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Unwise to invest in declining Howard

4/26/2010

The contract extension the Phillies gave Ryan Howard made me laugh when I first heard about it. If you sign a player two years before he hits free agency, you're supposed to get a discount. Instead, the Phillies paid a premium, giving Howard more money to cover years when he won't produce nearly enough value to justify the salary.

Howard is a good hitter, a mediocre-at-best defender, and has shown signs of decline for two years now, especially against left-handed pitching. Howard ranked 28th among MLB hitters in WAR in 2009, 63rd in 2008, and 38th in 2007. Even if we just look at his bat, ignoring position and defense for the moment, he ranked 18th in MLB in 2009. The Phillies just handed him the second-highest average annual salary in the game, but he's not the second-best position player in the game, or the fifth best, or even in the top 20. He's not even the best player on his own team -- that would be second baseman Chase Utley, who'll barely make half of what Howard earns in 2013, the last year of Utley's current deal.

Furthermore, Howard's future value is not headed up -- it's headed down. Hitters peak at or shortly after age 27, and while some hold their value for a few years after that, most hitters decline at some point in their 30s. And Howard's a good bet to decline faster than the norm, because he contributes no defensive value, isn't a good athlete, and is already showing deterioration in his performance. He'll always have raw power, but over the next few years you'll see that power show up in games when he gets a mistake.

Recent history doesn't bode well for Howard; in the last 10 years, only 18 players aged 34 or older managed to slug .550 or better in a full season, and only three of those players struck out more than 125 times. Howard has hovered in the mid-.500s in slugging the last three years, but he has struck out at least 186 times in each of those years. In fact, no player over the age of 33 has struck out more than 160 times in a season, because players who swing and miss that often with the reduced bat speed that comes with age tend to lose their jobs. Mo Vaughn whiffed 181 times in 2000, missed the 2001 season due to injury, and played in only 166 more games before he was forced to retire. Jay Buhner struck out 175 times at age 32 and was done as a regular after that season. Even Jim Edmonds, a good defensive center fielder at his peak, saw his decline phase start right after his 150-whiff season at age 34. The Phils are betting that Howard is so unusually talented that he can survive strikeout rates that have sunk similar players.

If there's hope for Phillies fans, it's from a familiar name: Jim Thome. Even at his peak, Thome was a whiff-prone power hitter, struggled against lefties, wasn't a great athlete and didn't contribute much on defense. Unlike Howard, however, Thome was extremely patient -- he drew 100 or more walks every year from ages 28 to 33 and again at 35 after missing a year due to injury, while Howard's walk total has dropped two straight years to a career-low 75 last season. Thome did have two good years after the trade to the White Sox. They were below his peak level but still productive, but they included walk totals Howard isn't likely to reach. Thome is at least evidence that not every aging, unathletic slugger goes in the tank as Vaughn or David Ortiz did, but even a superior hitter like Thome suffered injuries and saw his performance decline gradually into his late 30s.

This signing says to me that the Phillies are still stuck in the old model of player compensation, in which counting stats, especially home runs and RBIs, earn players the biggest paychecks, and knowledge of player aging patterns was largely absent from the industry. It's one thing to say, as the Phillies do with pride, that they don't have a soul in their front office who so much as dabbles in statistical analysis. It's another to thumb one's nose at the sort of actuarial tables that drive business decisions in almost every other industry, data that says here that Howard is part of a class of players that, as a group, ages poorly past 30, and is not worth long-term commitments at increased salaries. And here, the Phillies are paying Howard to be better for the next five years than he's been for at least the last two, when we know that such a turnaround is extremely unlikely, given his skill set and body type.

I wonder what they'll do when they get to Clearwater in March 2013 and realize they've committed $25 million to a DH in a league where that position doesn't exist.