Phil Sheridan: Howard's absence proving his worth to Phillies

Posted: June 22, 2012

Some sports arguments go on forever, and the one about Ryan Howard's true value to the Phillies is probably one of them.

On the one extreme, you have the stat crunchers, who can prove with mathematical certainty that Howard should be grateful to be playing in a semipro league somewhere. On the other extreme, you have those of us who think Howard has an impact on games well beyond his own OPS numbers.

Howard's extended absence this season won't settle anything. Probably nothing will. But the state of the Phillies offense without Howard - and, yes, without Chase Utley, too - certainly has provided a bit of credence to the argument that Howard's impact is far-reaching.

"Our lineup changes when [Utley and Howard] fill our third and fourth holes," manager Charlie Manuel said the other day. "When you guys used to ask me all the time why I hit Utley third and why I hit Howard fourth, maybe now you know. Maybe you get the answer you were looking for."

The presence of Jim Thome in the lineup for a nine-game interleague trip helped support the point. In 60 games under National League rules, going into Wednesday's sweaty meeting with the Colorado Rockies, the Phillies scored a total of 244 runs. That's 4.1 runs per game.

In nine games with Thome as the designated hitter, the Phillies scored 53 runs. That's 5.9 runs per game. Add nearly two runs per game to those other 60 and maybe the Phillies aren't chasing anybody in the NL East.

Thome hit .333 with a 1.137 OPS, four home runs, and 14 RBIs. He also struck out a SABR-rattling six times in 36 at-bats.

In this cruelest of seasons, of course, the Phillies had to stop using Thome almost as soon as they got a taste of how much he can help them. His balky back makes playing in the field impossible, so he is relegated to pinch-hitting now that the Phillies won't need a DH anymore.

This is not pure science. Granted, there were other variables in play here besides Thome. But there's no getting around it. The lineup just felt different with Thome's bat in the middle of the order.

"He's one of those guys who guys in the lineup like to hit with," Manuel said last week. "It means a whole lot. Actually, that's what Utley and Howard bring to our team, too."

It is one of the aspects of the game that metrics can't quite explain. Watch a game and you can see pitchers change their approach as they work their way through a lineup. We'll never know how many more hittable pitches Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino and Jayson Werth saw because of Howard's presence among them.

When Werth was plucked from that lineup and asked to be the Man in Washington, his production dropped. Take Howard out this year and the same thing happened to Hunter Pence. The Phillies are second in the National League in hits this year. What's missing is the power that turns all those hits into runs.

Howard's critics dismiss the RBI as a primitive statistic, one that says less about a hitter than about the on-base percentage of the hitters in front of him. Watch the Phillies strand runners on base every night and the good old RBI doesn't seem so worthless and quaint.

But here's a number for you. Let's call it BISAR: Butts In Seats Above Replacement. The Phillies announced that their sellout streak hit 237 Wednesday. It was the lowest announced crowd of the season. It would surprise no one who has been to games this season if the streak ends soon - not with the big patches of empty seats on display at almost every game.

The tickets are sold, but they aren't being used. A quick look at StubHub, the scalping (or secondary market, if you prefer the euphemism) website affiliated with MLB, showed more than 2,600 tickets available for Thursday night's game. There were nearly 4,000 listed for Friday night's game against Tampa Bay.

The team's record has plenty to do with that, but this was going on in April. Take Howard out of the lineup and you lose four or five moments a night when every fan shifts forward to see what happens when he steps to the plate. Whether the result is one of those thrilling majestic rockets or an infuriating swinging strikeout, a Howard at-bat is an event.

Most of this is also true of Utley. There just doesn't seem to be as much debate about his value to the Phillies during their run.

When Howard collapsed with a torn Achilles tendon last October, it seemed symbolic of the dashed expectations of 2011. Turned out it was really an omen about how 2012 was going to go. Turned out the Phillies really miss the big guy more than even they expected.


Contact Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844, psheridan@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @Sheridanscribe. Read his blog, "Philabuster," at www.philly.com/philabuster.

Read his columns at www.philly.com/philsheridan

 

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