Bill Conlin Defends Ryan Howard, Takes on SABR Nerds… Yessssssss!

Ryan_howard_ny_timesPhoto source: NY Times

I got my popcorn ready. Geekfest 2011 starts now!

Bill Conlin fired the opening salvo in defense of Ryan Howard: []

Oh, but he's a butcher with the glove (all of four errors), clogs up the bases (as if Fielder is Michael Bourn) and is not providing close to acceptable return for the $125 million salary. (And since that contract just kicked in and he's on pace for 140 RBI, maybe you should wait a while on that.)

One guy even invoked the despicable, undecipherable WAR stat. That's a totally bogus acronym for "Wins Above Replacement." It presents a patently unsupported hypothesis that measures the "projected" performance of an "average" Triple A player called up to replace Major League regular.


I'm laughing too hard to continue. You saw what happened last season when Howard missed 19 games with an ankle sprain and was off-form the rest of the season, yet still managed 31 homers and 108 RBI.


Oh hurry up, honey. You're missing the best part!

I generally find Conlin abrasive and disconnected, if not hypocritical (he called for Howard to be benched in Game 6 of the NLCS). But he’s right on here.

Let’s rewind:

Conlin starts off his column taking direct aim at the legions of fans who don’t appreciate The Big Piece. He cites the oft-heard refrains about Howard’s bloated contract, his propensity to strike out, and the liability he presents in the field. He then mentions one email response to a reader, who had senselessly bashed RyHow for being overpaid: “There's not one [fucking] player worth what he's being paid. That's why there should be a statue of Marvin Miller in front of the MLBPA headquarters,” said Conlin.

And so starts the argument, mostly with SABR nerds, or, advanced stat geeks, for you lay people. Their side goes something like this: Ryan Howard is fat and overpaid. He strikes out way too much, can’t field, and can’t run. 

They usually cite his WAR (wins above replacement player), which currently stands a 1.2. Think about that for a moment. That stat says Ryan Howard (18 home runs and 72 RBI at the All-Star break) only helped the Phillies win one additional game over what a replacement level first baseman would have done- think someone with the skills of Ross Gload, maybe even worse.

I may be crazy, but if you take Ryan Howard out of the Phillies' lineup, they lose more than one additional game in the first half. Not only does he produce runs on his own, but his presence affects the way those around him are pitched to. 

There’s a guy who – is probably rock hard with his pants around his knees at the mere mention of his existence in a relatively public forum – often Tweets me when I make fun of Jayson Werth’s $126 million performance. The guy’s typical response: Ryan Howard makes the same amount, so what’s your point?

My point, pants-less kid, other jackasses, is that Howard is significantly better than a guy like Werth, and more deserving of a ludicrous contract.

They champion Werth’s ability to hit doubles, get on base, run, and field. While there’s no argument from me that he is a well-rounded, borderline all-star talent, he’s certainly not at the level of Howard. These people will kill Howard, who has 72 RBI at the break (72!), but celebrate Werth when he finishes the season with 85 RBI, 900 doubles, and 3,000 men left on base.

Howard, for his part, leads the league in go-ahead RBI. But SABR nerds (and other haters) don’t look at impact stats like that. Time and place make no difference. To them, the game is a math equation played in a vacuum.

Stripping nerd-hate out of it, because I do believe that some advanced stats are useful (the ones that help explain the game, like BABIP and other fact-based, non-predictive metrics), the logic in defending Howard is really simple: He does his job. 

You can pretty much pencil in (insert?) The Big Piece for 35 home runs and 130 RBI every year. That’s what cleanup hitters are supposed to do. Further, I’d argue that he is a plus fielder, who routinely digs balls out of the dirt, and has decent speed for his size. He’s not as slow as you think. 

Does he frustrate? Absolutely. Does he strike out too much? Yes. Are there things he does, both on and off the field, that rightfully rub us the wrong way? You bet. But I’m not sure why there is this constant flogging of Piece. While he probably won’t be carrying his weight when his contract is up in 2016, he’s about as sure a bet as there is right now. Need a cleanup hitter to mash and heat up when the going gets tough? Pencil in Ryan Howard for 35 home runs and 130 RBI, usually more.

I would tell you to get off his dick, but the last time I said that about a player, Mike Richards, he was shot by Paul Holmgren in a crime of passion. No one wants that. So how about we just leave Ryan Howard alone?

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56 Responses

  1. I’m with you, Kyle. I sometimes feel the people who bash him don’t actually watch most of the games.
    He does some frustrating things, for sure, especially if you want to juxtapose just his smaller moments against his bloated contract. but what I see game-in/game-out is a guy who comes up big, and carries the team, quite often.
    I would love to see a stat about percentage of games won when Howard homers (or has an RBI) vs games lost.

  2. Great post, Kyle. Totally agree.
    Don’t get me wrong, it kills me that Howard struck out to end the NLCS last year, but the Phillies wouldn’t have been in that position without him. And his fielding has improved significantly over the past couple years … He’s one of the most under-appreciated athletes in Philadephia in recent memory. Amazing that people in this town revere AI (who divided the locker room, had no respect for his teammates and coaches, AND didn’t win a championship), but complain about Ryan Howard. And trust me, AI’s “practice” press conference is one of the best moments of my entire lifetime. I find him hilarious. But he’s no Ryan Howard when it comes to athleticism and what he’s meant to his team and this city.
    Off soapbox.

  3. Maybe Ryan should change his name to Utley then the fans would let all his mistakes go unnoticed like they do for Mr. Utley.

  4. Better yet, maybe Ryan should bleach his skin and become WHITE like Utley, then he’d never be criticized by the fans. There, I said it. And I stand by it.
    Meanwhile, kudos to Bill Conlin for calling out all the Howard bashers for the morons they truly are.

  5. Howard is one of the most special players this franchise has ever had. One day, he will be properly appreciated.
    Every time someone brings up Game 6, I bring up Mr. Utley’s double-error inning in the same game that allowed the Giants to take the lead when Uribe hit that homer off Ryan Madson. Had Mr. Utley been Mr. Utley, Howard would have struck out to send the game into the tenth.
    Or I point out that Howard was the only member of the line-up who didn’t underachieve at the plate during the NLCS (over .300 batting average during the series). Where was the blame for the guys around him who didn’t get on base while he was hitting singles and doubles that could have scored someone?
    I praise Ryan Howard every chance I get. Yeah, the contract’s ludicrous, but all these guys are vastly overpaid.

  6. I usually like your blog, man, but you’re off the mark here. If you’re going to bash sabermetrics then you must have been a proponent of Jair Jurrjens starting the All-Star game. Anyone who watches the game (and anyone who follows advanced stats) would know that Halladay had the best first half but then people start pulling misleading stats like wins and ERA into the picture and not looking at anything else and it’s sort of infuriating. ERA is great but should be used in conjunction with other stats like FIP, K:BB ratio, xFIP, etc.
    RBIs are the batting equivalent of wins. Yeah, fine, they’re nice but they don’t necessarily tell you how productive a player is. You can correct me on this but I’m pretty sure Howard has more chances than anyone to drive in runs so, yeah, he sure as hell better have a lot of RBIs. Sure, WAR has it’s flaws but if it’s used in conjunction with things like wOBA (or weighted-on base, Howard currently has his career low) and ISO (a measure of power, also a career low), things start to become clearer.
    It’s easy for someone as ignorant as Conlin to dismiss something just because he doesn’t want to take the time to understand it. It doesn’t mean he’s right, though.

  7. Also, Bill Conlin still has an AOL e-mail address that he posts at the end of each article. That pretty much nullifies anything he says, right?

  8. @PhillyFlash – It’s baseball man. Only an asshole would try and point out race in this situation. People like you piss me off. Strikeouts are the absolute least productive possibility in a plate appearance and when you do that almost 200 times a year, you’re gonna hear some shit for it. Anyone would.

  9. It’s not that there are a lot of haters of Howard, it’s just the idiots are more likely to open their mouths and be loud and obnoxious. I don’t think they come close to a majority.

  10. I would agree that, hands down, there’s no comparison to Howard vs Werth. Howard is the better player for sure. I sometime get frustrated and complain about him but I do appreciate all that he does for the Phillies and wouldn’t like to see the lineup without him. Everybody knows that Werth’s contract is over inflated but The Nats organization paid him that and he took it running. Who else in their right mind wouldn’t? With all that being said, I’m still very much a Werth fan and hate seeing him bashed. He’s always been a streaky player and I have no doubt that he will improve in the second half. I think that the mistake is made when people look at the salary of the player and the player is then obligated to be infallible and god-like in their performance based solely on their over-inflated paycheck. That’s not fair. It’s never okay to kick anyone when they’re down. So, yeah…. that’s what I think.

  11. Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. I love the time of the year when Howard looks ridiculous at the plate (swinging at bad pitches, striking out 3 times a game). When you see Howard looking bad in the middle of the season for an extended period of time, that means come August, September and October, he’ll be MURDERING the ball. His teammates couldn’t get on base the entire first half of the year, and he STILL accumulated over 70 RBI’s! The guy has been incredible since he’s been here, yet he’s constantly disrespected

  12. And whoa whoa, Lisa, Ryan Howard is no AI when it comes to athleticism? You can compare Howard favorably to AI in a lot of ways but that is just downright silly.

  13. Dream- RBIs are not the equivalent of wins. Wins can be completely arbitrary, see last night’s game. RBIs actually require the player to step up in a situation and do something to get runners in. Judging by the Phillies’ woeful offense, I’m not so sure Ryan Howard has had the most runners on base. Adrian Gonzalez – hailed by all to be Christ – has seen two less runners (295 to 297) and has only 5 more RBI. It’s better, but barely.
    I get your point, that it can be a misleading stat. But the point is, they are still runs produced by Howard. Further, I know SABR guys hate this, but he is generally very good with men in scoring position and in the dangerous “clutch” situation. There’s a human element to this game, too.

  14. Howard has carried this team many times in August and September. Mark Texiera isn’t exactly lighting up the BA the last few years. People are starting to hate on the Phils…….

  15. Dorian: Maybe so, but are you going to sit there and tell me there AREN’T bigots out there who dislike Howard for no other reason than the color of his skin, and that they hide their dislike of the man behind stupid numbers? If you want to be angry with me, so be it, I won’t lose any sleep over that, I’m merely speaking my mind, saying what I believe.
    As for strikeouts, I could give a rat’s ass about that. Hell, if a player FAILS at the plate seven times out of ten over the course of a long career, he winds up in Cooperstown, so who cares about how many times Ryan strikes out, he’s a slugger, and sluggers whiff, a lot. But when he connects, it’s magic. And that’s what makes Ryan a great player who should be more appreciated than he is in this town.

  16. @Kate…. difference is when you get paid 126 million… and you have a chance to tie or win a game in a big spot. That’s what you have to do. Bottom of the 9th. Two outs. Guy on second. You need to bring him home to be a big time player. that’s all. I don’t care about Utleys error or Howardss error either. Hit the ball. Tie the game. End of story.

  17. Kyle, I’m not completely in one corner in the argument. I don’t think the game can entirely be boiled down to a mathematical equation and I don’t think what happens in “clutch” situations can necessarily be predicted but I do think a lot of the advanced stats are helpful and generally good indicators. And you know what, there’s a clutch statistic in sabermetrics and it actually portrays Howard pretty favorably. So defenders of Howard are welcome to use these stats as well.
    When everyone was up in arms about Cliff Lee’s 4.00+ ERA, all one had to do was look at his above average FIP and xFIP and realize everything would end up okay. Those indicated he was mostly a victim of bad luck and look what he’s doing now.
    I also agree that RBIs =/= wins but RBI is the most equivalent batting statistic, I’d say, and it’s way off base to solely use RBIs to define a player’s greatness.
    Alex, ERA is a decent but quite flawed statistic. You wouldn’t understand.

  18. Hes third all time in HRs per at bat. Thats what the man is paid to do, doesn’t get much simpler than that.

  19. Saying RBIs aren’t that important is like saying TDs in football or points scored in basketball aren’t that important. I never got that argument.
    I think a lot of it is style too with Howard. When he makes outs he looks bad doing it – waving at breaking balls in the dirt. An out’s an out. If he had hit a hard ground ball right at the 2B, it’s still an out.

  20. While strikeouts are without a doubt the least productive at-bats in baseball, I would rather see RyHow strikeout when he comes to the plate with a runner on first than see him connect and ground softly to the right side into a double-play. A strikeout is one out that leaves no room for fielder error, but it’s one out, which is favorable to the two outs created by a double-play, something some players (*cough* Wilson Valdez *cough*) can’t avoid.

  21. @Ian J
    Nothing personal, but that comment is off-base. You can’t cherry-pick single instances and say he gets paid too much to not perform in those instances. As if Willie Mays, Ted Williams, Babe Ruth and the rest never came up short in clutch situations. What about the times he did come up clutch that got them to those spots in the first place?

  22. all that needs to be said is that conlin has no point to make.. howard was hurt last season for an extended period, and the team actually gained ground in the division race.

  23. Just to sum it up. Kyle is right mostly. Howard is paid to do a job, he’s the cleanup hitter, and one of the very best at doing so. Is he over paid? probably, as are most mlb players. If you look at his numbers alone without watching the games he gets the go ahead runs in on, he looks like a good player not deserving of a super stud contract. But to Philly fans, who watch him pretty much daily, he’s doing what he’s paid to do, and doing it better than most. I LOVE ME SOME RYAN HOWARD. For the people who think Howard is “hated on by philly fans because of his race” Please explain to me how his Jersey is in the top 20 in sales across mlb and the only Phillies players beating him are Roy,Cliff, and Utley? If anything Hamels is the guy who gets no credit for the job he does, and he was there to get the damn ring on top of being cy young caliber this season! Dang I think it’s because he’s too white!!

  24. Kyle, have you gone nuts today? You’re as undisciplined with the pen as Ryan Howard is at the plate. The Phillies’ “woeful” offense? Are you kidding me??? The Phillies are a team with excellent pitching with league-average offense. And you know what? It’s okay! When the Phillies were one of the best offenses in the league, their pitching was horrific and hardly made the playoffs. Now they have the potential to close out the season with the best record in baseball.
    Why does Ryan Howard get criticized so much? It’s because of the things he doesn’t do. The league understands that he is greatly neutralized when you put that shift on and then pitch him down and away with a breaking ball. You can go inside too. Didn’t he swing at a pitch that hit him this year? That is just embarrassing.
    For me though, it’s the shift that bothers me most. If he took the time to beat that, he would be so much better, it’s astounding to think about the potential. But he doesn’t. He has his contract. He can ride with the Phanatic on game day and go to Dorney Park when his leg is all messed up.
    Howard used to be one of if not the best hitter in the league. He used to be feared. He’s not any more. That’s why they are starting to walk Utley to get to Howard. It’s amazing to me with how little respect they are showing him. But when you know how to pitch to him, it’s very understandable.

  25. Dream- good points, but two things 1) I wouldn’t say “you wouldn’t understand” to folks, because that’s how SABR guys get an annoying rap. 2) That isn’t the story with Cliff Lee and this is my problem with SABR. I looked at all his stats when he was struggling and while I agree they showed things would be OK, the reasons differ. His FIP was good, assuming that balls put in play would come back down to earth. But, in my opinion, what SABR folks avoid is the reason WHY. They assume all contact is created equal and Lee’s struggles were simply a matter of bad luck. Not true. His stuff was fine, but he wasn’t locating his fastball and was often forced to rely on other pitches and groove fastballs down the middle. Therefore, he was giving up some bombs and balls that were hit very hard. And that’s my problem with SABR. You’ll look at that example and say “oh, he just has bad luck.” While that’s partially true, it’s not the whole story. He had to make an adjustment on his fastball.

  26. Ryan Howard will finish with 40+ bombs, 150 RBI’s, and an average around .280. You heard me. Defensively, he’s been great all year.
    It’s a priveledge to have Ryan Howard as our first baseman.

  27. I watch baseball, and I dont need a stat that projects what a player might do if he replaces someone. I know Ryan Howard is worth more that 1 win. I know Ryan Howard is worth more wins than Melky Cabrera. Some of the stats are good and while I’ll admit I don’t fully understand SABR I will never respect a stat that insists Ryan Howard is not more important than Neil Walker of the Pirates.

  28. I think the dream needs to wake up. Your arguments are without support, and I’d explain it to you, but I don’t think YOU’D understand. Step away from your keyboard and excel doc’s, watch the games and witness what actually goes on. Howard has the most HR’s in his first 5 years then anybody else in the history of the game, he has more go-ahead rbi’s this year then anybody else, his errors have come down and his base-running intelligence has gone up. He’s improved every year, he’s the most important player on the team, and the two reasons he’s hated on are; He’s black (admit it, race always plays a part in Philly athletes not being good enough) and Philly fans, while passionate, are hardly the smartest fans out there.
    Here’s an idea, root for the best team in baseball, win or lose, and support the winning while it’s here. Only two championships and over 10,000 losses in the history of the team shows this time period is special, and morons like you have to try to ruin this too.

  29. I cannot in good conscience give credit to Marcus Hayes for anything he says or writes, so therefore I will not agree that race is apart of it.

  30. Kyle, if someone cannot take the time to type out a reasonably intelligible response to me after I have laid out my points, I refuse to do so for them. Hence the nasty (though also sort of tongue in cheek and playing off of the hated SABR snide attitude) response to alex.
    Again, no statistic can offer an explanation for everything but certain statistics can be good predictors of future success. You’re right about Lee’s fastball and I liked the article you wrote at the time regarding it. So while FIP was impressive, he needed to improve his K:BB ratio (and locate his fastball a bit better) in order to get his ERA down. Still, his FIP and xFIP predicted correctly that if he made adjustments, all of his numbers would improve.
    Bleue, the race thing is just a terrible copout. I resent the implication that anyone who does not think a black athlete is performing is a racist. Shame on you, sir. I’m not trying to ruin what has been a great season. Halladay, Lee, and Hamels are every stat nerds’ wet dream. They are having historic seasons. Rollins is starting to play well again. Utley is heating up and I expect big things from him in the second half. There’s plenty to like. And it’s not as if Howard is having a bad season but he certainly was not All-Star worthy. Conlin’s argument is just really weak and takes a page to make a single point (apparently, guys, Ryan Howard drives in runs. Just look at all those RBIs!) and I’m sort of surprised it would get support from a guy like Kyle who generally has solid backing for his opinions (unlike Conlin).

  31. Numbers are numbers. They have their own sort of perfection, but you poeple fail to realize that these are humans playing, your numbers mean squat.
    Everyone in the world expect Ryan to be Puljos. He’s not. They are different players taught different styles of hitting. Get over it.
    Playing baseball is not an exercise in mathematics, numbers have their own kind of special perfection, people remain people no matter what.

  32. @Kyle you mention how sabremetrics ignore how Lee was getting bombs hit off of him and how all contact is equal when this is simply not true.
    If you look at the sabre metrics there are GB%(ground ball) FB%(flyball) as well as LD%(line drive).
    If you break these stats down it is generally concluded that if you have a high LD%(usually 20+% is not good around 12% is very good) it means teams are hitting the ball hard off of you and generally making good solid contact with a line drive as the result. Meaning its usually not luck holding you back and your giving up solid hits.
    FB% is not regarded as much as LD% is for giving up hits since it doesn’t necessarily predict hard contact, but it’s generally concluded that if you have a high FB% then the probability of you giving up a HR is greater then normal. This is because of the FB/HR ratio pitchers have and the more fly balls the more opportunities there are for some of these balls to go out. After all you cant give up a home run if you are inducing ground balls right?
    Finally if a pitcher is successful at inducing a high GB% then that usually forecasts as a good sign since a ground ball is widely considered weak contact. Again These statistics are by no means perfect but can be useful in larger sample sizes and account for some of the stats that you claimed are ignored. (Note: I believe a sabremetric stat combines all of this as well as K//BB% into a stat but i forget where i read it.)

  33. I don’t understand why people blame SABR when they see a stat that doesn’t go their way. WAR, wOBA, ERA+… they’re all just tools that attempt to eliminate much of the luck involved with conventional stats- it’s all based in probability. Howard playing a below-avg first base takes away a lot of value. He’s incredibly clutch and fundamental to the Phils offense but WAR is just a player value stat and players with power, defensive skill and a high on-base (Utley, old Werth, 2007 J-Roll) are simply more important players to have than 2011 Ryan Howard.

  34. “RBIs are the batting equivalent of wins. Yeah, fine, they’re nice but they don’t necessarily tell you how productive a player is.”
    This is exactly right. RBIs are dependent on how many people on how many people are on base in front of you. So while a productive player normally has a lot of RBIs, this stat doesn’t tell you too much about how good the player is compared to other ones. Same thing with wins for pitchers.
    While sabermetrics isn’t infallible (nor would anyone who does it claim to be), they are actually trying to gain some insight into the game. They actually disagree with each other too. And they have succeeded. Probably their greatest insight is that a lot of dumb luck is involved that you can’t control.
    Is the problem that someone comes along and tells you that your conceptions are wrong? Is that the problem? Or is it that you really like Ryan Howard?
    Or do you have a hard time following advanced statistical arguments and you feel inadequate? If so, relax. Enjoy the game. It’s still there to be enjoyed. If you aren’t a scout or a GM, it shouldn’t matter to you.
    If it makes you feel any better, the 1993 Phillies were the impetus for Billy Beane and the A’s to take sabermetrics seriously because they took a lot of pitches and walked. Or if at any time you’ve wondered “should Jimmy Rollins be my lead off hitter”, you may be a secret stats geek.
    I’ll leave you with this cartoon:

  35. John- I agree with you, and as I said, a lot of those stats, that are based on factual things, really help you understand the game- it’s what I used to figure out that he was OK. My point was that saying “oh his BABIP is high he’ll be fine” is something MANY saber folks do, and it’s one of the ways they avoid the real world. There are reasons why that happens. Too many times, they rely on that and don’t factor in the % , pitch speed, location, health, the fact that he is a human fucking being etc. That’s all I’m saying. WAR is one of those. Howard drives in 140 runs a year, you can poke as many holes in that as possible, but at the end of the day there are very few guys who would drive in any more. The fact is, when there are people to drive in (his job), he does it. Almost .100 points higher this year. Yeah yeah, I know it’s not a repeatable skill (I disagree), but he fills his role. Every year.
    The fact that his WAR is 1 is laughable. You can’t say with a straight face that his presence only helped them win one extra game in the first half. You just can’t. Anyone who does is an idiot.

  36. If you haven’t enjoyed Ryan Howard so far, (A)you probably never will, and (B) that’s sad for you. If the Eagles drafted a player who won rookie of the year, made a couple pro bowls, won an MVP, produced numbers that rivaled the best of the best in NFL history, cuts weight to take care of his body and avoid injury, worked hard to improve his weaknesses, then cruised down Broad Street holding the Lombardi Trophy, would you cry that he forces too many incomplete passes instead of getting sacks? Or his YAC isn’t good enough? Ridiculous!

  37. I agree Howard war is flawed for the shear fact that his defense range is ranked low his arm is ranked low( not important for a 1b really except he really struggles on pickoffs) and he strikes out alot. These three things hurt his war and therefore skew it. sabre metrics are definitely not perfect because there are tons of examples like Howard where they have an ability to beat out what their peripheral stats say by over achieving in a stat a lot more then the league average consistently. aka look at matt cains xfip compared to his era every year he continuously has an above average stand rate and hr/FB ratio and therefore ” over achieves” what his xfip stats suggest.. this in a nut shell is what makes great players great and baseball such an interesting sport

  38. I’d like to see these little dweebs bitching about him try to do a better job, then attempt to critique his performance. In my mind they’re all a bunch of racists who need someone to blame since McNabb is gone. Ryan Howard is a God. End of story.

  39. “hey idiot sabr head? how is ERA a misleading stat?”
    For one they don’t factor defense, another they don’t factor park differences and lastly earned vs unearned runs are quite frequently the result of an arbitrary decision made by a guy sitting 200 feet away from a play about whether it was a hit or an error… Not that hard to figure out genius.

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