Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Howard They Live with Themselves?

God.  Can't believe I'm writing this.

I read Mike Petriello's piece on Fangraphs last night, in which he lists a few new homes for Ryan Howard, with Toronto being one of them.  Now, Howard sucks, and is owed a shitload of money over the next two seasons, so we really don't have to worry a whole lot about this; the Phillies are going to trade Howard, and they're going to eat a big, big percentage of the $60MM that Howard is owed between now and the end of next season, and it's going to be a pretty small-time prospect going back the other way, whichever teams bites.

The big thing with Howard, per Petriello, is that he doesn't have a position to play, or at least doesn't have the ability to play one well.  Sure, he's a first baseman by virtue of the fact that he's played first base for Philadelphia for several years now, but he's also done a pretty horrific job of that, from a defensive standpoint.  So basically, he's a DH.  Which eliminates 14 of the 29 teams out there right off the bat.

He also points out that of the remaining 15 (i.e. AL) teams, most of them already have their own current situations at 1B/DH, with Baltimore, Tampa and Toronto being the exceptions (and those teams all have stuff going on, to the point where Howard may not even fit there).

Finally, he points out that Howard has been much better hitting the ball in the opposite direction, as opposed to pulling the ball, for the last few years.  There are some fancy charts and graphs in there, but all we really need to know is that Howard has done the bulk of whatever damage he's done over the last two seasons down the LF line.

OK then.  Let's talk about all that.

Within Petriello's piece, he links to a pretty dandy little study that ESPN did on park factors.  Within that link, we'll note that LF in the Skydome yields a HR on 1-in-5 flyballs, with a .307 isolated slugging, both the highest rates in baseball.  The Dome also has some slightly above average rates to both CF and RF, but nothing in that area.   Comparing that to Citizen's Bank in Philly, we see some pretty average park factors for left and centre fields, and some above average numbers for RF, which don't really affect Howard all that much since he doesn't really use that field.

Howard hits a slightly above-average number of fly balls and liners, and a slightly below average number of grounders, but they're not so terribly far away from league-average totals that we should even bother freaking out about it.  What we should at least look at, though, is Howard compared to Justin Smoak, who Howard would likely be fighting with for a spot were a trade to actually happen.

Here are Smoak's fly ball spray charts for the last two years, similar to what Petriello posted for Howard, though he didn't opt to leave line drives in for Howard's for whatever reason, and I totally would have, but meh.

 Now, I notice a few things here, and the numbers back that up.

  • There's a certain value to not popping the ball up in the infield, especially in foul ground, and Smoak does that, while Howard appears to not.  One of the above links suggests that the league average infield flyball rate hovers around 11% (which seems totally high to me without ever having looked this up before, but I dunno).  I'd guess that power hitters tend to pop more balls up in the air, but that's just me speculating.  Either way, Smoak is kicking around right at that 11.5% mark for his career, and somewhere around 9% for the last two seasons.  Howard, on the other hand, has a career rate of 1.7%, and is way, way lower than that over the last few years.  That's certainly not the be-all and end-all of hitting, but it's hard to tag up and score on a popup 7 feet from the plate.  Flyballs and grounders can at least turn in to hits some of the time, too.
  • Smoak didn't get a whole lot of plate appearances in the bigs this year, but his power clusters are pull-ey.  The Dome is better than Safeco to LF and CF, but is vastly worse (again, from a HR and ISO perspective) to RF.  Ole' pitcher-friendly Safeco is actually the third-best hitters park to right-field for both HR's and ISO (The Dome isn't too far away for ISO, but HR/FB% is about 5.5% away).
Now, if we look at some general stats, we'll realize that this isn't anything we shouldn't already know-- Howard has always been a better hitter than Smoak.  In Smoak's best year (2013), he managed a 111 wRC+, and he doesn't exactly have favorable platoon splits in either direction.  As bad as Howard's been for the last few years, a big chunk of that is his negative defensive value, his negative baserunning value, and the positional hit for being a 1B, he's been a better hitter than Smoak (though Steamer likes Smoak much more).  That's not to say that all that stuff goes away if he turns in to a DH in Toronto, nor does that take away from the upside that Smoak has inside, untapped.

Smoak is only 28 after all, and he hit .337/.422/.502 in AAA last year.  Sure, all that proves is that he can hit AAA pitching, something he's done very well over 750 or so plate appearances since 2009.  And he's already in the organization.  And he only costs $1MM.  And he's still under team control, arbitration eligible next year from a $1MM starting point.

I don't necessarily think it's likely, or a good idea for that matter, that the Jays acquire Howard.  But a guy at Fangraphs said it was possible.  And then I looked in to it.  And the numbers kind of fit.  I'd honestly prefer Smoak, for all of the reasons listed in the above paragraph, but dammit if the numbers and park factors don't make a reasonably compelling case, especially when you consider the projections for 2015, as they look right now, the Jays are within a reasonable reach of being the best team in the division, and they're obviously trying to go for it. 

Ultimately, there's more of a factor than just "should they do it?"given the whole $60MM over two years thing, and then 0.0 WAR over the past four years thing, there's a pretty good chance that a deal would go to shit.  But there's a fit.

Pretty fucking scary to me.

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