Inside the Phillies: Phillies stick with Ryan Howard despite his difficulties

Posted: September 20, 2012

NEW YORK - Ryan Howard got the day off Tuesday, but only because rain forced the postponement of the Phillies game against the New York Mets at Citi Field.

Had they played, Howard would have been right back in his familiar cleanup spot, which undoubtedly would have caused an acute case of angina among fans convinced that the Phillies' first baseman is as finished as a burned piece of meat.

Assessing Howard's value this season and for the future is as complicated as an advanced physics class.

Start with the fact that the Phillies were 10 games under .500 before Howard returned from surgery on his left leg and they are 10 games over .500 since his return. They were in last place in the National League East when he rejoined the team July 6. They are now not only in third place, but they are also in the race, albeit as a long shot, for the league's second wild card.

A bad team got better when Howard returned. You can dismiss it as coincidence, but that would be a shortsighted view.

Nobody would argue that the Ryan Howard playing for the Phillies right now is anywhere close to the guy who bashed his way to rookie of the year and MVP awards more than a half decade ago. He's not even a reasonable facsimile of the guy who hit 33 home runs a year ago.

When Howard faces lefthanders these days, it's like watching the Christians against the Lions or the Astros against anybody other than the Phillies. He just doesn't have a chance.

There was a time when Howard held his own against lefties, but this season he is hitting .163 against them with a .209 on-base percentage and .509 OPS. This month, Howard is struggling against all pitching. He will carry a .180 September batting average and .261 on-base percentage into Wednesday night's game against the Mets.

It appears as if fatigue has set in for a man who was unable to condition himself in a normal manner during the offseason because of a torn Achilles tendon.

One could trot out more negatives, but the most noticeable positive is what he has done with runners in scoring position. For all his problems, he has mostly come through in the clutch, which is why his 46 RBIs lead the team since his return. Howard has batted .344 with a .463 on-base percentage and 1.086 OPS with runners in scoring position. In 61 at-bats, he has four home runs and 39 RBIs.

That means he has handled scoring situations much better than Hunter Pence or any other Phillies cleanup hitter earlier this season.

Manager Charlie Manuel repeated for the second straight day Tuesday that Howard doesn't even realize how much the injury to his left leg has impacted his ability to hit the baseball.

"I think it has been tough on him really," Manuel said. "I think even he doesn't realize the importance of his back foot being strong."

A major-league scout said it is obvious how much a lack of strength in Howard's back leg has affected the slugger. Howard has always had a high number of strikeouts, but his rate of one every 2.7 at-bats this season is the worst of his career.

"He doesn't have the same bat speed because he doesn't have his legs," the scout said. "I think he tries to swing early to try to compensate for it and that's why he is swinging at so many balls."

Howard acknowledges this season has been difficult.

"I feel like my biggest problem has been my hips have been kind of leaking forward," he said Monday. "I don't know if that's a correlation with my ankle, but maybe it's something where I'm trying to generate extra power and my hips just kind of slide forward, which is taking me off my back side instead of being able to pivot on my back side. This offseason if I can get it stronger, then we'll be able to see."

What we'll be able to see is whether Howard, now 32, can reemerge as one of the game's elite power hitters. The Phillies have four years and $100 million riding on it. Manuel suggested that Howard's offseason workload might increase as he tries to regain his leg strength and power at the plate.

"I think not having spring training has affected him this season," the manager said. "If he gets through this season . . . we might want to work with him during the winter. He's right there close to Clearwater and we might be able to get him some work that way."

With so much money tied up in Howard for the near future, it is obvious that his offseason recovery is among the most important things to watch. As long as the Phillies have any chance of making the playoffs, however, you will continue to watch Ryan Howard play first base and bat cleanup for the Phillies because that's the guy Manuel wants there with his team still in a race. The manager said he might consider resting Howard if the Phillies are eliminated.

Given their history together, you can't blame Manuel for giving his struggling first baseman the benefit of the doubt.

Contact Bob Brookover at Follow @brookob on Twitter.


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