Ryan Howard's legendary peak was one of greatest in baseball history


Three weeks ago on Sunday Night Baseball, Cole Hamels pitched seven brilliant innings against the Nationals. After the Nats scored two in the ninth, Washington went to then-closer Ryan Madson to try to shut the door.

It was 10 years after the Phillies' World Series title and two of the most key members of that pitching staff were still contributing heavily in the National League pennant race.

A decade after those Phillies glory years, Hamels and Madson are two exceptions. Most of that team has headed off into the sunset, with 2018 feeling more like the final chapter of all those players' days on the field than any year prior. 

Ryan Howard on Tuesday announced his retirement (see story). Earlier this summer, Jayson Werth and Shane Victorino announced their retirements. Carlos Ruiz and Jimmy Rollins haven't yet officially hung up their cleats, but at this point, it would be a formality.

The focus today is on Howard, who I'd argue was never fully or properly appreciated in this town as his career wound down. That's not a knock on Philly fans, just an observation from someone who covered Howard's final eight seasons here after closely watching his first five.

Howard's unprecedented peak

The first portion of Howard's career was historically rare. From 2006 to 2009, he didn't have a season with fewer than 45 homers or 135 RBI. Know how many players in the history of baseball can say they had at least 45 and 135 in four straight seasons? Three. Babe Ruth, Sammy Sosa (whose name will always be accompanied by an asterisk) and Ryan Howard.

Howard didn't do this during the steroid era. He didn't do it during an era like the one we're currently in when home runs are at an all-time high and there are legit questions about material changes to baseballs.

Howard achieved these historic power numbers in an era when nobody else was coming close. During that four-year peak, Howard hit 33 more home runs than anyone in the majors and drove in 81 more runs.

Howard averaged 50 homers and 143 RBI; Albert Pujols was next-best in both categories with 41 and 123.

And then The Big Piece performed in the postseason.

In 2008, Howard had a .410 on-base percentage in the NLDS and NLCS, then hit three homers in the World Series.

In 2009, he hit .278/.375/.500 in the playoffs and drove in 17 runs in 15 games.

Even in 2010, the season that ended with Howard striking out looking to end the NLCS, he hit .318 with four doubles in the playoff series against the Giants.

Impact of the shift

Howard hit .313 in 2006, his MVP season. It was the last time he'd ever hit above .280. 

In a different era, he may have hit .280 most of his career, but defensive shifts became en vogue during the early part of Howard's days in the majors.

In a typical year, a left-handed hitter who faces an over-shift will hit nearly 20 points lower against the shift than against a normal infield alignment. He will also see fastballs about 3 percent less when the defense is shifting because it's easier to get a hitter to pull a weak groundout on an offspeed pitch than a heater.

It was a justified criticism that Howard never learned how to consistently beat the shift by going the other way, but we'll also never know how his career would have gone if teams waited for another, say, five years to over-shift. Howard would not have only hit more, he'd also have walked more because teams would have stayed away from him as they did in 2006 and 2007, when he walked a combined 215 times.

The latter years

The end of Howard's career was not fun. Post-Achilles tear, he hit .226/.292/.427 and averaged 19 homers, 34 walks and 127 strikeouts per year. 

His defense and baserunning, never strong to begin with, suffered. He was booed a lot. Fans and writers complained about the contract. 

It was a tough situation and little of it was Howard's fault. He didn't ask to tear his Achilles. He didn't force the front office to give him a $125 million extension long before he reached free agency and after early warning signs of a decline were setting in.

As most know, the Phillies held onto that core too long, and since Howard was the last one left, and since his decline was sharper than his teammates', the brunt of criticism went to him.

His legacy

I don't know why this is the analogy that popped into my head, but Howard was like the overworked mother of four who cooked a delicious dinner after work every night for years, then got older, tired more quickly and decided to heat up leftovers more often than not. The kids (fans, writers) reacted in the moment as opposed to every night considering the perspective of, "Ya know, we had it great all those years."

Earlier this season on Phillies Postgame Live, we had a debate over who was most important to the Phillies' five-year run: Howard, Chase Utley or Jimmy Rollins?

It's a difficult and fun question to ask because it will result in so many different answers and thought processes. I was surprised that all three of us — Ricky Bottalico and Michael Barkann included — went with Howard. I figured at least one of us would cite the all-around games of Rollins and Utley as more important. But we all went with Howard.

Defense and baserunning matter a lot. But it's hard for a gaffe on the bases or an errant throw from first to offset a three-run dinger. Howard hit 51 career three-run homers and 15 grand slams — in 5% of his career starts, he changed the game with one swing.

No Phillie could carry the team for weeks, especially weeks late in the season, like Howard. Heck, nobody in the majors at that time was doing it, aside from perhaps Pujols.

Howard is unlikely to make the Hall of Fame. But that takes little away from his historic career or legendary peak.

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