As January steamrolls to a close, the days until pitchers and catchers report continue to dwindle, with the rest of the players soon to follow. If Spring Training started today, a number of veterans with impressive resumes would still be sitting at home, waiting for the phone ring.
This has become something of the norm, with teams more-focused than ever, on cost-controlled pre-arbitration talent. It isn’t considered “hip” to bring in an aging veteran, even on deals that bring relatively-little, financial risk.
The list of guys in limbo includes one Ryan James Howard, 36, whose big league resume includes 382 home runs.
At this point, Howard is all but useless against left-handed pitching, but demonstrated last season that there’s still some life in the old lumber (.932 second-half OPS). Thirteen of his twenty-five home runs also came in that span (130 at-bats).
Even with the decreased-focus on veteran-help, Howard has been an afterthought, this winter. Many publications have left him off their free-agent lists, completely. So, is the writing on the wall? Not according to the big slugger himself:
“I think I can still go out and compete, and compete at the highest level,” Howard said, in an interview. Whether he can, in fact, continue to do that, remains to be seen.
If Howard is content to wait, he will eventually catch on with someone (perhaps the Yankees, whose home stadium plays to Howard’s strengths). Regardless of when or wherever that is, his time as a full-time, impact player is most-certainly over.
If this is indeed the end, then we will be left to ponder the length of his legacy; Howard suffered a steep drop-off in his 30s, and runs the risk of being rendered forgotten by the seas of time.
In his prime, however, Howard put up numbers that rival those of some of the all-time greats.
Only eleven men have hit home runs at a more-prodigious rate than Howard. Here’s how he fits on that spectrum:
|Player||At bats per home run|
With the exception of Stanton, everyone on that list is either in the hall of fame (in Thome’s case, about to be inducted) or the hall of disgrace – having been linked to PED’s in some manner.
Howard is presumed clean, despite an unsubstantiated Al Jazeera article that linked him and several other athletes to HGH. Thus, we can examine his career with reasonably-clear consciences – or, as much as we can for any professional athlete.
Howard burst on the scene, in 2005, smacking 22 home runs in just 88 games (which equates to roughly 40 in a full season). He would spend the next, six years doing his best, Jim Rice-impersonation:
Howard from 2004-2011 (1,008 games)
628 runs, 1032 hits, 184 doubles, 284 home runs, 859 RBI, .275/.368/.560, 139 OPS+, 2,102 total bases, 3x all-star, 1 MVP, 1 ROTY
Jim Rice 1975-1981 (1,o10 games)
641 runs, 1234 hits, 187 doubles, 212 home runs, 718 RBI, .305/.354/.536, 137 OPS+, 2167 total bases, 4x all-star, 1 MVP
The numbers are pretty-similar, except in two categories: Rice has a clear edge in hits, but is dwarfed by Howard in the home run department.
As the two sluggers aged, their careers veered off into those, respective, avenues. Rice, the better pure hitter, posted a respectable, .357 OBP in his age-34 season. Howard continued to mash (23 home runs and 95 RBI at 34), but batted .223 and was being platoon-ed, against lefties.
Ironically, as it currently stands, they are both sitting at 382 home runs. Of course, Howard wants to keep playing. Given a full season’s worth of games, he would have a good shot at reaching 400 home runs.
How about his Cooperstown chances? Rice was inducted to the hall, in 2009. Unfortunately for Howard, however, even the 400 home runs might not be enough. As a .258 hitter, he would have to have been an exceptional defender (nope) or accumulate gaudy, counting stats.
If, by some miracle, Howard hangs on long enough to reach the 450-plateau, then it might be a conversation. For now, though, he will have to wait for the employment phone to ring.