By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
Tim Redding's fastball already was in the catcher's mitt when the long arc of Ryan Howard's swing reached its kinetic climax -- strike three -- and the Philadelphia Phillies' mammoth first baseman pivoted and made the familiar slow walk back to his dugout. Howard had somehow managed to go from a 3-0 count to a strikeout in the span of four additional pitches -- a difficult task, to be sure -- but the sheer artistry of his whiff-craft in last night's first inning was lost on a late-arriving crowd at Nationals Park, which merely cheered politely for the Washington Nationals' good fortune.
Howard, the most valuable player of the National League in 2006, does many things well -- most notably hit home runs, of which he bashed 105 combined in 2006 and 2007, his first two full seasons in the majors, helping him earn a $10 million salary this season, a record for a player in his first season of salary arbitration.
But what Howard, 28, does best of all is strike out, and this season he is taking that proclivity to an unprecedented level. His strikeout against Redding last night, part of an 0-for-4 performance in the Phillies' 4-0 loss, gave him 65 in the Phillies' first 46 games, putting him on pace for a staggering 229 K's -- which would be 15 percent higher than the major league record of 199, set by Howard last year (during a season in which he also spent two weeks on the disabled list). To put that into perspective, a hitter would need to hit 84 homers in a season to better Barry Bonds's all-time single-season record of 73 by the same 15 percent margin.
Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel, an old hitting guru of some renown, cringed slightly when Howard's prodigious strikeout pace was brought to his attention. Back in his day, said the 64-year-old Manuel, "that was unacceptable."
"It's one of those changes in baseball," Manuel said, and he didn't mean a change for the better. "I remember Harmon Killebrew, one of the best home run hitters of all-time [and Manuel's teammate on the Minnesota Twins in the early 1970s] -- there was a lot of talk that he struck out too much when he struck out 100 times in a year."
But strikeouts, for better or worse, are perfectly acceptable nowadays as a byproduct of home run hitting, with the sabermetric crowd having deduced that a strikeout is only negligibly more damaging than any other type of out, statistically speaking. But that doesn't mean the old, crusty hitting coach in Manuel has to like it.
"He can do better," Manuel said. "He can cut down his strikeouts. I remember two years ago, people asked me if he could ever hit .300. I said, 'Yes, eventually I think he'll hit .300' -- and he did it that same year. And it was because he cut down [his strikeouts] that year."
In a brief interview at his locker in the Phillies' clubhouse before last night's game, Howard groaned when the subject of strikeouts was broached. "I'm moving on," he said. "I've answered that question a lot. Yeah, I'm done with it."
Understandably, it is perhaps his least favorite subject.
"You ground out. You fly out. You strike out. An out is an out," Howard told the Philadelphia Inquirer in March. "You don't hear anybody say, 'That guy led the league in groundouts last year.' "
While his strikeout rate has remained fairly consistent this season, of greater importance to the Phillies is the fact his home run stroke has returned following an awful start. He ended April with a .168 batting average and only five homers, but he hit .318 with three homers during the Phillies' just-completed six-game homestand, pushing his season batting average to .191 as the three-game series against the Nationals got underway.
Howard's offensive awakening, along with the return of shortstop and leadoff man Jimmy Rollins from the disabled list on May 9, have helped the Phillies survive in the competitive National League East division despite the potentially debilitating deficiencies of its starting rotation, which sported a 4.71 ERA entering last night's game.
"Any team, when your power guy is hitting home runs, it can transform the team," said outfielder Shane Victorino. "Look at the Red Sox since David Ortiz got hot, and the Cubs since [Alfonso] Soriano got hot. When you have a guy in your lineup like Ryan Howard who drives in runs, it changes the dynamics of your lineup."
But the Phillies' front office appears to be still grappling with the question of whether Howard truly is a transformative superstar, or merely a one-dimensional slugger whose all-or-nothing swing produces plenty of homers but many more -- four times as many, in fact, over the course of his career -- strikeouts.
Although the Phillies have discussed a long-term contract with Howard's agents, there has been little movement toward an agreement, and it is widely speculated within the industry that the Phillies are more likely to trade Howard than lock him up long-term.
Strikeouts may be benign to sabermetricians, but they can still do damage in the bigger picture.