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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.

Chipper Jones, Jim Thome, Omar Vizquel lead 19 newcomers on the 2018 Hall of Fame ballot

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Hall of Fame ballots for the 2018 induction class have been mailed out to the Baseball Writers Association of America voters and the names on the ballot were released to the public this morning. Among the top newcomers: Chipper Jones, Jim Thome, Omar Vizquel, Andruw Jones, Kerry Wood and Jamie Moyer . There are 19 new candidates in all. There are, of course, several holdovers too.

The newcomers, in alphabetical order:

Chris Carpenter
Johnny Damon
Livan Hernandez
Orlando Hudson
Aubrey Huff
Andruw Jones
Chipper Jones
Jason Isringhausen
Carlos Lee
Brad Lidge
Hideki Matsui
Kevin Millwood
Jamie Moyer
Scott Rolen
Johan Santana
Jim Thome
Omar Vizquel
Kerry Wood
Carlos Zambrano

Chipper Jones, the 1999 MVP, one of the best switch-hitters of all time and the unparalleled offensive star of the great Braves teams of the 1990s and early 2000s seems like a shoe-in. His case is boosted above his fantastic offensive numbers in the eyes of many voters by virtue of playing for the same team for his entire career.

Jim Thome is probably going to get a very large vote total and possibly will be inducted, having hit over 600 homers in his career. A challenge to his first-year induction is presented by the very large backlog of deserving candidates, which we’ll discuss in a moment, and by the fact that Thome’s career corresponded with baseball’s home run boom of the 1990s. Unlike other passed-over candidates of his era, Thome was never implicated in performance enhancing drug use, but it is the case that homers became cheaper for everyone during his career, and some may consider him a one-dimensional candidate. I suspect he’ll be in Cooperstown soon, be it this year or next year.

Omar Vizquel will receive a lot of support but his candidacy will also draw a lot of controversy. His backers will cite his defense and his longevity. His detractors will note that his defense was nowhere near as good as other defense-first inductees in the past such as Ozzie Smith, and that it was in no way good enough to make up for his below average bat. Complicating all of this will be fact that two superior defensive candidates who happened to have outstanding offensive numbers to go with them — Andruw Jones and Scott Rolen — are unlikely to receive anything approaching the level of support Vizquel will get, leading to . . . a lot of arguing.

And now the holdovers from last year’s ballot and ballots past, with last year’s percentage of the vote in parenthesis. Candidates need 75% of the vote in order to be inducted:

Barry Bonds (53.8)
Roger Clemens (54.1)
Vladimir Guerrero (71.1)
Trevor Hoffman (74.0)
Jeff Kent (16.7)
Edgar Martinez (58.6)
Fred McGriff (21.7)
Mike Mussina (51.8)
Manny Ramirez (23.8)
Curt Schilling (45.0)
Gary Sheffield (13.3)
Sammy Sosa (8.6)
Billy Wagner (10.2)
Larry Walker (21.9)

We’ve talked about all of these guys before, of course. Trevor Hoffman and Vladimir Guerrero seem likely to be elected given how close they came to induction last year. Many quite worthy candidates such as Edgar Martinez, Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling will likely continue to receive less support than they deserve. PED-associated candidates Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens each received a boost in their previously-flagging candidacies last year, getting over 50% of the vote for the first time, but it’s unlikely that they’ll jump 22 and 21 points, respectively. Lesser PED-associated candidates such as Sammy Sosa and Manny Ramirez will likely forever remain on the outside looking in.

The results of the election will be announced by Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson at 6 p.m. ET, Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018, live on MLB Network.