02 February 2010

Is Ryan Howard the Greatest Slugger in Phillies History?

Metro is a newspaper given out for free in some of the larger cities in the northeast. It's a short paper, intentionally so as it's usually read on on public transportation, and therefore rarely gets more than half an hour of attention from any one reader. Most of its stories lack any real depth of insight and given the youth of most of its staff, any real perspective on life. I usually don't bother with it, but as I happened to have nothing better to read on the train on the way to work (and really, how much Tetris Mania can one man play on his phone?) I decided to peruse the rag.

What I found both shocked and appalled me.

Angelo Cataldi is a talking head on Philadelphia's WIP radio, and he fills a few inches of space in the sports columns for Metro on occasion. Among his offerings today is a brief column entitled "Which Phillie is Werth it?", addressing the need for Philadelphia Phillies' GM Reuben Amaro, Jr. to decide whether he will sign OF Jayson Werth after the 2010 season ends and he becomes a free agent, or save his money and wait for 2011 to re-sign 1B Ryan Howard.

Cataldi unfortunately doesn't conclude anything, but remarks that his radio show callers apparently preferred Werth, though he does not indicate whether it was presented to them as an either/or decision or a both/and. This was not the shocking or appalling part.

Buried in the middle of this largely pointless column is this little gem of revisionist history:

"[Ryan] Howard is a superstar.

Already, he is the best power hitter the Phillies have ever had — and don’t forget that a fellow named Mike Schmidt once played here."


That's a huge statement to just throw into the middle of a couple of paragraphs on impending free agency, don't you think? Is Ryan Howard really "the best power hitter the Phillies have ever had"? Can you seriously dismiss Mike Schmidt so easily?

By the end of his age 29 season, Schmidt had three National League HR titles (to Howard's two) and had led the NL in slugging percentage once already, something Howard has never done. While he had not yet won an MVP award at this age, Schmidt would go on to win three of them, as many as anybody had ever won before Barry Bonds and his friendly, neighborhood steroid dealer came along.

Howard has one MVP already, but probably won't ever win another. For that matter, even the one he has probably should have gone to Albert Pujols, who was a slightly better hitter and a much better fielder at the same position in 2006. But most of the BBWAA writers like home runs and RBIs the way monkeys like shiny objects, so, Howard has an MVP award. Congrats.

At this age, Schmidt had more of everything - more home runs, doubles, triples, RBIs, runs scored, hits, a LOT more walks - and all of that in an era when power hitting was not such a cheap commodity. Much of that difference is because Schmidt was talented enough to get into the lineup two years earlier than Howard did, though it helped that he wasn't being blocked by Jim Thome, as Howard was. Schmidt was also talented enough to stick around for another ten years after his age 29 season, a lot longer than the generously-proportioned Howard probably will.

Schmidt would go on to lead his league in home runs eight times, more than anybody in history not named "Babe Ruth". He led the NL in slugging and OPS five times each, in adjusted OPS six times, in walks and RBIs four times each, in OBP and total bases three times each, in intentional walks twice and even once in runs scored.

By contrast, Howard has those two HR titles, three RBI crowns (which depend largely on how many baserunners happen to get on base in front of you), and one time leading the NL in total bases. That's it.

And as far as his accomplishments as a Phillie, Howard has amassed only 222 career home runs. Don't you think he should set his sights on Pat Burrell (251) before he takes aim at Mike Schmidt (548)?

Howard does have a slightly higher career slugging percentage (.586) than Schmidt (.527), but then when you adjust for the eras and ballparks in which they played, Schmidt has the higher career OPS+, 147 to 142. Put Mike Schmidt's bat in Philadelphia in the 2000's and he would hit almost 650 homers, according to baseball-reference.com's era translator. If Howard plays ten more years, as Schmidt did, his rate stats are bound to drop off a bit.

It seems to me that sports fans, as a rule, tend toward one or the other extreme when comparing current players to those of eras past. Either they think that the players of yesteryear were much better than today's players, an error rooted mostly in nostalgia and the fact that they were like eight years old when they first saw those guys play*, or they assume that today's players are much better, an error rooted in misunderstanding the ways in which the game has changed over the years. I would have guessed that Cataldi would be prone to the former, given that he's almost 60 years old, but alas, he seems to have lost the perspective that all his years should have afforded him.

*Sort of like when you recall those great, big cookies your grandma used to make when you were a kid, but then you see them as an adult and they're about the size of a silver dollar, it turns out. Or maybe that's just me.

Don't get me wrong here. Ryan Howard is a great player, and the Phillies would be fools not to re-sign him when his contract is up. He's had a pretty nice run, but he's had roughly one-third of Mike Schmidt's career so far. Let's not relegate the greatest third baseman who ever lived, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and the best and most prolific slugger in Philadelphia history to second fiddle just yet.

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1 comment:

BrooklynTrolleyBlogger said...

While not on par with those guys...Dick Allen was an animal with a bat.