Some people just love the game of baseball, huh? Ryan Howard, a 37-year-old former National League MVP and World Series champion with over $190 million earned over 13-major league seasons, has signed a minor league contract with the lowly Atlanta Braves.
The 2006 NL MVP would get a major league contract worth $750,000 —with incentives based on plate appearances — if added to the 40-man roster and $120,000 if he remains with Triple-A Gwinnett, according to Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports.
It’s a great opportunity not only for the slugger with the fourth-most home runs since 2006, but this move gives the chance to add a much-needed game-changing bat off the bench for Atlanta, a team that contains perhaps the worst bench in baseball.
Yes, Achilles surgery and many other injuries derailed what could have been a potential hall of fame career, but a deeper look at Howard, who comes at no true risk by the Braves, proves that it made all the sense in the world for general manager John Coppolella to pursue the former perennial MVP candidate.
Howard slashed .151/.215/.349 with 11 home runs, an OPS of .564 and a strikeout rate of 34 percent throughout his first 205 plate appearances in 2016. Over the remaining 157 plate appearances to finish the campaign, he slashed .255/.312/.586 with 14 home runs and an impressive OPS of .898.
The greatest silver lining to a season in which he hit .196, however, was when the Philadelphia Phillies began using Howard exclusively against right-handed pitchers. In the second half, Howard maintained the third-best wRC+ among left-handed major league first baseman against righties and overall, 24 of his 25 home runs came during his 298 at-bats against right-handed pitchers — a 47 home run pace when proportioned to a full season.
Are those numbers authentic? Statcast surely thinks so. On 207 batted-balls, Howard barrelled up 33 of them, good for a 9.1 percent of his plate appearances which was tenth in all of baseball. For some perspective, that percentage is tied with Giancarlo Stanton of the Miami Marlins and is better than Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels.
Howard has also hit 23 career home runs over 89 games in Atlanta. You’re not going to get the Ryan Howard that finished in the top ten in MVP voting in each season from 2006-11, but playing to his strengths and employing him against righties off the bench leaves endless room for optimism as he looks to finish his career on a high note.
Again, Atlanta’s bench is highlighted by mediocrity and the pop that Howard can provide, without being handcuffed with a monster contract, will bode well not only for craved success in a new ballpark but the mentorship he could bring to baseball’s greatest farm system.