Should Phillies be concerned with Ryan Howard?

Should Phillies be concerned with Ryan Howard?

April 23, 2013, 11:00 pm
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It is April and it is cold and you know where this is going. Ryan Howard isn’t mashing the ball, which tends to worry people. Some people. Not all people.

“He’ll get it,” Charlie Manuel insisted before Tuesday’s game against the Pirates at Citizens Bank Park. “It’s coming. Hopefully it starts tonight.”

It did not start Tuesday night.

Howard doubled in his first at-bat. He struck out swinging in his second and third at-bats. In his final at-bat, with two runners on, two outs, and the Phils down two runs, Howard ... grounded out to first. The only positive: there weren’t many fans left in the park to boo him.

Pirates 2, Phillies 0.

It happens around this time almost every year -- anxious chatter from various camps about Howard’s numbers being a little low, a little disconcerting. April has not been a great month for Howard in his career. Maybe it’s the temperature -- which is usually well below what Manuel fondly refers to as hitting weather -- or maybe it simply takes him, just like the climate, a while to warm up.

Whatever the reason, the first month of the season hasn’t always been kind to Howard. A review of the numbers:

2006: He had a slash line of .306/.388/.494 with five home runs and 12 RBIs in 24 games.

2007: .221/.396/.390 with three home runs and 13 RBIs in 21 games.

2008: .172/.297/.343 with five home runs and 12 RBIs in 28 games.

2009: .288/.367/.525 with four home runs and 15 RBIs in 20 games.

2010: .274/.310/.484 with four home runs and 17 RBIs in 22 games.

2011: .290/.351/.560 with six home runs and 27 RBIs in 26 games.

You’ll notice that some of those Aprils (2009 and 2011 among them) were pretty good. You’ll notice that other Aprils (2007 and 2008 among them) were pretty awful. And you’ll notice that some Aprils (like last season) are missing because of injuries and/or because he didn’t start the year with the big club.

What you notice most of all, however, is that in each of those years –- good or bad –- Howard produced more April home runs and RBIs than he has this season. And only once (2008) has Howard had a lower April slugging percentage than his current mark.

Entering Tuesday’s outing against the Pirates, Howard was hitting .275/.297/.377. (His slugging percentage put him 120th in Major League Baseball.) He has just one home run and six RBIs this season.  

Those aren’t good numbers. The average is fine, but you don’t pay any first baseman –- and particularly this one –- to hit singles.

His current power slump isn’t necessarily an indicator of future performance. Howard looked pretty solid during spring training down in Clearwater, and in almost all of the seasons that came before this one, Howard’s home runs, RBIs and slugging percentage increased after the weather got warmer.

Of course, in each of the seasons that came before this one, Howard was younger, and he wasn’t beginning his first full campaign after coming off an Achilles injury. That’s the thing now: trying to figure out how much the Phils should sweat about a 33-year-old power hitter who isn’t hitting for power at present.

“It comes and goes,” Manuel said when asked why the pop in Howard’s bat hasn’t made the trip up from spring training yet. “It comes and goes, man. [Josh] Hamilton is having a hard time, isn’t he? [Albert] Pujols is having a hard time. There’s a lot of guys having a hard time this time of year. He’ll catch up.”

He’d better. The Phillies don’t have many middle-of-the-order power options beyond Howard. Utley leads the team with three home runs and 15 RBIs. Those aren’t eye-popping stats, but they are the best the Phillies can boast about at the moment.

No, it has to be Howard driving in runs and smacking homers from the cleanup spot. If he doesn’t, that would cause a serious problem for a team that doesn’t crush the ball the way it once did.

“He’s our big power threat, yes,” Manuel said. “Until someone comes along and wants to hit about 30 or 40 [home runs] or can, yeah, Ryan is the guy we depend on for power.”

That isn’t happening right now. As cause for concern goes, the biggest might be Howard’s numbers with runners in scoring position: 2 for 16 (.125) with no home runs and five RBIs.

Again, it is early and cold and there’s some history that might render all this moot in a month or two. But while it is early and cold, the games in April count just as much as the games in September. They need Howard now just as much as they will need him later.

“We got to get Ryan going,” Manuel allowed. “We’ve got to have Ryan’s power in our lineup. He is our big RBI guy. Guys talk to me about dropping him down. That will be the day when someone knocks in 130 runs, or 120. I haven’t seen nobody out here who can do that.

“Even last year he knocked in [56] runs in [260] at-bats. At that pace he would go over 100 easy if he had a full season. It’s just a matter of getting him going. That’s the biggest thing –- getting him right. Getting him going.”

Only six games left in April. May can’t arrive soon enough for Howard.

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