It was a scene Philadelphia fans will never forget.
The Phillies had just lost the 2011 NLDS to the St. Louis Cardinals. Ryan Howard, the team’s first baseman and $125 million man, was crumpled up in a heap near home plate, writhing in pain and clutching at his left ankle. He had torn his left Achilles’ tendon mid-swing, sending a weak ground ball up the first base line, ending the team’s high World Series hopes…
…yeah, yeah, we all know the story.
Howard missed the first three months of last season recovering from that torn Achilles’. Before his return, it was unclear how the injury would affect his game — that is, how it would affect his power, since he derived nearly all of his value from hitting homers and driving in runs.
And when he did make it back into the Phillies’ lineup in July, it wasn’t pretty. A strong RBI output (56 in 71 games, which translates to 118 over 150 games) masked disturbing trends in his peripheral stats. An 8.6% walk rate was the lowest of his career, while an Adam Dunn-esque 33.9% strikeout rate was the highest of his career, leading to a Ben Revere-esque .303 wOBA. Furthermore, he batted a dismal .173 against left-handed pitching, and his isolated power, although a still-impressive .204, continued its steady descent from its 2006 apex.
Already a poor baserunner and horrific fielder, things were looking very, very ugly, especially given his albatross contract and the organization’s lack of suitable internal replacements at first base. Already on the wrong side of 30, players of his body type generally don’t age well. He finished 2012 with a stunning negative-1.0 fWAR in just 71 games. Perhaps his inevitable decline is coming much sooner than we’d anticipated.
However, Howard — so far — has made a strong return this spring; cautious optimism best describes his current situation. 2013 could mark the first time he’s fully healthy in nearly three years. He severely sprained his ankle in August 2010 in a game against the Nationals, and although we don’t know whether that injury was related to his left Achilles’ issues and eventual tear, perhaps nagging ankle pain and weakness affected his swing and sapped his power over the past couple of seasons. It feels like more of an excuse than reality, but it’s possible.
The Big Piece is a lock for the team’s cleanup spot again this season and should see plenty of RBI opportunities hitting behind Jimmy Rollins, Michael Young, and Chase Utley. Assuming his left ankle and Achilles’ are fully healed, it’ll be interesting to see if he can resume his pre-2010 levels of production in what could be a surprisingly solid Phillies lineup. Now at age 34, the MVP days are obviously long gone, but a 30 home run and 100 RBI-season seems realistic.
Projections: .248, 32 HR, 108 RBI, 83 R, 1 SB