the plate," Manuel said in his daily briefing with reporters. "We want him to get enough where he doesn't lose his balance when the ball is out away from him. A lot of those balls he is hitting to leftfield are down the middle and inside. The ball is getting deep on him and he's getting late. He just happens to be strong enough to hit the ball out that way. His good hitting is just to the right of centerfield to rightfield. He doesn't have to put a real hard 420-foot swing on the ball."

Manuel's last observation is notable because Howard told reporters yesterday that he thought as if a lot of the balls off his bat last season were missing the type of spin that causes them to carry. His batted balls, he said, were knuckling, which Manuel said is often the result of a hard swing.

"What I saw him do [in 2006] was he just went up to the plate and concentrated on getting a good ball to hit," Manuel said, "And he just tried to hit the ball hard. And what happened? He ended up having a big year."

That said, there is no telling how big 2010 would have been for Howard had he not sprained his left ankle against the Nationals on Aug. 1. The injury came at the worst time for the slugger. Even after he returned from a 3-week stint on the disabled list, the sprain hampered him late in the season, which is usually when he is most productive.

His power numbers at the time of the injury were down, but not to the extent you might think. In 2008, he was hitting .239 with a .498 slugging percentage and 30 home runs heading into August. In 2009, he was hitting .266 with a .537 slugging percentage and 26 home runs. Last year, he was hitting .292 with a .528 slugging percentage and 23 home runs.

Howard finished 2008 by hitting .276 with a .638 slugging percentage and 18 home runs in the last 2 months of the season. He finished 2009 hitting .301 with a .629 slugging percentage and 19 home runs.

Last year, however, he hit only .231 with a .441 slugging percentage and eight home runs from the beginning of August to the end of the regular season.

"I don't know how much impact it did or didn't have," Howard said. "I was out there, I was trying to play. I'm going to give it my all, whether my ankle is 100 percent or not. If I'm out there, I'm going to try to do the best I can. I'm not going to make excuses. I gotta go out there and get it done."

Howard said he needed time to forget about his season, which ended when he took a called third strike from Giants closer Brian Wilson for the final out of the National League Championship Series. He said he still experiences some occasional stiffness in his ankle, but labeled it "98 percent" and said he does not feel hindered heading into the spring.

Regardless of how much his injury impacted his ability to drive the ball at the end of the season, Manuel is convinced Howard will benefit from moving closer to the plate. Howard has tried it before, but not for extended stretches.

"What happens is when he starts getting jammed, or a ball is beating him, he likes to go back up off the plate," Manuel said. "If he stays where he is at right now, I'd like to think that once things started going his way and he got real hot, he would never go back and get back off the plate again."

He also would be rid of this annual story.

Phillers

Lefthander Antonio Bastardo, who is slightly behind the rest of the pitchers in camp due to a winter case of elbow inflammation and a recent illness, is scheduled to throw his first bullpen session today . . . Closer Brad Lidge, who is also sick, threw off flat ground yesterday . . . The first full-squad workout is set for today. Charlie Manuel will address the team beforehand. *

For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read David Murphy's blog, High Cheese, at www.philly.com/HighCheese. Follow him on Twitter at

http://twitter.com/HighCheese.

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