Ryan Howard’s 2011 season ended in rather depressing fashion. He not onlly made the final out of the National League Division Series versus the Cardinals, but managed to tear his Achilles tendon while trying to run out of the batter’s box. That is not good for any player, but particularly not a big guy who doesn’t run well to begin with, turned 32 in November, and, oh yeah, will be going into the first year of his notorious five-year, $125 million deal in 2012.
Howard seemed to be recovering well in the off-season, with a return date some time in May. However, after a recent procedure to deal with an infection, Howard’s timetable has been pushed back to “indefinite.”
We do not need to rehash all the reasons why the extension, signed prior to the 2010 season, was so insane at the time and looks even worse now. At the moment, the Phillies are looking at a first base combination of Generic White Utility Ty Wigginton and Surprisingly Lively Zombie Jim Thome. Whatever Howard’s limitations, the thought of the alternative combo lasting “indefinitely” must sound worse.
But if we look a bit more closely at the numbers, one question comes to mind: might the Phillies actually score more runs with a Wigginton/Thome platoon at first base than playing a healthy Ryan Howard full time?
The last time Howard had a clearly “good” season overall was 2009, when he had 4.6 fWAR. His fielding and base running have never been good, and some traditionalists still put up a fuss about strikeouts, but Howard at his best had an above-average walk rate and, above all, monstrous power that made him a true offensive force. That was enough to make him a good, if overrated, player in his prime.
In 2010 and 2011 his wOBA dropped down from the .390+ it was at most of the previous seasons. He had a .367 in 2010 and .354 in 2011 — good in the abstract, but not for a poor defensive first baseman who does not give you anything but power. And really, it was the power that let him down on offense. Everything else was roughly the same. Most players would be thrilled to put up ISO numbers .229 and .235, but for a player like Howard who relies on power as his primary weapon on offense, it just wasn’t enough. Since signing the big extension, Howard has put up 1.4 and 1.6 fWAR the last two seasons.
That is easy enough to look up, and I did not put it in there to frighten Phillies fans. I put it in there simply to remind people of the recent data that projection systems have on hand. This post will focus mainly on offense, so let’s look at the 2012 hitting projections for the three players we have on hand, starting with Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS:
Ryan Howard: .349 wOBA
Ty Wigginton: .309 wOBA
Jim Thome: .362 wOBA
Yikes. That makes it look like the Phillies should just be starting Thome over Howard straight up. Of course, there is the issue of whether Thome can actually play first base (more on this a bit later), but in any case, while ZiPS is a great projection system, that seems like stacking the deck for the purposes of this post. So let’s take a look at another good projection system for 2012, Steamer:
Howard: .360 wOBA
Wigginton: .311 wOBA
Thome: .343 wOBA
Assuming that the Phillies try to platoon Thome and Wigginton to maximize their output, what can we expect from the these players if they are platooned. Using the method (derived from The Book) described here, we get this for the following projected platoon skill given the player’s overall Steamer projections (I will throw in Howard just for fun, since he is well-known for having a massive observed platoon split):
Howard: .382 wOBA versus right-handed pitchers, .316 versus left-handed pitchers
Wigginton: .304 wOBA versus right-handed pitchers, .328 versus left-handed pitchers
Thome: .362 wOBA versus right-handed pitchers, .301 versus left-handed pitchers
The first thing that might jump out at you is that the Phillies “ideal” platoon would be Howard and Wigginton, but they are not going have the $125 million man sit one-quarter or one-third of the season, and that is not the issue here, anyway. Howard has seen about one-third of his career plate appearance versus southpaws. If a Thome/Wigginton platoon saw that same proportion (we’ll leave aside the little complications that arise, as it does not make a huge difference), given the projections above we would expect them to have about a .352 wOBA. That would be about 5 runs less than Howard overall projected .360 over a season. So it is worse, but not much, and over, say, half a season, it is pretty trivial.
Of course, that is also picking the projection system most favorable to Howard. If we average ZiPS and Steamer and apply the same platoon skill estimation method, we get an overall wOBA of .353 for Howard, and a .357 wOBA for a Thome/Wigginton platoon. That is simply too close to call.
On the surface, this is obviously a good thing for the Phillies and reflects well on their off-season. They are an older team that is still in contention, and whatever his other limits, Howard was going to be a big part of their 2012 season. Have a pair of bench players who can reasonably be expected to replace his offense while he is out “indefinitely” is a rare thing, and much-needed.
A deeper look shows something else, though. Our analysis thus far assumes that Jim Thome can play first base on a regular basis. Apparently he’s working on doing it again, but he last played a game at first in 2007, and played a total of 28 innings there in 2006 and 2007 with the White Sox. Back in 2009 when he was traded to the Dodgers, Thome told his new team that he was unable to play first. In other words, I doubt that Thome is going to even be able to start in the field even a two-thirds of the time.
Even if he does not get hurt doing so, Thome is probably one of the the few players in baseball worse in the field and bases than Howard at this point in their careers, so that mitigates his value. Wigginton is not a combination of Keith Hernandez and Willie Wilson, either, but he`s a bit better than Thome and Howard in the field and on the bases. Of course, with Howard out, if Thome cannot hold up his end of the playing time, that means more Wigginton versus right-handed hitters.
One final depressing note on this saga: what does it say about Howard`s extension that we can even reasonably talk about a Jim Thome/Ty Wigginton platoon projecting to replace, and perhaps bettering, his output at the plate in the first year of the new deal?