The letter H has not been very popular with some fans lately. In the winter, there was Heat Stroke, a condition aggravated by watching LeBron James and the Miami Heat reach the NBA Finals. Today, part of the Philadelphia area's sports population is suffering from Howard Hives, where a Ryan Howard strikeout or an error, or a strikeout and an error, coupled with, God forbid, an indifferent dugout smile, triggers foot spasms that cause some fans to inadvertently kick in their television screens. For, as Ryan Howard climbs toward another massive run-production season - and in a week where he reached halfway to Schmidt's career home run total - he remains perhaps the most underappreciated pro athlete this city has ever seen.
I used to think Donovan McNabb was that. Hey, I fueled some of Donny's underappreciation myself. But in the appreciation-deficit category, Ryan Howard is making McNabb look like Julius Erving.
I confess to being a simpleton, but to me, bottom-line numbers have always measured a player's worth. In the five seasons previous to this one, Howard has averaged 46 home runs and 136 runs batted in. That average includes last season, when he missed 19 games and finished with only 31 homers and 108 RBIs, which means his average total might have been closer to 50 homers and 140-plus RBIs. Here is a quick list of players with the most seasons of at least 45 home runs and at least 135 RBIs: Babe Ruth (eight times), then Sammy Sosa, Lou Gehrig and Ryan Howard (four times each). I don't even have to quantify Sosa. And oh, by the way, only Ruth and Howard were able to do that for five seasons in a row. That's Babe Ruth we're talking about.
In the last two weeks, I have received communiques and have spoken to folks who insist they would rather have the following players than Howard: Prince Fielder, Adrian Gonzalez, Joey Votto, Mark Teixeira, and Miguel Cabrera. I figured at least one of those guys could boast a five-year chunk of numbers that would top Howard. But I couldn't find one.
Fielder has averaged 38 homers and 105 RBIs; Teixiera 34 and 114; Cabrera 34 and 118; Votto 29 and 94 (body of work only three seasons); and Gonzalez 32 and 100. For those of you hiding behind the "Well, Adrian Gonzalez played in a bigger ballpark in San Diego," I suggest that a bigger ballpark also yields more doubles and doubles also drive in runs.
It is a fascinating phenomenon, this Ryan Howard angst, deserving deeper analysis. So here goes:
The strikeouts. Though outs are outs in any form, strikeouts bother fans more than most, and Howard does this a ton. He has had two seasons of 199 whiffs and it is especially maddening to fans the way he can't make better contact against lefthanded pitchers.
If he would only cut down on his swing. If he would only punch the ball the other way sometimes, especially when the opposition puts on the shift.
Fans would like to see Howard's batting average rise a little more, and I get that. But this just in: Power hitters strike out. They swing hard, which sometimes makes them pull off the ball. But they swing hard in order to generate run production. Take the gift of 45-135 and shut the heck up.
That strikeout. Some fans still can't sleep at night, haunted by the vision of Howard's standing there and taking strike three against the Giants' Brian Wilson to end the NLCS. But more than that, the perception is that Howard, in his comments afterward, didn't hurt like we did. Would it have made us feel better to see Howard flog himself in Rittenhouse Square? Or walk around town like Hester Prynne, wearing a scarlet backward "K" on his jersey?
Clutchness. The notion that Ryan Howard isn't clutch is a blatant falsehood. Sabermaticians have besieged my e-mail account with factoids about Howard's declining production. They point out that he has had the most opportunities with runners in scoring position of any player in the majors this year and hasn't delivered to the extent he should.
All right, I'm ready to go geek-to-geek. Here's what I know: In Howard's career he has four game-ending home runs, 105 go-ahead home runs, and 31 game-tying home runs. He has played exactly 162 games in his career in September and October, where he is hitting .314 with 52 homers and 141 RBIs, with an OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) of 1.100.
And this notion that he isn't as clutch as his teammate Chase Utley just isn't true. Howard has a .278 postseason batting average to Utley's .243. Chase has 10 home runs (five against the Yankees in the 2009 World Series) and 24 RBIs to Howard's seven homers and 27 RBIs.
Here are more telling numbers: Howard's OPS when the margin of score is greater than four runs is 0.817, but it jumps up to 0.965 in a tie game and to 0.995 if the margin is one run. That means he's more productive in closer games. Conversely, Utley has an OPS of 0.930 when the margin is four or more and that drops to 0.846 in a tie game and to 0.859 if the margin is one run. You make the call.
And oh, by the way, this year Howard has put up these colossal RBI numbers despite the absence, for most of the season, of legitimate three- and five-hole hitters. He's hitting over .400 since Hunter Pence joined the lineup.
The money. It always comes down to money, doesn't it? Fans expect more out of Howard because he makes $20 million a year (which will soon jump to $25 million).
I hate to break it to you, but that's the going rate these days for power hitters. The Phillies correctly read the landscape when they signed Howard to that big deal. Wait until this offseason to see what Fielder is going to get and think about this: It's not your money, so why do you care how much Howard makes?
Like Schmidt, Howard has become a victim of his own success. When guys hit a lot of home runs, we want to see home runs all the time. And when they don't deliver all the time, it makes us crazy.
Know this: There is no such thing as the perfect player. Howard might not be Albert Pujols, but what you got isn't half bad.
Now get out of here, you bunch of knuckleheads.
In his state-of-the-team address at Lehigh last week, did Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie take a veiled shot at his former quarterback Donovan McNabb? Asked why his team hasn't won a championship yet, Lurie talked about bad luck, injuries, and the notion that some players "perform better in the clutch" than others. After that last part, he followed with praise of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Hmmm.
Interestingly enough, that part of Lurie's comments was edited out of the republished transcript of the state-of-the-team address. Meanwhile, in interviews at the Vikings camp, McNabb is downplaying the Eagles' recent player acquisition bonanza, like some high school kid who just got jilted by his prom queen girlfriend.
Contact Mike Missanelli at email@example.com.