Why Ryan Howard was the most crucial figure in Phillies' run


This installment concludes our look at the individual cases for Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins as the most important player of the Phillies' most successful run in franchise history.

There's a certain level of appreciation and perspective that can only be gained through time and we see it now whenever Ryan Howard comes back to Citizens Bank Park.

The Big Piece was certainly shown love during his peak, but the third act of his career was so long and coincided with the Phillies' descent, so it affected how he was received.

What he had accomplished before then, though, was historic. It's easy to lose sight of that when you're so close to the situation witnessing it regularly.

Howard played 13 seasons in the majors, including 2004 when he played just 19 games. He won Rookie of the Year in '05 and then became a full-time player.

Retrospectively, you can break the rest of his career down into three phases. 

From 2006-09 came Howard's Hall of Fame-level peak. He hit .278/.379/.589 over those four years and averaged 50 homers and 143 RBI. 50 and 143! Averages we haven't seen since from anyone.

Most will say that Howard declined only after he tore his Achilles in the 2011 playoffs, but in truth, he was coming down a bit even before then. Howard hit .265/.350/.497 across 2010 and 2011. His OPS dropped by 120 points from the previous four. Howard was OK in the 2010 playoffs but had nary a home run or RBI. In that fateful 2011 NLDS against the Cardinals, he did drive in six runs but reached base only three times in 21 plate appearances.

For a long time, the freshest Howard memories for Phillies fans were the traumatic end to 2011 and the huge drop-off thereafter. The Phillies still have not had a winning season since 2011. And from 2012-16, Howard was a shell of himself, hitting just .226 with a .292 on-base percentage and not nearly enough power to make up for it.

This explains why there were boos at the end. But even then, you knew the boos would turn back into cheers once distance made the heart grow fonder. Howard accomplished too much. Unlike Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and nearly every other key member of that 2008 Phillies championship team, Howard finished his major-league career here. Phillies fans were exposed to more of "the end" for Howard than they were the others.

Over the last several days here, we've grappled with the question of who was most important to the Phillies' five-year run of dominance from 2007-11, a run that somehow ended with only one title. A couple of my teammates have argued in favor of Utley and Rollins. For me, it's Howard. It's gotta be Howard.

Do the Phillies back up Rollins' pre-2007 "team to beat" comment without Howard going for 47 and 136 that year? 

Do they finish with the same record and get the same playoff draws without Howard leading the majors with 48 and 146 in 2008 while playing all 162 games?

In '09, Howard was better than he was in '08, again led the majors with 141 RBI and played 160 more games.

In the five years from 2007-11, Howard averaged 152 games. Rollins averaged 137 and Utley 133. That, too, should count toward this debate.

There is also the clutch factor of when Howard did his best work. In his prime, he was a beast each year from mid-August and all through September. From 2005-11, Howard hit .307/.426/.654 with 61 home runs and 172 RBI in 190 September games. He led the majors in homers, RBI and OPS.

The big picture answer to this question is that all three players needed each other. They complemented each other so well, in skillset and in personality. The Phillies of 2007-11 wouldn't have been nearly as successful if you remove one of them — or any of Carlos Ruiz, Shane Victorino, Jayson Werth or Cole Hamels, for that matter.

Howard would not have produced as many runs without Rollins, Victorino and Utley getting on base ahead of him. Utley had a .386 OBP over that five-year span. Victorino spent most of that run hitting between .280 and .295, and all three of Rollins, Victorino and Utley had elite base-stealing seasons throughout that set Howard up with so many RISP opportunities.

But you still have to drive 'em in.

• It's been 10 seasons since any major-league player drove in 140 runs. Howard did it three times in four years at one point. 

• Howard had four straight seasons of 45-plus home runs — something no other player did then or since. No other major-leaguer in the last 14 years has done it two seasons in a row.

Rollins and Utley definitely had the edges in defense and baserunning. It is much more difficult to properly quantify those phases of the game and WAR drastically overvalues defensive impact in some ways. Stats exist such as Defensive Runs Saved, but can we really know exactly how many defensive runs a player saved his team over the course of a season? Can we really know how many runs a player added by taking the extra base on a single 20 times? A number can be assigned to it, but the weighting of defense and baserunning in WAR has always been a source of controversy in the baseball world.

What we do know is that Howard had a five-year run of power that is unprecedented over the last decade and a half. During all of that stretch, the looming threat of Howard in the cleanup spot weighed on the opposing pitcher and affected at-bats ahead of him. Even in the most wicked of The Big Piece's slumps, the game could immediately change with one of the blasts that often left his bat too quickly to track until it reached the skies.

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