Phillies Notebook: Howard Working With Joyner To Beat The Switch
PHILADELPHIA—Occasionally during Phillies games, things seem to turn on their heads.
Third basemen take up second base. Second basemen set up shop in the outfield. Any closer together, it seems, and all four opposing infielders would be within arm’s reach.
At these times, Ryan Howard is usually standing in the batter’s box for the Phillies.
What happens next? Well, fans know the story.
What they may not know? That the player and his coaches are hard at work on a rewrite.
“Daily, we’re working on his abilities, to make him more consistent, to maintain his strengths and to improve and to strengthen his weaknesses,” said Phillies new hitting coach Wally Joyner said before Wednesday’s game.
So that means the team does actually consider Howard’s one-way hitting a weakness, right?
“Sure,” he said. “I mean, obviously, the scouting report and the spray chart on Ryan Howard shows that you should put a shift on him. And with that cluster of guys, that’s going to reduce your opportunity to get hits.”
And so, pushing the ball left – even up the middle – has become a healthy portion of Howard’s daily hacks in pregame batting practice.
“If you watch him there, he’s going over the shortstop many times to enhance his opportunity to get base hits,” he said.
And it’s started to translate when it matters.
So far, just 2 of 21 (.091) balls Howard’s put in play have been hit toward left field – both deep pop-outs in games during the Atlanta series.
But 8 of 21 (.380) have went to center, with 3 falling for base hits for a .375 BABIP there.
Combined, that’s about half his hits going away from the switch, for a .300 BABIP.
Joyner says that hasn’t happened on accident.
“Nobody likes to not be successful, and Ryan is at the very top of our list of guys that work hard,” he said. “He wants to produce and he wants to be part of a successful lineup for us.”
Maybe most remarkable about Howard’s spray charts so far this season? Of the 10 balls Howard’s knocked toward the shift, 4 have dropped in for hits, 2 of them RBI singles in the second and third games this year.
Not bad for a guy with a telegraphed game.
The switch teams throw at Howard is unique. Other teams will do it to other hitters. But not a single big league lefty gets that degree of treatment – not Josh Hamilton or Prince Fielder Jay Bruce – mostly because it wouldn’t work.
Not with those hitters’ opposite-site ability, which keeps infielders honest.
Joyner says he and Howard hope to soon to throw the same wrench in defenses' plans.
But the fear with altering Howard’s swing has long been similar to that of, say, reining in Brett Favre’s gun-slinging: take away the cross-the-body throw to end the 2009 NFC Championship game, and you may lose the scintillating back-of-the-end-zone game-winner to Greg Lewis earlier that year.
Worse, maybe you don't make it to the NFC Championship game at all.
With Howard, will broadening his game to beat the shift take away the 35-home run-a-year potential that’s filled out his resume and wallet for 9 seasons?
Howard in spring training crushed a fourth-in the-majors 7 home runs, and opened Grapefruit League play with a 14 game start streak to with hopes that, now 18 months removed from Achilles surgery, the first baseman would hit the ground running when games began to matter.
And yet Howard opened 2013 with his longest homerless streak ever to start a season, 29 at-bats, snapped on Tuesday vs. the New York Mets.
He’s also struck out in 12 of 35 at-bats (34.2%), and has only a .200 average and .286 slugging.
Before Tuesday, he hadn’t had an extra-base hit.
Could there be a correlation?
Joyner can’t yet be sure.
“You hope that you don’t,” he said.
But that hasn’t kept the team from trying to expand Howard’s game. Nor should it.
Because the upside of one of the premier sluggers in the game opening up the field with opposite-side hitting and forcing teams out of the switch against him is no small thing.
Said Joyner with a smile: “That’s kind of what we’re hoping for."