Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard may be the single most feared slugger in Major League Baseball over the past few seasons, and yet somehow the guy remains underrated. How else can you explain that the man who will be the National League leader in both homeruns and rbi will likely be left off the N.L. All-Star team when next Tuesday’s mid-summer classic takes place? Should he not make the squad, Howard would be the first player in 60 years to be leading his league in both categories and still not make the team. The problem for some who make the selections, and who evaluate ballplayers, is that Howard strikes out at an even more prolific rate than he homers, and that his batting average of .234 is too low. However, there are a number of problems with criticizing Howard for these perceived shortcomings. First, as pointed out in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer by writer Todd Zolecki, the folks at baseball think-tank Baseball Prospectus did research on the relationship between teams’ strikeout rates and run production for a period covering over a half-century, from the 1950-2002 seasons, and found no correlation whatsoever. In 2005, after taking another look at the strikeout-runs correlation, they noted that each strikeout only costs a team about 3/100’s of a run. Ryan Howard strikes out a lot, but that is highly overrated. If he struck out 50 fewer times, but instead 30 of those were groundouts and 20 were decent-length flyouts, would he be viewed any better? His average certainly would be just the same, and just as poor. However, again average is another deceptive statistic. A batting average determines roughly how many times out of every ten at-bats a player will get a hit. If one player will get 23 hits for every 100 at-bats, and another player will get 27 hits for every 100 at-bats, does that make the latter player much more effective? In fact, does it make that player more effective at all? Fact is that so far this season, Howard is the former player, while Kevin Kouzmanoff of San Diego would be a prime example of the latter. Howard is hitting .234 while Kouzmanoff is hitting .274 with 11 homers and 37 rib. Kouzmanoff is hitting 40 points higher. Who would you rather have on your team, now or in the future? Another factor to consider is that Howard has fallen into a pattern of starting slow and finishing big over the course of a season. Two months ago, he was hitting just .163, but has hit a solid .272 since that time. The fact is that Ryan Howard is one of the best run-producers in all of baseball, and scoring runs is the name of the game. He leads the majors in homers and is 2nd in RBI. Health allowing, he is going to smack close to 50 homeruns again this year, and drive in close to 140 runs. The final argument on Howard’s all-star worthiness should be the production of others at the position so far in 2008. The other leading contenders would perhaps be N.L. starter Lance Berkman (.348/22/70), Derek Lee/Cubs (.304/15/55), Adrian Gonzalez/Padres (.279/22/70), and Albert Pujols/Cardinals (.348/18/49). Both Gonzalez & Pujols have been named as reserves for the N.L. squad, and are deserving for consideration. But Howard’s 27 homers and 83 rbi lead both of them, even factoring in that Pujols spent some time injured. This time of year, every team can look around and find a couple of players on their roster who they believe should have been all-stars but who fail to make the final cut. On the Phils‘ roster most would probably try to make the case for Pat Burrell & Cole Hamels. But I think that an even more compelling case can be made for Ryan Howard, who because of an over-emphasis on his strikeouts and low average has somehow reached the status of underrated ballplayer. If the Phillies were to actually lose his 50 homeruns and 140 rbi, they would not replace them, perhaps ever again.
The Phillies have vaulted out to a four game lead in the NL East here in early June. With the last two National League MVP’s in slugging first baseman Ryan Howard and team leader shortstop Jimmy Rollins, along with one of the favorites for this year’s honors in all-world second baseman Chase Utley, the Phillies offense is off to another great start.
Speedy Shane Victorino has taken charge in center field and on the base paths. Veteran left fielder Pat Burrell has been productive as he plays out the final year of his contract. Newcomers at third base (Pedro Feliz), right field (Geoff Jenkins), and closer (Brad Lidge) have made huge contributions, as has outfielder Jayson Werth in an expanded role.
Newcomer Eric Bruntlett filled in well for Rollins when he missed a month due to an injury and is a quality infield reserve. Greg Dobbs has again been one of the league’s top pinch-hitters. And the catching duo of Carlos Ruiz and Chris Coste has been solid.
On the mound, Cole Hamels is an emerging NL All-Star candidate, as has been closer Lidge. Brett Myers has struggled at times in his return to the rotation, but seems to be rounding into form. Meanwhile, Jamie Moyer, Adam Eaton, and Kyle Kendrick have also pitched well of late.
The bullpen of Lidge, Tom Gordon, J.C. Romero, Ryan Madson, Chad Durbin, Clay Condrey, and Rudy Seanez has been strong all season. The club could probably use another lefty out of the pen, as well as one more reliable big-time starting pitcher, in order to hold off expected second half challengers.
A repeat of their 2007 NL East championship is not only possible, but at this point the Phillies have to be considered the favorites. Their top expected pursuers should still be the struggling New York Mets, and the pitching-starved Atlanta Braves. Meanwhile, the young Marlins remain their closest challengers at the moment as the two clubs open up a three-game series in Miami tonight.
After a long winter’s hibernation, hope once again begins to spring eternal. Today is Opening Day for most teams in Major League Baseball, including my own defending National League East Division champion Philadelphia Phillies.
When last we left the Big Leagues, the Boston Red Sox were dancing off the field having swept out the Colorado Rockies for their 2nd World Series title in four years. Terry Francona was proving to everyone that he indeed was a good manager, as most everyone in baseball outside of Philadelphia could have already told anyone willing to listen.
In a true winter of discontent, baseball was slapped around by the Mitchell Report in December, and suffered through more talk about players testing hot for performance-enhancing drugs than fans discussing the Hot Stove League.
But we weathered the storms, and the cold world is once again beginning to thaw. The past month has seen the return of Spring Training in Florida and Arizona, and now it’s time once again for the real thing. Play Ball!
This also means it’s time to go public with something that I do most every year in private – my own predictions for teams and players in the upcoming season in what I personally consider the Greatest Game that God Himself Ever Invented.
First, I am going to go through each division and predict the order of finish. Then I will give my predictions for the playoffs. Finally, I will give my call on the major post-season awards such as the MVP, Cy Young, Rookie of the Year, and the Manager of the Year.
Let’s start in the most interesting place for local fans, including myself. The National League East. This is a real difficult call, because I honestly see reasons to pick any from among the Phils, New York Mets, and Atlanta Braves.
I just believe that the Phillies have too much offense, and that the other two teams have as many problems throughout their team as a whole. Call it in this order: Phillies, Mets, Braves, Nationals, Marlins.
In the NL Central, the Chicago Cubs are the consensus favorites, and a sentimental choice since it has been a full 100 years since they last won the World Series. And you thought Phillies fans had it tough! Here is the way I see it: Cubs, Reds, Brewers, Astros, Pirates, Cardinals.
In the NL West, there are four teams with legitimate claims to being the favorite. I just happen to like the young players of the Arizona Diamondbacks, as well as their 1-2 ace punch of Brandon Webb and Dan Haren. Call it: DBacks, Rockies, Dodgers, Padres, Giants.
Over in the AL, the East will see the Bosox outdo the Yankees once again in another tough race. I see it as: Red Sox, Yankees, Rays, Blue Jays, Orioles. Look in this division for the Rays, with some of the best young talent in the big leagues, to begin to make the perennial big boys sweat.
In the AL Central we have two of the best lineups in the game in Cleveland and Detroit. The turnaround by the Tigers franchise in the past three years has been astounding, and they have a true Murderer’s Row offense, but the Tribe simply have more pitching. I think it goes: Indians, Tigers, White Sox, Twins, Royals.
The AL West has the rising star of the Seattle Mariners, and I think that this time around the slide past the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in a tough race. Call this one: Mariners, Angels, Rangers, Athletics.
The Wildcard races in both leagues should be similar to last season, with many NL teams battling and just a couple of AL clubs in the hunt. In the NL, I think the Mets will end up with enough to outlast the others this time. In the AL, the Yankees should be able to hold off the Tigers and Angels.
So we are down to my final important playoff predictions. Anyone who looks at this season and tried to predict here, over six months before the Series, who is going to win it is just speculating. No educated opinion is much better than any other. So this educated baseball fan’s view is this: the Cleveland Indians will take the next step, win the AL pennant, and move on to defeat the Arizona Diamondbacks in the World Series.
In the Awards department, give the NL MVP to Chase Utley of the Phils, and the AL MVP to Tribe centerfielder Grady Sizemore. The Cy Young Award will go to Dan Haren in the NL, and in the AL the award will go to Justin Verlander of Detroit.
There are so many variable in the Rookie race, but I will go with pitcher Johnny Cueto of Cincy in the NL and Clay Buchholz of the Bosox in the AL. Cincy’s Dusty Baker keeps his team in surprise contention and takes NL top manager, while the AL vote goes to the Tribe’s Eric Wedge.
It’s going to be a year for the Cleveland Indians and their fans to remember if I get things right: a World Series crown, the AL MVP, the league’s top manager. Though many are sentimentally rooting for the Cubs to end their century-old jinx, it will actually be the team with the 2nd-longest wait, the Tribe, who have not won since 1948.