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Did the shift ruin Ryan Howard’s career?

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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.

It’s the tenth anniversary of the biggest rout in baseball history

Associated Press
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Ten years ago today the Rangers and the Orioles squared off at Camden Yards. The Orioles built a 3-0 lead after three innings and then all hell broke loose.

The Rangers scored thirty (30!) unanswered runs via a five-spot in the fourth, a nine-spot in the sixth, a ten-spot in the eighth and a six-spot in the ninth. That was . . . a lot of spots.

Two Rangers players — Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Ramon Vazquez — hit two homers and drove in seven runs a piece. The best part: they were the eighth and ninth hitters in the lineup. There was plenty of offense to go around, however as David Murphy went 5-for-7 and scored five times. Travis Metcalf hit a pinch-hit grand slam. Marlon Byrd drove in four. It was a bloodbath, with Texas rattling out 29 hits and walking eight times.

On the Orioles side of things, Daniel Cabrera took the loss, giving up six runs on nine hits in five innings. That’s not a terribly unusual line for a bad day at the office for a pitcher — someone will probably get beat up like that in the next week or so — but the Orioles’ relievers really added to the party. Brian Burres was the first victim, allowing eight runs on eight hits in only two-thirds of an inning. Rob Bell gave up seven in an inning and a third. Paul Shuey wore the rest of it, allowing nine runs on seven hits over the final two.

The best part of the insanely busy box score, however, was not from any of the Orioles pitchers or any of the Rangers hitters. Nope, it was from a Rangers relief pitcher named Wes Littleton. You probably don’t remember him, as he only pitched in 80 games and never appeared in the big leagues after 2008. But on this day — the day of the biggest blowout in baseball history — Wes Littleton notched a save. From Baseball-Reference.com:

Three innings and 43 pitches is a lot of work for a reliever and, per the rules, it’s a save, regardless of the margin when he entered the game. Still, this was not exactly a game that was ever in jeopardy.

When it went down, way back on August 22, 2007, it inspired me to write a post at my old, defunct independent baseball blog, Shysterball, arguing about how to change the save rule. Read it if you want, but know that (1) no one has ever paid attention to such proposals in baseball, even if such proposals are frequently offered; and (2) the hypothetical examples I use to illustrate the point involve an effective Joba Chamberlain and Joe Torre’s said use of him, which tells you just how long ago this really was.

Oh, one final bit: this massacre — the kind of game that the Orioles likely wanted to leave, go back home and go to sleep afterward — was only the first game of a doubleheader. Yep, they had to strap it on and play again, with the game starting at 9PM Eastern time. Baltimore lost that one too, 9-7, concluding what must have been one of the longest days any of the players involved had ever had at the office, both figuratively and literally.

Hall of Fame baseball announcer Rafael ‘Felo’ Ramirez dies

Associated Press
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MIAMI (AP) Rafael “Felo” Ramirez, a Hall of Fame baseball radio broadcaster who was the signature voice for millions of Spanish-speaking sports fans over three decades, has died. He was 94.

The Miami Marlins announced Ramirez’ death Tuesday.

Ramirez, who died Monday night, began his broadcasting career in Cuba in 1945 before calling 31 All-Star games and World Series in Spanish. He was the Marlins Spanish-language announcer since their inaugural season in 1993 and was inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame in 2001.

He was known for an expressive, yet low-key style and his signature strike call of “Essstrike.”

Several Spanish-language broadcasters, including Amury Pi-Gonzanez of the Seattle Mariners and San Francisco Giants, have admitted to emulating his style.