Phils playing mind game to make Ryan Howard work harder?

Phils playing mind game to make Ryan Howard work harder?
July 25, 2014, 11:00 am
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Ryne Sandberg made a statement Thursday by benching Ryan Howard against Tim Hudson, a pitcher he's dominated in his career. (AP)

For the past few days, Phillies fans have been grappling with how to feel about Ryan Howard. Howard’s attempt to put his struggles in perspective by saying “its just a game” didn’t sit well. He knew as much when he said it during a candid interview prior to Wednesday’s game.

Meanwhile, Ryne Sandberg has benched the struggling first baseman so he can “see what Darin Ruf can do.” Huh? I'm pretty certain Sandberg knows what Ruf can do and that this has nothing to do with Ruf.

The conflict became glaring when Sandberg sat Howard again on Thursday, despite the fact that Howard has dominated right-hander Tim Hudson for years. Howard is a career .328 hitter against Hudson with seven home runs and 17 RBI in 67 career at-bats. The move was inconsistent with Sandberg’s comments Wednesday that “it’s about winning the game.” It also did not fit with the idea of platooning Howard, which Sandberg discussed earlier in the week. The statement was made loud and clear.

So, with all the back-and-forth, why is this still not making sense? Sure, Howard’s numbers since the end of June are abysmal. Any power hitter with a .192 slugging percentage in his last 21 games clearly needs to make a U-turn.

It has been reported that the Phillies have considered moving on without Howard. On Friday, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. shot down reports stating the Phillies have considered releasing their struggling first baseman (see story).

Here’s what we know: Howard is making $25 million this season and is owed another $60 million for the remainder of his contract.

Howard is one of the few players I’ve known in my 19 years of covering baseball who has gone on to stardom but remained the same person. How he treats people is consistent with how he treated them when he was first called up. He’s a stand-up guy, which he showed by spending 10 minutes addressing all things Ryan Howard on Wednesday. There wasn’t much fire in the way Howard spoke during the media session, but again, it’s consistent with how he’s always talked. His tone and intensity is the same now as it was in 2008.

All indications are that Howard has spent significant time getting his body in playing shape. He seems to work hard in the offseason to stay fit and strong.

But here is what we're not sure about: Does he do what it takes to keep his mind in game shape? I’ve never heard anyone say Howard is one of the first guys at the ballpark. I’ve never heard anyone say he spends ample time pouring over video to improve his swing or make adjustments. Is this where he’s falling short?

Here’s what makes no sense: Amaro told commentator Jim Jackson on Wednesday’s pregame show that the way to get Howard back on track is by getting him some playing time, get him back to having fun playing the game. This completely contradicts Sandberg’s approach this past week. 

The only conclusion I can make after watching this all unfold this week is that the organization is making a last-ditch effort to get Howard to change his approach. The downside to Howard's being the same guy he’s always been is that what used to work is no longer working. If Howard is unwilling to change his approach on his own, if his numbers don’t drive him to make changes, the team must figure that shaming him will.

I don’t believe the organization is ready to cut ties with Howard, they just want him to think he’s expendable. Let’s face it, the last thing the Phillies need is for Howard to go to another team and have him regain his form. If he hit 30 homers and drove in 100 runs for another team, it’s the Phillies who would be shamed in the end.

I think this is a mental game the team is playing with Howard. Whether it works or not remains to be seen.

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