Seeking more power, Howard alters swing

Ryan Howard drove in a run with a base hit in the third inning. (Benny Sieu/USA Today Sports)
Ryan Howard drove in a run with a base hit in the third inning. (Benny Sieu/USA Today Sports)
Posted: July 10, 2014

MILWAUKEE - Marlon Byrd plopped down on a black leather couch in the visitors clubhouse at Miller Park, and Ryan Howard had a question. Howard positioned his hands near his head, pretending to hold a bat, and wondered how soon he should lower his setup before the pitcher throws.

This is an experiment for Howard, inspired by Byrd and encouraged by Ryne Sandberg. It is not the first time Howard has adjusted his swing mechanics; former manager Charlie Manuel often implored Howard to stand closer to the plate, a switch that never stuck because Howard felt uncomfortable.

The first baseman's hands were noticeably lower Monday, when he went 1 for 3 with an RBI. He made the change in the cage earlier that day after a conversation with Byrd, who leads the team with 18 home runs. Byrd - once a ground-ball hitter - resurrected his career with alterations to his swing that produced more fly balls.

Howard entered Tuesday with a .392 slugging percentage, which would be the lowest of his 11-year career. (The league average is .384.) He is on pace for 25 homers but just 16 doubles. Howard's current 21.9 percent line-drive rate is the lowest of his career except for 2011.

Sandberg noticed a difference in the way that Howard, after applying the tweak, hit the ball during batting practice.

"It could help him," Sandberg said. "It could help him get underneath the ball a little bit more and not be on top of the ball with ground balls, so that's what he's going for. It could be a good thing for him."

The manager is pleased with Howard's work ethic, specifically his extra time in the batting cage. Lowering the hands is just another tactic in a season-long quest to make Howard more comfortable. He is still owed $60 million after 2014. Howard was batting .231 entering Tuesday's game.

"He puts in the time in the cage," Sandberg said. "If his batting average went up 20 or 30 points, I think you'd see him increase the doubles on balls hit in the gaps and more hard-hit balls."

Extra bases

Wil Nieves (strained right quadriceps) will catch Cliff Lee's rehab start Wednesday at single-A Clearwater. The team will reevaluate Nieves afterward, and he could be activated Friday, when the Phillies return home. . . . Cole Hamels is the first Phillies pitcher since 1912 (when the National League began recording earned runs) to win no more than three of his first 15 starts of a season with an ERA under 3.00, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

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