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Prospect Retrospective: the career of Ryan Howard

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MLB: New York Mets at Philadelphia Phillies Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Long-time Philadelphia Phillies slugger Ryan Howard announced his retirement from Major League Baseball this week.

Although Howard was regarded as a punchline for deadweight contract jokes towards the end of his career, he was a formidable slugger during his prime and presented an interesting case of prospect development.

Here’s a quick look at how Howard was regarded as a prospect.

Howard played college baseball at Missouri State University. Although he hit just .271 (low by college standards) as a junior in 2001, he also hit 13 homers and stole 12 bases while drawing Fred McGriff comparisons for his left-side power and physique. He was selected in the fifth round of the ‘01 draft by the Phillies.

He played well in the New York-Penn League after signing, hitting .272/.384/.456 in 169 at-bats for Batavia. He followed up with a .280/.367/.460 line with 19 homers, 66 walks, and 145 strikeouts in 493 at-bats in the South Atlantic League in 2002, prompting this comment in the 2003 edition of the Baseball Prospect Book:

Ryan Howard was a fifth-round pick in 2001, out of Southwest Missouri State. Compared to Fred McGriff by some scouts, Howard has light-tower power and crushes fastballs. But he has trouble with curveballs and changeups, and his strikeout rate in the South Atlantic League last year was very high. His OPS was good at +21 percent, but it remains to be seen if he’ll make sufficient contact at higher levels. I have a good instinctual feeling about Howard, but this may just be familiarity talking since I saw him play college ball. I like his walks and power, but the strikeouts worry me. Grade C+.

Moved up to the High-A Florida State League for 2003, he hit .304/.374/.514 with 23 homers, 51 walks, and 151 whiffs in 490 at-bats. That was good for a grade boost to B- and this comment entering 2004:

A left-handed power bat out of Southwest Missouri State, Ryan Howard has been mentioned in numerous off-season trade rumors, but so far he’s stayed put in Philadelphia. He has immense power, and has been known to hit extremely long home runs. He also posts very high strikeout totals. He hit over .300 last year in a difficult league, but I have skepticism about his ability to do this in Double-A or Triple-A. His power will carry forward, but I worry that he’ll have enough problems with advanced breaking pitches to push his OBP and batting average sharply downward. There was certainly nothing wrong with his Florida State League numbers (+33 percent OPS), but A-ball pitching can only teach you so much. Howard has worked hard, turning himself into a decent defensive first baseman. The Phillies don’t really need a first baseman right now, so they have no pressure to push Howard before he is ready. I’m very intrigued with him, but I’m also concerned about all those whiffs. Grade B-.

Howard mocked my concerns in 2004, hitting a combined .291/.380/.637 with 46 homers, 60 walks, and 166 strikeouts in 485 at-bat between Double-A and Triple-A in 2004, then went 11-for-39 (.282) with a pair of home runs (and 16 strikeouts) during a late major league trial. McGriff comparisons were rampant and prompted this comment entering ‘05:

If you watch Ryan Howard play, the obvious comparison is Fred McGriff: a chiseled first baseman with a huge power stroke from the left side. Howard is beefier than McGriff and will have to keep tabs on his weight, but I don’t think that will be a huge problem. You can’t ignore Howard’s 46 homers last year, and he played well in brief Major League action. But those strikeouts…oh, those strikeouts. Howard actually has adequate plate discipline and will take a walk, but I really can’t see him hitting for much of a batting average at this point, not with a whiff rate like that. . .McGriff took a lot more walks and didn’t strike out as much. He was a more complete hitter. . .Howard does have a chance to be a McGriff-type player, if he can improve his plate discipline a bit. If not, he’ll still be a valuable player because of his power, but not a borderline Hall-of-Famer like Fred. Grade B+.

Hahahaha, said Ryan Howard, laughing at my strikeout worries, hitting .288/.356/.567 in his rookie season in 2005 (winning Rookie of the Year) then a monstrous .313/.425/.659 with 58 homers in 2006 (along with 108 walks and 181 strikeouts), for a wRC+ of 162 and a 5.9 fWAR with an MVP trophy.

Alas, that turned out to be his peak season.

CENTURY 21 Home Run Derby
Ryan Howard, 2006 All Star Home Run Derby
Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

He settled in as a .260esque hitter the next five seasons, averaging 46 homers between ‘07 and ‘09 then 32 in ‘10 and ‘11. There were some PED rumors at one point but they were investigated and debunked by MLB, clearing his name.

His production eventually tailed off thanks to nagging injuries, age, and the changing nature of the game: teams began deploying shifts against the pull-hitting Howard and he struggled to adjust.

By 2014 Howard had problems keeping his batting average and on-base percentage at respectable levels and didn’t produce enough isolated power or defensive contributions to compensate, sinking his fWAR values below replacement level. This was particuarly unfortunate for the Phillies given the huge contract extension they gave him following his peak seasons.

Overall, Howard hit .258/.344/.515 over 1572 major league games with 382 homers, wRC+ 121, fWAR 19.8.

Howard was outstanding at his peak but in career terms he wasn’t as good as McGriff: top Sim Score comparisons are Mo Vaughn, Prince Fielder, Frank Howard, Richie Sexson, and Cecil Fielder, while first basemen with similar fWAR values in a similar amount of playing time are Cecil Fielder (19.0), Carlos Pena (18.7), and Sexson (16.8).

Ryan was not McGriff, but was certainly a valuable player and had a successful career, especially for a fifth-round pick.