Ryan Howard is no stranger to criticism. Big numbers and big bucks haven’t necessarily been translating to big breaks for the Big Piece when it comes to Philadelphia.
Playing a loaded first base in the National League doesn’t help the 32-year old Phillie either who will start the 2012 season on the disabled list after suffering a torn Achilles during last years playoffs. From All-Star snubs to MVP short-comings it’s been tough being Ryan Howard of late.
That is until now. With the exit of both “King” Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder to the American League this offseason, Howard now reigns as the leagues premier first baseman.
Or is he?
It’s no secret that after the 2011 season the first base position has diminished drastically. Add former San Diego Padre turned Beantown Bomber Adrian Gonzalez to the mix and arguably the three best first baseman in the NL during the 2010 season are all gone.
Perhaps now Howard will finally get his due. But does Howard deserve all the criticism he has generated since his 2006 MVP campaign?
Sure he strikes out way too much but defensively he is quicker than he’s ever been and he’s taken major strides at the bag. Maybe it didn’t take the exit of Pujols and Fielder to realize just how good Howard is.
In order to fully compare the NL Big Three, I’ve taken a sample of each players’ averages in home runs (HR), runs batted in (RBI), on base percentage + slugging percentage (OBS), batting average (BA) and games from the 2006-2011 seasons. The sample size starts at both Howard and Fielder’s first full season in the majors, while the numbers follow Pujols’ 2005 MVP.
In that time period Howard leads in HR, (44 to 41 for Pujols and 38 for Fielder,) and RBI (133, to 118 for and 108 for Fielder) and he’s third in BA at .274, (.325 for Pujols and .282 for Fielder) the three former key triple crown stats to determine a sluggers immortality.
But the game has developed exponentially and baseball has been introduced to the Bill James (watch Moneyball and you’ll understand) of the world that have led use to judge hitters in much more efficient ways. Among those stats Howard ranks third in OBS .929, (1.037 for Pujols and .932 for Prince) and second in games played per season at 153 (160 for Fielder and 152 for Pujols.)
All in all Howard ranks first, first, third, third and second. Pretty competitive with Pujols and Fielder but I’ve determined two additional stats to see just where Howard ranks. Wins above replacement (WAR) or how many wins a specific players accounts for per season compared to the average position player (both defense and offense is calculated) and Most Valuable Player shares or how many times each player placed in the top-10 in MVP voting.
There’s no question Pujols is one of baseball’s all-time greatest hitters and his 7.9 WAR is off the charts but Howard tops Fielder with a 3.4 WAR to 3.2 WAR. MVP shares is where Howard shines. He’s tied with Pujols with 6 MVP top-10 shares while Fielder has garnered 3 over the same time period. Let’s not forget Pujols snagged 2 MVP’s during that run, Howard had one and Fielder never came closer than third in the voting.
While Pujols comes out on top again with 5 All-Star appearances, both Howard and Fielder have three each, although Fielder started at first twice while Howard started once as a designated hitter.
Clearly Pujols was the NL’s best first baseman (he also earned two Gold Gloves for outstanding fielding at first base) but Howard inches out Fielder as the leagues 2nd player in the position.
With Pujols and Prince gone, Howard will now slip into the NL’s top spot.
Then there was Cincinnati Red Joey Votto. The Reds 28-year old first baseman has emerged just as two of the NL’s biggest stars have exited. Votto, who’s first full year began in 2008, has an MVP of his own in 2010 when the league was still stacked, two All-Star appearances and he’s averaging better WAR 4.9, OBS .957 and BA .312, than both Howard and Fielder. With his 2011 Gold Glove he’s also now the best fielding first baseman in the league as well.
Votto may be the future but his 29 HR and 96 RBI are far in comparison to Howard’s monster power numbers. You can argue that each player’s numbers reflect an even advantage as far has the quality hitters in front and behind them.
Breathe easy Howard your officially the poster boy again for the City of Brotherly Love.
That is until the Reds big machine gets going, again.
You can follow Matthew Nadu on Twitter @MatthewNadu