Ryan Howard has reportedly been diagnosed with Slidis Unrecognitis Syndrome. SUS is a condition in which a baseball player is unable to recognize a slider and in serious cases removes the ability of a player to recognize the type or location of any pitch. Howard's SUS existed his entire life but remained dormant until the 2010 season.
Of course I’m kidding here, but the problems with Ryan Howard are no joke - he is hitting .254 with 6 home runs, 25 RBI, 52 strikeouts, and a .719 OPS that ranks fifth on the Phillies. When Howard is not hitting home runs, he offers very little to the team. He does not hit for average, he can't run, he's a bad defender, and he strikes out too much. With an inflated contract, he might as well have an “Untradeable” sign stuck to his back.
Howard has been a notoriously slow starter, but his second half hot streaks carried the Phillies for many years and contributed to unparalleled power and production numbers for the first six seasons in his career. From 2004 to 2009, he batted .279 and in a 162-game season averaged 49.1 home runs, 142 RBI, a .376 OBP, .586 slugging, and .962 OPS.
It has been four years since we have seen such production from Howard. Since 2009, he has a .255 average and in 162 games averages 33.8 home runs, 121 RBI, a .335 OBP, .480 slugging, .815 OPS, and 189 strikeouts. The RBI total shows that he still produces, but take a look at the how the numbers drop.
Ryan Howard 162-game averages
|Difference||-24 pts||-15.3||-21||-41 pts||-106 pts||-147 pts||+54|
The reason for this decline, of course, is SUS. It is a fundamentally simple problem: Ryan Howard does not see the ball well. In fact, Howard has never seen the ball well.
Pick any random game during Howard’s career and you will likely see several pitches which cause you think to yourself, “Why the hell did he swing at that?” It is hard not to get angry when he takes a mighty swing-and-a-miss at balls a foot out of the strike zone. It gives the impression that since signing his contract he gives little effort and does not work to improve his game. That is a natural reaction for the fan in all of us, but it ignores the possibility that his decline is not due to a lack of effort and instead is because he simply lacks the skill to see pitches well.
It all comes down to pitch recognition with Howard. Ask a professional hitter how they hit a breaking ball and they will likely tell you they look for the spin or the release point. Noticing the spin on a ball coming in at 90 mph might sound like a super power, yet many players are able to do it.
But not Ryan Howard. Howard does he not pick up the spin, arm release, or location and that deficiency is magnified by the slider. Sliders are extremely similar to fastballs and they routinely fool even the best of hitters.
A brutal pitch, indeed, but most hitters find some visual cue telling them to lay off. Sarge pointed out last week that if the ball was in a certain location he knew it had to be a slider. Howard has such bad pitch recognition that all he can do is guess and when you guess wrong with a slider...well...ask Eric Hinske about that one.
But Howard’s SUS is not limited to sliders – it extends to an overall unawareness of the strike zone. Simply put, Howard has a hard time deciding whether any given pitch is a ball or a strike. It causes him to take decent pitches and hack at bad ones.
His poor recognition has relegated Howard to the role of a purely mistake hitter. Give him a pitch on the corner and Howard cannot function. Throw a fastball over the plate or hang a breaking ball and Howard’s natural ability will send the ball a long, long way.
This is not a new phenomenon. Howard has been a mistake hitter throughout his entire ten year career, even when he bashed 58 home runs in 2006. Howard was so successful early on because he saw far more mistakes.
The main reason is that he had much better protection in the lineup. With hitters like Burrell, Werth, and Ibanez hitting behind him, pitchers were a little more willing to challenge him and subsequently made more mistakes. That protection has been absent since 2009.
Pitchers also have a crystal clear book on Ryan Howard: hard stuff in, breaking stuff away. That knowledge, along with less protection in the lineup, allows pitchers to be much more careful.
His issues have compounded in 2013. Howard finally listened to his coaches and moved closer to the plate – but the results have been disastrous. Howard likes to get his arms extended and he is unable to do that on pitches on the inner-half. Pitchers are exploiting that to the Nth degree now and pound, pound, pound him inside.
Howard's SUS is also more pronounced on inside pitches as he is simply unable to tell the difference between middle-in, inside corner, and ball inside. If I had a nickel for every time Howard took a strike and then swung at a ball...
Pitching inside used to be a dangerous game when Howard stood further from the plate because if they missed by an inch or two it would be in a great hitting spot. Now, even if they miss their spot he still gets jammed.
In a way I feel sorry for Howard because he looks like a confused little boy. Imagine facing a big league pitcher without recognizing the difference between a ball and a strike and not knowing if it is a fastball or a slider. It is not his fault that he can't see the ball well. Don’t blame the guy who didn’t do the “right” thing and turn down $125 million. Blame the guy who gave him the big contract in the first place (and nearly two years before free agency, I might add).
Howard has been an offensive drain on the Phillies for over three years now and I don't expect him to improve. If I am right, with three more years left on his contract and an option for a fourth, the Phillies are in big, big, trouble. They are on the hook for $85 million over three years or $98 million over four seasons.
So the next time you boo Howard at Citizens Bank Park, just remember you are booing a guy with SUS.
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