At Five Thirty Eight, Rob Arthur has an interesting article up in which he posits that defensive shifts were responsible for the drastic downfall at the end of former Phillies slugger Ryan Howard‘s career. Arthur uses a lot of data to show just how much Howard declined once opposing teams realized the first baseman’s production could be limited with a shift. For example, with no infield shift (2010-16), Howard was 17.1 runs above average; with the shift on, he was 52.4 runs below average. And Arthur also shows that only David Ortiz was shifted more often than Howard.
But shifts aren’t the only explanation for Howard’s downfall. While teams recognized by 2008 that bringing in a lefty reliever was a great to neutralize Howard, it wasn’t until 2011 that his production against southpaws really fell off a cliff as teams mostly had their lefties throw him off-speed stuff low and away. From 2006-10, Howard had a wRC+ of 106 or better against lefties in three of those five seasons. Excepting a blip in 2014 (117), Howard’s wRC+ against lefties ranged from -14 to 74 from 2011-16.
Additionally, Howard wasn’t really a ground ball hitter, so it wasn’t like the shift affected him every time he was at the plate. He hit ground balls at a 37.8 percent clip over his career, which was anywhere from five to seven percent below the league average. Furthermore, even if Howard had league average BABIP on ground balls over his career rather than his own substandard BABIP, he’d only have 82 more hits, using data from 2006-16. If applied proportionally, 77 of those hits would be singles. If we add that to Howard’s career line, it moves from .258/.343/.515 (.858 OPS) to .273/.356/.530 (.886 OPS). To use other players as a point of comparison, Kevin Youkilis had an .861 OPS during the span of Howard’s career while Prince Fielder had an .887 OPS. Of course, the shift wasn’t the sole cause for the lack of ground ball hits, so if we could suss that out, the difference would be a smaller number.
The real killer for Howard’s career was his loss of power. He put up a .279 ISO in his rookie campaign in 2005 and got up to .346 in his MVP-award-winning 2006. He stayed high, putting up .316, .292, and .292 marks the next three years. From there, his ISO tanked, going to .229, .235, .204, .199, and .156 from 2010-14. His Achilles injury happened at the end of the 2011 postseason, so the first two data points are pre-catastrophic injury. Essentially, Howard rupturing his Achilles sped up the rate at which he lost his power.
Howard also turned 30 years old in 2010 — he debuted at a relatively old age, entering the league in 2004 at 24 years old and didn’t become a regular until two years later. Age was certainly one of the reasons Howard lost his power. Teams exploited weaknesses in his swing. While lefties threw him slop low and away, right-handers threw high, inside fastballs.
Yeah, the shift did negatively impact Howard’s offense, but so did a handful of other factors and they arguably had a greater impact.