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.

Jones, Maddux, Morris consider Bonds, Clemens for Hall

USA TODAY Sports
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COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Hall of Famers Chipper Jones, Greg Maddux, Jack Morris and Ryne Sandberg are among 16 members of the contemporary baseball era committee that will meet to consider the Cooperstown fate of an eight-man ballot that includes Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Rafael Palmeiro.

Hall of Famers Lee Smith, Frank Thomas and Alan Trammell also are on the panel, which will meet in San Diego ahead of the winter meetings.

They will be joined by former Toronto CEO Paul Beeston, former Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs executive Theo Epstein, Anaheim Angels owner Arte Moreno, Miami Marlins general manager Kim Ng, Minnesota Twins president Dave St. Peter and Chicago White Sox executive vice president Ken Williams.

Three media members/historians are on the committee: longtime statistical analyst Steve Hirdt of Stats Perform, La Velle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune and Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle. Neal and Slusser are past presidents of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.

Hall Chairman Jane Forbes Clark will be the committee’s non-voting chair.

The ballot also includes Albert Belle, Don Mattingly, Fred McGriff, Dale Murphy and Curt Schilling. The committee considers candidates whose careers were primarily from 1980 on. A candidate needs 75% to be elected and anyone who does will be inducted on July 23, along with anyone chosen in the BBWAA vote, announced on Jan. 24.

Bonds, Clemens and Schilling fell short in January in their 10th and final appearances on the BBWAA ballot. Bonds received 260 of 394 votes (66%), Clemens 257 (65.2%) and Schilling 231 (58.6%).

Palmeiro was dropped from the BBWAA ballot after receiving 25 votes (4.4%) in his fourth appearance in 2014, falling below the 5% minimum needed to stay on. His high was 72 votes (12.6%) in 2012.

Bonds denied knowingly using performance-enhancing drugs and Clemens maintains he never used PEDs. Palmeiro was suspended for 10 days in August 2005 following a positive test under the major league drug program, just over two weeks after getting his 3,000th hit.

A seven-time NL MVP, Bonds set the career home run record with 762 and the season record with 73 in 2001. A seven-time Cy Young Award winner, Clemens went 354-184 with a 3.12 ERA and 4,672 strikeouts, third behind Nolan Ryan (5,714) and Randy Johnson (4,875). Palmeiro had 3,020 hits and 568 homers.

Schilling fell 16 votes shy with 285 (71.1%) in 2021. Support dropped after hateful remarks he made in retirement toward Muslims, transgender people, reporters and others.

McGriff got 169 votes (39.8%) in his final year on the BBWAA ballot in 2019. Murphy was on the BBWAA ballot 15 times and received a high of 116 votes (23.2%) in 2000. Mattingly received a high of 145 votes (28.2%) in the first of 15 appearances on the BBWAA ballot in 2001, and Belle appeared on two BBWAA ballots, receiving 40 votes (7.7%) in 2006 and 19 (3.5%) in 2007.

Players on Major League Baseball’s ineligible list cannot be considered, a rule that excludes Pete Rose.

This year’s BBWAA ballot includes Carlos Beltran, John Lackey and Jered Weaver among 14 newcomers and Scott Rolen, Todd Helton and Billy Wagner among holdovers.