Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard and his
agents asked for $18-million in arbitration on Tuesday.
The Phillies offered Howard $14-million. Last February, the
former MVP won a record-setting 10-million (up from $900,000) in a controversial
hearing; many felt that Philadelphia low-balled him with its offer of $7-million. Well, whether or not animosity
remains on either side, it is clear that Howard is going to get a hefty raise.
His representation is working with house money, it seems, and he is playing on a
whole different level than a typical player in the arbitration process.
The question, though, is does he deserve $18-mil?
Arbitrators, or so the legend goes, are notorious for overvaluing the wrong
statistics, ones which have a smaller correlation on a player's actual
performance level and talent. Most likely, the group of arbitrators who hear the
case (assuming a settlement is not reached before February) will no doubt be
enthralled with the league-leading 46 home runs and 146 RBIs that Howard put up
while guiding the Phillies to the postseason and an eventual World Series
Championship. Still, is he really worth that much?
The case on behalf
led the majors in home runs and RBIs. He also finished sixth in the National
League with a .543 slugging percentage and ninth on the circuit in runs
scored (105). Perhaps more impressive, he put up a .292 Isolated Power
figure; while this was a three-year low for him, it was still excellent.
(whether or not he deserved to collect so many votes is a different story
entirely; see below) finished second in the NL in the MVP voting. He picked
the right time to get hot, batting .352/.422/.852 with 11 homers, a
monthly-best 1.274 OPS and 32 RBIs in 88 at-bats in the middle of a playoff
push in September.
2006, when Howard won NL M.V.P, he has hit more homers (153) and driven in
more runs (431 RBI) than any other player in baseball.
is also a marketable player, one of the faces of the league, beloved in the
The case against
stats aside, Howard actually had a down campaign. He hit .251/.339/.543,
career lows in each slash stat category during a season in which he received
more than 300 plate appearances. Howard also finished with an .882 OPS and
124 OPS+, the worst totals of his career over a full year. Among hitters who
qualified for a batting title, he ranked 28th in OPS.
struck out 199 times, more than every player in the league outside of Mark Reynolds. He went down on strikes in 32.6 percent of his plate appearances.
In addition, the left-handed swinger posted the worst BB rate, 11.7%, of his
major league career. The regression on a plate discipline front coincided
with his .339 on-base percentage, down from .392 in '07 and .425 in '06.
Howard was responsible for making 475 total outs overall. To put that in
comparison, Albert Pujols made only 364 outs while putting up roughly the
same power totals.
posted a .366 wOBA, weighted on base average. This was also a career low;
granted, his previous wOBA figures, .396 and .436 were exceptional.
Howard was a key force in September, he was streaky overall. In fact, one
could make a strong case that he was non-factor in several months throughout
the spring and summer. A game in April does not get the same media
attention, but a win in the spring counts in the standings, too. Howard got
off to an atrocious start, batting only .168/.298/.347, for a putrid .645
OPS, in 95 at-bats in April. He picked it up in May by hitting 10 home runs
and posting a .590 slugging percentage, but he batted just .238. The
struggles continued in June, when he posted a line of .234/.287/.439; this
was one of two months in which he made an out at the plate more than 70
percent of the time. After a big July (10 home runs, .978 OPS), he was a
non-factor again in August. With the New York Mets pushing the Phillies for
the division lead, he hit only .213/.328/.463. Clearly, if not for a huge
September, any Howard MVP argument would have been silly.
is a much different hitter against left-handed pitchers. In 237 at-bats
facing southpaws in '08, he hit .224/.294/.451 with a .745 OPS. His OPS
against right-handed pitching was more than 200 points higher, .967.
Speaking of splits, he is a much better hitter in the friendly confines of
Citizens Bank Park Philadelphia
it is hard to argue with 146 RBIs, the total needs to be looked at in the
proper context. Howard, essentially, benefited from having excellent
teammates setting the table ahead of him. The league-best RBI total was the
function of opportunity, as he had high-OBP stud Chase Utley batting ahead
of him. Utley, the true most valuable Phillie, would help any player batting
behind him increase their RBI total, as he posted a .380 on-base percentage
and scored 113 runs. Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino were not exactly
slouches, either. The Phillies received OBP totals of .356, .347, and .359,
respectively from the
1-2-3spots in the batting order. Plus, Rollins was one of the most efficient base stealers in the game, swiping 47 bags in 50 chances, consistently putting himself in scoring position for the boppers in the middle of the Phillies' batting order. Not surprisingly, Howard received a great number of at-bats, 298, with men on base, including 175 with runners in scoring position.
counts, too. Howard put up a .0.8 UZR, according to his value section at FanGraphs;
to his credit, this is up from -1.2 in '07. Several other advanced metrics
were not kind to him, either, and most scouts generally criticize his
defense as well. In addition, he plays first base. In all honesty, finding a
power-hitting first baseman is not all that difficult—especially when
compared to, say, a plus-offensive middle infielder or catcher. Adjusting
for position deflates his real overall value as well.
(Value Over Replacement Player) is a stat that many traditionalists love to
hate. While the statistic has its flaws and Baseball Prospectus has never shared its formula, it does a
fine way of objectively quantifying real offensive value. VORP does not
account for defensive contributions, though this helps Howard and his cause.
With that said, it is damning to his case that he finished 47th — yes,
47th!— in the category in '08; his 36.4 was certainly
solid, but it was only good for third
on the Phillies, as Utley and Rollins, who each received bumps for their
position, finished with better totals. Pujols, in comparison, led the league
with an incredible 98.6 VORP;
the MVP comparison, objectively and Philly-homerism aside, was an absolute
joke. He was not even the most valuable player on his own team, let alone a
candidate for most valuable in the entire league.
as telling, Howard finished fifth on the
Howard is a darn good hitter, and there is no denying his
outstanding raw power. He has been tremendously overrated, however. His agents
are asking for Pujols/Alex Rodriguez compensation for their client, which is
absurd. He could probably get a similar figure in free agency, but he is still
under team control. During escalating arbitration years, a player will receive a
greater percentage of their actual market value, but the big first baseman is
pushing the envelope too far. Even if Howard does live up to projections (and he
should improve in 2009, falling in line with his '07 and '08 levels), he
would not merit enough to make close to his real value at this stage of his
The Phillies are walking a fine line here. Obviously, they
do not want to insult a player like Howard, who is arguably the face of the
franchise. They should not back down, though, as their initial offer was more
than reasonable. It is unlikely that the two sides will settle on a middle point
near $16-million, but if the Phils lose, this process could get out of hand in
the future, setting a bad precedent. The year-to-year game will continue to free
agency, but it might be in the Phillies' best interest to deal when his
perceived trade value is at its peak, assuming there will be enough interested
suitors that can afford his salary. Odds are, he is long gone once he becomes a
free agent in 2011, anyway. In all honesty, though, that might not be such a bad
It is fun to watch Howard hit all of those long moon shots
into the night, but he is already 28. By the time free agency does come around,
he will be looking for big-time dollars that he will probably not end up
earning, with old-player skills and power that could decline quickly as he gets
up there in age. In arbitration, he certainly has a chance to win next month,
given the common arbitrators' love of home runs and other traditional counting
stats. There are clearly some major flaws in his overall skill set, though, that
need to be addressed. So, no, he does not deserve that much at this stage of his
career. A settlement between $15-16-million would be ideal.