The Fightins'

Author Archive

Aug
09
2011
Posted by Phylan at 10:33 am ET 39 Comments

24 games into a strong post-All Star break run, the Phillies’ offense continues to heat up, scoring 5 runs per a game since the second half began. For a bench stocked with 2 glove-only infielders, an ailing Ross Gload, and a struggling Ben Francisco, John Mayberry, Jr. has been a welcome surprise at the plate. Entering play on August 6th, Mayberry is hitting .259/.320/.500 (AVG/OBP/SLG). His raw power was his chief asset to dream on as a minor leaguer, and the Phillies’ motivation for trading for him in back in 2008. But it was never clear whether he could put together a plate approach that would channel it into Major League serviceability. Now, that power has made Mayberry a useful pinch hit threat, and, with his ability to man multiple positions, a perfect spell for Howard and Victorino as needed.

Read more »

      Read More:
Aug
05
2011
Posted by Phylan at 12:00 pm ET 45 Comments

Watching Ryan Howard hit 3 homeruns in 14 plate appearance at Coors earlier this week stirred up some familiar pangs of anticipation. Howard has been having a tough season at the dish — the worst of his career by OPS — but tradition dictates that, sooner or later, he is going to flip some kind of switch, and mash his way to season’s finish. To say that Howard is a second-half hitter is putting it as mildly as possible.

For an overall picture, check out this graph:

This shows Howard’s career offensive production by month (measured by OPS) as a percentage relative to his overall production. His output in September and October is thirty-two percent higher than his overall figure, making up for some rather grim numbers from March through June. Of course, a lot of things can happen in a month, and we can get a little more granular than that. The below image shows Howard’s OPS by day from 2006-2011; cooler shades correspond to lower OPS values, warmer shades to higher ones (click for super-gigantic version).

The trend is again obvious (although less pronounced last season). And it’s probably even understated there, since it’s tougher to raise your OPS as you accrue more plate appearances as the season progresses.

Looking a bit deeper, it’s hard to pick out something that Howard doesn’t do better in the latter months of the season. Over his career, he consistently hits more line drives as the season progresses. He hovers around 19% in April and May, manages 21% and 23% in June and July respectively, and then sits at about 26% from August to the end of the season. The league average is about 19%, so come late summer and fall, Howard is driving the ball substantially better than his peers. Meanwhile, the flyballs that he hits begin to fly further. In the first month of the season, 20% of his flyballs go for home runs. By August, 30% of them find the bleachers, and in September/October that number is 35%.

A key yardstick for Howard’s slugging is Isolated Power. This is just slugging percentage minus batting average — it tallies the number of bases Howard earns on extra base hits per at bat, and it’s a great measure of raw pop. Just an aside: Howard happens to be the second best active player in this metric, with a career figure of .287. If he retired tomorrow, he would be eighth on the all-time list, behind Ruth, McGwire, Bonds, Gehrig, Greenberg, Pujols, and Ted Williams. At any rate, driving more pitches and hitting flyballs further as the season progresses has an obvious impact on Howard’s Isolated Power. His career mark for March and April is .209. For June through August it lingers at around .280, and in September and October shoots up to .355. The increase in power coincides with a heightened selectivity at the plate. Howard sees more pitches every time he comes to bat in the latter months, and his walk rate in September and October is higher than in any other month, at almost 16% (his overall career mark is 12%).

As the season progresses, Howard hits balls harder, further, for more bases, and with greater discipline. The results speak for themselves. There’s no obvious reason why this must be so. Charlie Manuel, seasoned hitting guru that he is, was asked about it last season:

“I guess he just likes September,” Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. “Reggie Jackson’s Mr. October because he hit good in October. Howard’s picked September. It’s a good time to get hot because that’s what people remember over the winter. If you’re going for a contract or something, that’s good strategy. I’ll tell him next year when we start the season I want him to stay hot for all six months.”

It’s not the most helpful piece of analysis. As far as I can tell, the most Howard himself has ever said about it was in 2008:

“You just go up there with your game plan and, whatever happens after that, happens,” Howard said. “You want to come through when your team needs it and provide a lift.”

Howard was locked in at the plate in September and the breaks went his way, too.

“When the balls are falling in, it’s different,” Howard said. “There are some things you could be doing when you’re in a slump that you’re doing when you’re hitting .400. It’s all about the ball falling in.”

There is a bit of insight in that. The balls do fall in a lot more often for Howard as the season goes on. His Batting Average on Balls In Play — the percentage of the balls he puts in play that become hits — is much higher in the second half than in the first, peaking at .355 in September and October. This is probably attributable to his previously mentioned increase in line drives. Line drives fall for hits more than any other batted ball, around 72% of the time. Still, it begs the question: what does he mean by “things you could be doing,” and why is he so much better at doing these things later in the season?

It’s worth checking on just how much precedence there is for Howard’s second half savvy. From 2005-2010, 266 major leaguers managed to step to the plate 250 times or more in both halves of at least one season. This is not easy to do. It requires luck, durability, and the skill to hit well enough to stay in the lineup. Only 103 players, Howard included, have done this 3 times or more over that period. We can check the first and second half OPS figures for these 103 players and see if any of them get as big a second half boost as Howard does. On average over that period, Howard’s OPS has improved by 19% from the first half to the second half of the season. Only Randy Winn, at 25%, outstrips that mark, and he has one less season fitting our criteria than Howard does. He also has only a .764 OPS overall in our timeframe compared to Howard’s .945, so his second half improvement just isn’t the same.

It’s always smart to be skeptical about phenomenon like this. When you split data into arbitrary chunks such as months or halves, analysis can get screwy. Trends might appear that are just random fluctuations of probability, and looks can be deceiving. It hasn’t been proven that something like what Howard has done from half season to half season is a repeatable skill, and we must keep in mind the possibility, however strange it may seem, that it is a product of happenstance. Still, the effect has been so pronounced, and it manifests in so many of his fundamental batting numbers, that it invites all kinds of theorizing.

Whether we can know how it happens, whether Ryan Howard knows how it happens, and whether he can even keep the trend going, the huge improvements to multiple facets of his hitting that occur in the second half of the season are unique among major leaguers, and make his at-bats a must-see when Fall approaches. It won’t matter very much to the Phillies this regular season, on pace to win 105 games and all but a lock for the NL East title, but if his annual barnstorming with the lumber stretches into the playoffs, it could make a very big difference

      
Written by Phylan

...

Visit The Fightins Store
Friends of the Fightins:

Phila-Centric

R.I.P Harry Kalas