Eighteen Million And One Reasons

If you believe in remembering history, so you don't repeat the mistakes that have been made in the past, then there is a very compelling reason for not signing Ryan Howard to a long term deal.

There are exactly 18 million and one good reasons why the Phillies are unlikely to try and sign Ryan Howard to a long term contract. Even though the 2008 major league leader in home runs and RBIs is not a once-in-forever talent like Babe Ruth or Wilt Chamberlain, he is a rare talent. There are, after all, few players who have averaged more than 50 home runs over the course of three consecutive seasons. Still, it seems unlikely the Phillies and Howard will be able to work something out for the long term, and, even if they did, it's probably not a good idea for the Phillies.

Recall that when he filed for arbitration last year, ultimately winning the $10 million lottery, it was pointed out that Ryan Howard is a case of a player who came up to the majors relatively late in life. He was about ten weeks short of his 25th birthday when he made his debut on September 1, 2004, and he didn't become a regular until halfway through the 2005 season, when Jim Thome, who was blocking Howard at first base, went out with an elbow injury. This late start led to unrealistic expectations for his long term career. He may have been the National League Rookie of the Year in 2005, but he was almost 26 when the award was announced.  

Now, Howard has taken the Phillies to arbitration a second time, asking for $18 million off a year wherein he hit 48 home runs and drove in 146, while helping lead the Phillies to the World Series title. That's asking for an 80 percent raise, as opposed to the 40 percent raise (to $14 million) that the Phillies are offering. Whether he gets what he's asking for or not, and given the outcome of the 2008 Series and his 153 home runs in the past three years, he's got a pretty good chance, that's not exactly petty cash. Even if the Phillies were the Yankees, that's not petty cash. You see, the Phillies aren't the type of organization with unlimited resources that they can spend like drunken sailors. Paying Howard, say $25 million a year for five years (or whatever) would take up way too much of their budget. And, unlike the Yankees, Mets, Cubs, Red Sox, etc., they do have a budget. It just wouldn't be fiscally responsible to tie up that much money in one player.

There is one other good reason, besides fiscal responsibility. The 18 millionth and first reason. Howard has what Bill James has called, "old players' skills," in that his primary worth is in his ability to hit the long ball and draw walks… abilities that aging players tend to have, or maybe, tend to keep. Older players will often have power and strike zone judgment but, like Howard, they do not have good speed, they aren't good fielders, they don't hit for average and they don't have good arms. That shouldn't come as a great shock if you think about it – as players age their batting average declines as does their speed (or lack thereof). As James put it in the New Historical Baseball Abstract, in referring to Alvin Davis, a young player with old players' skills doesn't have any unexploited athletic ability.

Now that might make for an interesting philosophical discussion, but there's more to the old players' skills formula. James also did a study, using his Win Shares metric, that showed that players like this tend to peak earlier and fade (or age) more quickly than players who, when they're younger; run fast, hit for average, throw and field well. In a word (or three), players who are better overall athletes. There are probably a variety of reasons for this, but one would guess that it's usually because old players' skills players either get hurt, or lose so much of their overall effectiveness at a relatively young age that they can't keep a job.

While not every big slugger (and it seems as if most old players' skills players tend to be pretty big guys) falls into this category, and without going into James' study in detail, it's still easy to quickly pick out 13 well-known players who personify this type. Here's a list, showing the age(s) at which they peaked, their age in their last season in the majors, and their career home run totals.

Player Peak Age Age in final season Career HR
Frank Howard 31-33 36 382
Hank Greenberg 26-29 36 331
Jack Clark 31 36 340
Mo Vaughn 28-30 35 328
Boog Powell 27-28 35 339
Jeff Burroughs 23 34 240
Cecil Fielder 26-27 34 319
Hack Wilson 27-30 34 244
Rudy York 29 34 277
Del Ennis 23-25 34 288
Gerg Luzinski 26-27 33 307
Ralph Kiner 26-28 32 369

That's a lot of muscle. A list that includes the Capital Punisher, another guy who hit 58 home runs in a season, an MVP at the age of 23, another 50-home run man, the former record holder for home runs in a season in the National League, the holder of the record for home runs in a month, the Bull, and a two-time 50 home run hitter who also led his league in dingers for seven straight years. A total of 25 players have hit 50 or more home runs in a season. Four of them are on this list (Greenberg, Fielder, Wilson, Kiner) and three more (son of Fielder, David Ortiz and Howard) could well be added to the list. Also among current players, Adam Dunn and Pat Burrell fit this type. Maybe that's one reason why the Phillies didn't seriously try to keep the 32 year old Burrell.

No matter how you look at it, there's a lot of power there. And yet, suppose you take a composite of just the listed players who have finished their careers. He'd look like this…

Composite 27.7 34.4 312.1

You'd have to think, given the power shown early in their major league stays, that a career that peaked before age 28 and that was over before the age of 35, and produced just 312 career home runs would be something of a disappointment. No one on this list got to 400 home runs. Only Howard and Kiner even made 350. But, Greenberg hit 58 home runs when he was 27 (just a year older than Howard was when he did it). York hit 18 home runs in a month when he was 23. Cecil Fielder hit 51 when he was 26. Ralph Kiner hit 51 when he was 24 and 54 when he was 26. Hack Wilson hit 56 and drove in 191 when he was 30. You get the picture… none of these guys lasted very long.

Yes, there are a lot of home run hitters who are exceptions, both in longevity and production. One of them, for instance, is currently playing; the aforementioned Mr. Thome, who will start the 2009 season at the age of 38 with 541 home runs. (Although Thome has been a higher average hitter and a little better fielder, too.) But, would you want to risk nine figures on the possibility that Ryan Howard, who will start the 2009 season at the age of 29, will be one of the exceptions, no matter how many Phanatical Philadelphians pack Citizen's Park?

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