Ryan Howard appeared to enjoy discussing the upcoming season with the media at his press conference Thursday. (Kevin Flatley/CSN)
CLEARWATER, Fla. – On a rainy day at Phillies camp, Ryan Howard was Mr. Sunshine.
“Let’s have a happy attitude about asking questions,” he told reporters as he opened his first news conference of the spring Thursday.
The questions were not particularly happy. They seldom are after a season in which a player missed half the year with an injury then hit a career-low .219 when he returned. But even the mention of his poor performance against left-handed pitchers and his team’s advancing age couldn’t dampen Howard’s mood.
He’s pumped. He’s upbeat.
Most important, he’s healthy.
“My left leg feels phenomenal,” he said with a smile.
At this time last year, Howard was walking with a limp as he recovered from a torn left Achilles tendon. He developed a post-surgical infection which required a procedure that left him in a walking boot for weeks, sapped strength from his leg, robbed him of conditioning time and kept him out of the lineup until July 6.
Howard was quick to remind reporters Thursday that he drove in 56 runs in 260 at-bats, a fine achievement to say the least. But how much more damage would Howard have done if he hadn’t struck out in 35 percent of his plate appearances (a career worst) and hit .173 with a .604 OPS against lefties?
Howard acknowledged that not having a full spring training as well as the aftereffects of the injury hurt his performance at the plate. He believes the prep work of a full spring training and a return to health will help him in 2013.
“You don’t realize how important a spring training is until you don’t have one,” Howard said. “When I came back, [the Achilles] was always right there in the back of my mind. There was a little bit of hesitation putting weight on it. I didn’t have the full strength to be able to push off and follow-up on my swing. Now I don't even think about it.”
Howard wasn’t always terrible against lefties. In 2010, he hit .264 with an .826 OPS against lefties.
Howard indicated his struggles in 2012 stemmed partly from thinking too much and getting too technical, you know, the old paralysis by analysis syndrome. He pledges to be more instinctual and reactive in 2013.
“A lot of it was kind of mental,” he said. “I told myself this winter, I'm not even going to stress it or worry about it. I know it's in there. I just have to let the inner me come out at the plate and be relaxed. I have to trust myself, trust my ability, and let it fly.”
As for his problems against lefties ...
“It's a combination of listening to the noise and trying to please people,” he said. “People say, 'Oh, he can't hit lefties.' I have to show them I can hit lefties. Obviously, to get to the big leagues you have to hit lefties and righties. It's putting all that stuff aside and just trusting my abilities. I know I can hit lefties. It's just a matter of being relaxed.”
Howard, who is entering the second season of a five-year, $125 million contract, turned 33 in the offseason. He is the youngest starting infielder on a graying team.
The mention of the team’s advanced age and whether the club’s championship window was moving toward the closed position caused Howard to bristle good-naturedly on Thursday.
“I don’t buy into the old thing,” he said. “It’s all about how young you feel inside and how well you take care of yourself. Everybody in this clubhouse goes out and works their butt out. Everybody goes out in the offseason, they train and we do what we need to do to come back. If people want to call us old, that’s fine, but I think going out there this year we’re going to show people that we’re not old.
“I understand the window talk. Yeah, there is a window of opportunity, but if you focus on the window closing, then you never let that cool breeze come in. For us, the window closes when the window closes, but right now the window is still open, so we have to go out and take advantage of this nice breeze while we can.”
Howard then breezed out the door with a smile on his face.