The $18-Million Man?

(Photo: Getty Images)

For the second year in a row, the Phillies and Ryan Howard appear set for an arbitration showdown. The two sides are $4-million apart as Howard seeks an $8-million raise for 2009. There are arguments both for and against Howard's request and we've got a look at them.

Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard and his agents asked for $18-million in arbitration on Tuesday.

The Phillies offered Howard $14-million. Last February, the former MVP won a record-setting 10-million (up from $900,000) in a controversial hearing; many felt that Philadelphia low-balled him with its offer of $7-million. Well, whether or not animosity remains on either side, it is clear that Howard is going to get a hefty raise. His representation is working with house money, it seems, and he is playing on a whole different level than a typical player in the arbitration process.

The question, though, is does he deserve $18-mil? Arbitrators, or so the legend goes, are notorious for overvaluing the wrong statistics, ones which have a smaller correlation on a player's actual performance level and talent. Most likely, the group of arbitrators who hear the case (assuming a settlement is not reached before February) will no doubt be enthralled with the league-leading 46 home runs and 146 RBIs that Howard put up while guiding the Phillies to the postseason and an eventual World Series Championship. Still, is he really worth that much?

The case on behalf of Howard:

  • Howard led the majors in home runs and RBIs. He also finished sixth in the National League with a .543 slugging percentage and ninth on the circuit in runs scored (105). Perhaps more impressive, he put up a .292 Isolated Power figure; while this was a three-year low for him, it was still excellent.
  • Howard (whether or not he deserved to collect so many votes is a different story entirely; see below) finished second in the NL in the MVP voting. He picked the right time to get hot, batting .352/.422/.852 with 11 homers, a monthly-best 1.274 OPS and 32 RBIs in 88 at-bats in the middle of a playoff push in September.
  • Howard helped guide Philadelphia to its first World Series since 1980. He made the most out of his plentiful RBI opportunities, batting .320/.439/.589/1.028 OPS with runners in scoring position during the regular season.
  • Since 2006, when Howard won NL M.V.P, he has hit more homers (153) and driven in more runs (431 RBI) than any other player in baseball.
  • Howard is also a marketable player, one of the faces of the league, beloved in the city of Philadelphia .

The case against Howard:

  • Counting stats aside, Howard actually had a down campaign. He hit .251/.339/.543, career lows in each slash stat category during a season in which he received more than 300 plate appearances. Howard also finished with an .882 OPS and 124 OPS+, the worst totals of his career over a full year. Among hitters who qualified for a batting title, he ranked 28th in OPS.
  • Howard struck out 199 times, more than every player in the league outside of Mark Reynolds. He went down on strikes in 32.6 percent of his plate appearances. In addition, the left-handed swinger posted the worst BB rate, 11.7%, of his major league career. The regression on a plate discipline front coincided with his .339 on-base percentage, down from .392 in '07 and .425 in '06. Howard was responsible for making 475 total outs overall. To put that in comparison, Albert Pujols made only 364 outs while putting up roughly the same power totals.
  • Howard posted a .366 wOBA, weighted on base average. This was also a career low; granted, his previous wOBA figures, .396 and .436 were exceptional.
  • While Howard was a key force in September, he was streaky overall. In fact, one could make a strong case that he was non-factor in several months throughout the spring and summer. A game in April does not get the same media attention, but a win in the spring counts in the standings, too. Howard got off to an atrocious start, batting only .168/.298/.347, for a putrid .645 OPS, in 95 at-bats in April. He picked it up in May by hitting 10 home runs and posting a .590 slugging percentage, but he batted just .238. The struggles continued in June, when he posted a line of .234/.287/.439; this was one of two months in which he made an out at the plate more than 70 percent of the time. After a big July (10 home runs, .978 OPS), he was a non-factor again in August. With the New York Mets pushing the Phillies for the division lead, he hit only .213/.328/.463. Clearly, if not for a huge September, any Howard MVP argument would have been silly.
  • Howard is a much different hitter against left-handed pitchers. In 237 at-bats facing southpaws in '08, he hit .224/.294/.451 with a .745 OPS. His OPS against right-handed pitching was more than 200 points higher, .967. Speaking of splits, he is a much better hitter in the friendly confines of Citizens Bank Park , a real band box. At home, he posted a line of .261/.360/.572 with 26 homers, 75 RBIs and a .932 OPS. On the road, his rate stats fell to .241/.317/.514; to his credit, he belted 22 home runs outside of Philadelphia , but the difference between his OPS (.831) totals was over 100 points.
  • While it is hard to argue with 146 RBIs, the total needs to be looked at in the proper context. Howard, essentially, benefited from having excellent teammates setting the table ahead of him. The league-best RBI total was the function of opportunity, as he had high-OBP stud Chase Utley batting ahead of him. Utley, the true most valuable Phillie, would help any player batting behind him increase their RBI total, as he posted a .380 on-base percentage and scored 113 runs. Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino were not exactly slouches, either. The Phillies received OBP totals of .356, .347, and .359, respectively from the 1-2-3 spots in the batting order. Plus, Rollins was one of the most efficient base stealers in the game, swiping 47 bags in 50 chances, consistently putting himself in scoring position for the boppers in the middle of the Phillies' batting order. Not surprisingly, Howard received a great number of at-bats, 298, with men on base, including 175 with runners in scoring position.
  • Defense counts, too. Howard put up a .0.8 UZR, according to his value section at FanGraphs; to his credit, this is up from -1.2 in '07. Several other advanced metrics were not kind to him, either, and most scouts generally criticize his defense as well. In addition, he plays first base. In all honesty, finding a power-hitting first baseman is not all that difficult—especially when compared to, say, a plus-offensive middle infielder or catcher. Adjusting for position deflates his real overall value as well.
  • VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) is a stat that many traditionalists love to hate. While the statistic has its flaws and Baseball Prospectus has never shared its formula, it does a fine way of objectively quantifying real offensive value. VORP does not account for defensive contributions, though this helps Howard and his cause. With that said, it is damning to his case that he finished 47th — yes, 47th!— in the category in '08; his 36.4 was certainly solid, but it was only good for third on the Phillies, as Utley and Rollins, who each received bumps for their position, finished with better totals. Pujols, in comparison, led the league with an incredible  98.6 VORP; the MVP comparison, objectively and Philly-homerism aside, was an absolute joke. He was not even the most valuable player on his own team, let alone a candidate for most valuable in the entire league.
  • Equally as telling, Howard finished fifth on the Philadelphia roster in FanGraphs' new metric, value wins. He finished with 3.1 value wins, behind Utley, Rollins, Jayson Werth and Victorino. FanGraphs pegged him, therefore, at a player who should have hypothetically earned $14.1 million (assuming he was a free agent) for his on-field performance.

Conclusion:

Howard is a darn good hitter, and there is no denying his outstanding raw power. He has been tremendously overrated, however. His agents are asking for Pujols/Alex Rodriguez compensation for their client, which is absurd. He could probably get a similar figure in free agency, but he is still under team control. During escalating arbitration years, a player will receive a greater percentage of their actual market value, but the big first baseman is pushing the envelope too far. Even if Howard does live up to projections (and he should improve in 2009, falling in line with his '07 and '08 levels), he would not merit enough to make close to his real value at this stage of his career.

The Phillies are walking a fine line here. Obviously, they do not want to insult a player like Howard, who is arguably the face of the franchise. They should not back down, though, as their initial offer was more than reasonable. It is unlikely that the two sides will settle on a middle point near $16-million, but if the Phils lose, this process could get out of hand in the future, setting a bad precedent. The year-to-year game will continue to free agency, but it might be in the Phillies' best interest to deal when his perceived trade value is at its peak, assuming there will be enough interested suitors that can afford his salary. Odds are, he is long gone once he becomes a free agent in 2011, anyway. In all honesty, though, that might not be such a bad thing.

It is fun to watch Howard hit all of those long moon shots into the night, but he is already 28. By the time free agency does come around, he will be looking for big-time dollars that he will probably not end up earning, with old-player skills and power that could decline quickly as he gets up there in age. In arbitration, he certainly has a chance to win next month, given the common arbitrators' love of home runs and other traditional counting stats. There are clearly some major flaws in his overall skill set, though, that need to be addressed. So, no, he does not deserve that much at this stage of his career. A settlement between $15-16-million would be ideal.


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