In the run-up to this week's trade deadline, Ryan Howard was in the news plenty, though, it should be noted, he was never in danger of being traded.
As long as you don't work in the Phillies' front office, this is fine. He has been newsworthy, rather, because he's awful. A lot of players are awful, or at least enough are awful that being awful isn't newsworthy in itself. Howard's awfulness is notable because his contract makes him the third-highest paid player in baseball this season. Specifically, he's paid $25 million this year and owed the same for the next two seasons and then there is a $10 million buyout of a $23 million team option (that you couldn't pay the Phillies $13 million to pick up) for the 2017 season. The Phillies owe Howard a ton of money and Howard is very bad at baseball.
He's been so bad (crowd: How bad is he?) the Phillies benched him and are rumored to have considered cutting him, a scenario that would result in them paying him about $70 million over the next two and a half seasons to not play for them. General manager Ruben Amaro has since denied such a possibility, but the mere fact the idea could gain traction shows how bad Howard has been.
Since 2012, Baseball Prospectus rates him as a half win below a replacement player. That is, since the start of the 2012 season, he's been worse than someone the Phillies could have brought up from Triple A and plugged in at first base. For the privilege of losing a half win in the standings, the Phillies will have paid Howard $65 million by the end of this season (that's just for 2012-14), money which would have been better spent on winning.
Howard's contract is so awful because it was signed two seasons before it kicked in. Howard signed the deal in April 2010 but the contract didn't take effect until the 2012 season. That left two full seasons for something to go wrong and negatively affect the Phillies investment in Howard. Sure enough, on the last day of the 2011 season, the last possible day Howard could hurt himself before the contract kicked in (he spends all offseason hibernating in the trunk of an old oak tree), he ruptured his Achilles tendon running to first base. The Phillies paid Howard market rate two years before he was on the market. That was a risk they took (completely unnecessarily in my view, as they got no benefit) and it bit them, and now Howard is awful and the Phillies are stuck paying an insanely large salary to a player who is giving them no production.
For all those reasons we look at Ryan Howard's contract as one of the worst contracts in baseball. Its timing was ill conceived, it over-valued certain stats (home runs, RBIs) while ignoring other ways to be productive (or in Howard's case, subtract value) on a baseball diamond (base running, defense), and it out-right ignored positional scarcity and player-aging patterns. The result was a disaster, yes, but I'm not sure it had to be this level of disaster. The question I'm wondering about is this: Should we have seen this coming? Could Howard's decent into mediocrity have been more gradual had the injury not occurred? Should the Phillies (and us) have been able to see Howard's production would drop off so fiercely, leaving the Phillies on the hook for a huge payday with nothing to show for it?
The answer is: Maybe. Well, to me, yes, but your mileage may vary. In April 2010, Matthew Carruth of FanGraphs wrote the contract wouldn't return even 50 percent value for the Phillies. He wrote, "Howard will need six seasons that were better than his 2009 season, except over his 32-37 years. I'm not sure I would lay even money on him achieving even half of that."
Right now Howard is on pace to return far less than 50 percent value. If next season he were to start hitting as he did in 2009 (a five-win season when Howard hit 45 homers) and continue the season following, he would roughly reach that 50 percent platform. Obviously the chances of that happening are very slim. Even Carruth's extremely pessimistic projections (he started by saying he considered filling the piece only with laughter) sound rosy compared to what has actually taken place.
At ESPN, Rob Neyer wrote,
Howard has played four full seasons. According to FanGraphs, he's been worth roughly $80 million over those four seasons: $20 million per season. Is Howard likely to play better as he enters and then moves through his middle 30s? Generally speaking, we're more optimistic about players with a broad base of skills. Of course, that's the opposite of Ryan Howard.
Neyer didn't get into specific numbers, but he does suggest a ballpark for Howard, that in light of what Howard has done, sounds positively upbeat. The point is, there was a fair bit of skepticism about the deal at the time, at least by smart, statistically inclined internet baseball writers, but even they, with the benefit of the best projection systems at the time, didn't foresee the level of lousy Ryan Howard would attain just seasons later.
To be sure I wasn't missing something, I asked the wonderful Dan Szymborski, creator of the ZiPS projection system (to learn more about ZiPS, read this), to project what we should have expected of Howard at the time the extension was signed. To be clear, this is not a backwards-looking exercise. These projections were done using only information available when the extension was signed.*
* Dan did use league and park factors put together for those seasons after the fact for accuracy's sake. According to Dan, the projections already reflect the decreased offense that would take place (since we know about them now and it makes a comparison easy).
Here are those projections:
|ZiPS Projection for Ryan Howard|
You can see a few things in those numbers. First off, the projection expected Howard to hold his value on offense pretty well considering those are his age 32-37 seasons. The low WAR numbers are primarily a function of Howard's bad defense and poor base-running skills, aspects of his game that were known at the time but ignored by the Phillies front office. In other words, when not homering or doubling he wasn't providing much to the team, but that isn't a change from any other time in his career. That said, the offensive numbers, while you wouldn't want to pay $25 million per season for them, aren't bad.
Compare those to what Howard has actually done and you'll notice a huge and for Phillies fans, sad, difference. For example, since 2012 Howard has hit 41 homers instead of the 102 in the projections. He's been worth -0.9 WAR instead of the 5.7 projected. The projections aren't starry-eyed, pie-in-the-sky, best-case-scenario projections. They're pretty realistic or even slightly negative considering Howard was one of the elite power hitters in the game coming off a five-win season at the time.
Are the projections just wrong? It's possible. Part of the problem with the Howard deal was always that he was a late-arriving prospect with a skills package that historically doesn't project to age well. But that should be accounted for in the projections. I won't make a 'projections-are-always-right' argument. Projections are wrong, but they're not frequently horrifically wrong. For a first baseman with no other skills but power, those numbers aren't bad, and they seem, to my eye, to be reasonable guesses as to how Howard's career would end.
One thing I haven't yet fully addressed is injuries. It was his injury that precipitated Howard's drop from productive-but-flawed-player to gaping hole of bad. Should we have seen that injury coming? I don't see how. Howard had showed himself to be extraordinarily durable to that point. Starting in his first full season of 2006 up until the extension was signed, Howard had averaged 156 games played per season. He was an injury risk as much as any player is an injury risk, which is to say he was a risk, but not an extraordinary one.
It's doubtful Amaro was looking at similar numbers before he approved the contract; he famously admitted to not having an analytics department until very recently, but even without the specific numbers, you'd have to think Amaro and the Phillies' front office were imagining something similar to the projections: a more gradual, graceful drop-off for one of the franchise's great players. Instead, they got something different, a crash-and-burn as it were, a Wile E. Coyote holding a "help" sign after running over the cliff before tumbling away into nothingness. They've been killed for it and mostly rightfully so. But maybe they should be killed just a little bit less because even if the contract was a bad one, and it was, there was no real way to imagine Howard getting this bad this quickly.