Ryan Howard's legendary peak was one of greatest in baseball history

Ryan Howard's legendary peak was one of greatest in baseball history

Three weeks ago on Sunday Night Baseball, Cole Hamels pitched seven brilliant innings against the Nationals. After the Nats scored two in the ninth, Washington went to then-closer Ryan Madson to try to shut the door.

It was 10 years after the Phillies' World Series title and two of the most key members of that pitching staff were still contributing heavily in the National League pennant race.

A decade after those Phillies glory years, Hamels and Madson are two exceptions. Most of that team has headed off into the sunset, with 2018 feeling more like the final chapter of all those players' days on the field than any year prior. 

Ryan Howard on Tuesday announced his retirement (see story). Earlier this summer, Jayson Werth and Shane Victorino announced their retirements. Carlos Ruiz and Jimmy Rollins haven't yet officially hung up their cleats, but at this point, it would be a formality.

The focus today is on Howard, who I'd argue was never fully or properly appreciated in this town as his career wound down. That's not a knock on Philly fans, just an observation from someone who covered Howard's final eight seasons here after closely watching his first five.

Howard's unprecedented peak

The first portion of Howard's career was historically rare. From 2006 to 2009, he didn't have a season with fewer than 45 homers or 135 RBI. Know how many players in the history of baseball can say they had at least 45 and 135 in four straight seasons? Three. Babe Ruth, Sammy Sosa (whose name will always be accompanied by an asterisk) and Ryan Howard.

Howard didn't do this during the steroid era. He didn't do it during an era like the one we're currently in when home runs are at an all-time high and there are legit questions about material changes to baseballs.

Howard achieved these historic power numbers in an era when nobody else was coming close. During that four-year peak, Howard hit 33 more home runs than anyone in the majors and drove in 81 more runs.

Howard averaged 50 homers and 143 RBI; Albert Pujols was next-best in both categories with 41 and 123.

And then The Big Piece performed in the postseason.

In 2008, Howard had a .410 on-base percentage in the NLDS and NLCS, then hit three homers in the World Series.

In 2009, he hit .278/.375/.500 in the playoffs and drove in 17 runs in 15 games.

Even in 2010, the season that ended with Howard striking out looking to end the NLCS, he hit .318 with four doubles in the playoff series against the Giants.

Impact of the shift

Howard hit .313 in 2006, his MVP season. It was the last time he'd ever hit above .280. 

In a different era, he may have hit .280 most of his career, but defensive shifts became en vogue during the early part of Howard's days in the majors.

In a typical year, a left-handed hitter who faces an over-shift will hit nearly 20 points lower against the shift than against a normal infield alignment. He will also see fastballs about 3 percent less when the defense is shifting because it's easier to get a hitter to pull a weak groundout on an offspeed pitch than a heater.

It was a justified criticism that Howard never learned how to consistently beat the shift by going the other way, but we'll also never know how his career would have gone if teams waited for another, say, five years to over-shift. Howard would not have only hit more, he'd also have walked more because teams would have stayed away from him as they did in 2006 and 2007, when he walked a combined 215 times.

The latter years

The end of Howard's career was not fun. Post-Achilles tear, he hit .226/.292/.427 and averaged 19 homers, 34 walks and 127 strikeouts per year. 

His defense and baserunning, never strong to begin with, suffered. He was booed a lot. Fans and writers complained about the contract. 

It was a tough situation and little of it was Howard's fault. He didn't ask to tear his Achilles. He didn't force the front office to give him a $125 million extension long before he reached free agency and after early warning signs of a decline were setting in.

As most know, the Phillies held onto that core too long, and since Howard was the last one left, and since his decline was sharper than his teammates', the brunt of criticism went to him.

His legacy

I don't know why this is the analogy that popped into my head, but Howard was like the overworked mother of four who cooked a delicious dinner after work every night for years, then got older, tired more quickly and decided to heat up leftovers more often than not. The kids (fans, writers) reacted in the moment as opposed to every night considering the perspective of, "Ya know, we had it great all those years."

Earlier this season on Phillies Postgame Live, we had a debate over who was most important to the Phillies' five-year run: Howard, Chase Utley or Jimmy Rollins?

It's a difficult and fun question to ask because it will result in so many different answers and thought processes. I was surprised that all three of us — Ricky Bottalico and Michael Barkann included — went with Howard. I figured at least one of us would cite the all-around games of Rollins and Utley as more important. But we all went with Howard.

Defense and baserunning matter a lot. But it's hard for a gaffe on the bases or an errant throw from first to offset a three-run dinger. Howard hit 51 career three-run homers and 15 grand slams — in 5% of his career starts, he changed the game with one swing.

No Phillie could carry the team for weeks, especially weeks late in the season, like Howard. Heck, nobody in the majors at that time was doing it, aside from perhaps Pujols.

Howard is unlikely to make the Hall of Fame. But that takes little away from his historic career or legendary peak.

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Phillies bullpen's ugly ninth inning takes some shine off a good win

Phillies bullpen's ugly ninth inning takes some shine off a good win

Aaron Nola had his gem. He did not need CG – as in complete game -- next to his name. He and the Phillies had their win.

Joe Girardi absolutely, positively did the right thing in getting Nola out of Monday’s night game after eight innings and 89 pitches. He had a 12-run lead, for cryin' out loud. Why risk a one-hopper off the kneecap? Why not save a few bullets for his next outing against the hated Mets? Why risk sending him out for the ninth and having it turn into a 20-pitch inning? Why not get someone in that wretched bullpen a little work so that maybe they’ll be a little sharper down the line?

The Phillies pounded out 14 hits and bashed five homers in beating the Atlanta Braves, 13-8. In the big picture, it was a good win for the lads in red pinstripes. That’s two straight four-game splits against top teams (the Yankees were the other) for the Phillies in the last week. Eleven games into the 60-game sprint, the Phillies are 5-6 and Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto are killing the ball. They both homered Monday night. They have combined for eight homers and 20 RBIs so far.

Despite all the good vibes provided by Nola and the bats, Monday night’s game left a sour aftertaste in the mouth because relievers Nick Pivetta and Trevor Kelley were tagged for seven runs (on seven hits, including two homers) in the top of the ninth.

This bedraggled bullpen can’t even close out a 13-1 game smoothly. Pivetta was charged with six of the seven runs and got just one out. Kelley gave up a two-run homer.

If you’re keeping track of the ugly numbers at home, the Phils’ bullpen has allowed 34 earned runs in 31 innings for a 9.87 ERA.

After the game, Harper was asked if the bullpen’s struggles put extra pressure on the offense.

“That’s a tough question,” he said. “I mean, I think as a team we have to be able to rely on our guys. We’re at the big-league level for a reason. Just like people rely on me each night not to go out there and punch out with the bases loaded, we have to be able to rely on the guys that are coming out of the bullpen and trust in those guys and give them the opportunity to do well -- to struggle, but to also do well.”

As Nola was putting the final brush strokes on his 10-K masterpiece in the eighth inning, Girardi telephoned the bullpen and spoke directly with Pivetta. It’s unusual to see a manager speak directly with a reliever, but Girardi wanted Pivetta to know why he was being used in a 12-run blowout.

“I thought it was important that he pitch tonight,” Girardi said. “So, it was, ‘You're going to throw one inning.' It was nothing really enlightening. But I just wanted to explain to him why I was bringing him in this game. Because he hasn't pitched for five days and I thought he needed to pitch. But I needed to save him for length as well, and with Nola going so well, there was only one inning to throw.”

Pitching in a blowout can adversely affect a pitcher’s concentration. There’s no clubhouse access for reporters because of COVID protocols so it wasn't possible to speak with Pivetta after the game. Girardi had to speak for the pitcher’s mindset. 

“That’s frustrating for him because I believe he has the ability to get big outs for us,” Girardi said. "He was just up in the zone and that might be because of rust."

Pivetta had hoped to be in the starting rotation this season. He was beaten out by Vince Velasquez in summer camp. He has pitched 5 2/3 innings out of the bullpen and allowed 10 hits and 10 earned runs for a 15.88 ERA.

In a closer game, Nola would have been allowed to pitch the ninth. He had gas left in his tank.

Girardi gave his reasoning for going to the ‘pen after eight.

“I think we've seen the track record of pitchers since we've come back (from the COVID shutdown) -- how many people have gotten hurt,” he said. “It's the most up-downs that he's had. Eight innings. His high has been six. We weren't worried about the pitch count. Aaron did not want to come out. But sometimes I feel that it's my job to protect players from themselves, right? And I feel bad pulling him. I told him. I understand if he's upset with me. I'm OK with that. But the prize is not in the month of August. And we need him to be healthy. We don't need him to get fatigued. He'll come back on normal rest again. 

“I'm frustrated for the guys that gave up the runs because we want them to contribute and we want them to get going. It does not dampen that we won the game, that Aaron pitched great, and we swung the bats extremely well.”

The win was much needed for Nola. He had gone nine starts, dating back almost a year, without a win. He struck out 12 and walked none against the Yankees his last time out but came away empty because the bats were quiet and the bullpen got bruised.

“Obviously, I wanted to (finish the game), he said. “I understand where they’re coming from, for sure. Putting that aside, a 13-1 ballgame, it was a good game by us. The hitters came out hot. I felt pretty good overall. That’s all that matters. My stuff was working tonight. All three of my pitches, I was throwing for strikes. I was getting early outs and getting ahead of guys. I’ll take that into my next start. 

“I feel it would be a different conversation if it was a close game. I could see myself going out (for the ninth) if it was a close game. But we got a W that’s all that matters. I don’t really want to put all the emphasis on that. We split with the Braves. We’re going to take that into tomorrow. Every win we get is a plus.”

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Aaron Nola strikes out 10, bats bash five homers as Phillies top Braves

Aaron Nola strikes out 10, bats bash five homers as Phillies top Braves

After a weak showing in which they produced just seven hits and two runs in losing a doubleheader to the Atlanta Braves on Sunday afternoon, the Phillies’ bats awakened with a vengeance in a 13-8 trouncing of those same Braves on Monday night.

The Phillies had 14 hits, five of which were homers. 

Aaron Nola was the beneficiary of the run support, not that he needed all of them. The right-hander was magnificent for the second straight outing as he won for the first time since August 20 of last season. Nola was 0-5 in nine starts since then and the team had lost all of those games.

The Phils ended up splitting the four-game series with the Braves. Before that, the Phils split a four-game series with the New York Yankees. The Phils are 5-6. Atlanta is 11-7. 

Nola’s night 

It’s hard to believe Nola went that long between wins. Not all of it was his fault. He struck out 12 and walked none over six innings in his last start against the Yankees but the offense was lacking and the bullpen was hit hard in that game. 

Nola picked right up where he left off against the Yankees in this game. He threw an economical 89 pitches over eight innings. He allowed just two hits, one of which was a homer. He walked one and struck out 10. Over his last two starts, he has walked one and struck out 22.

Nola exited with a 13-1 lead. Relievers Nick Pivetta and Trevor Kelley did their best to let the Braves back in the game by allowing seven runs in the ninth. Pivetta was charged with six of the runs. He got one out. This bullpen ...

MORE: Ugly ninth inning from 'pen takes shine off an otherwise good win

Nola vs. Atlanta 

Nola is 11-5 with a 2.89 ERA in 19 career starts against the Braves. It’s not easy to dominate a club when they see you that much. You have to be good. Your stuff has to be sharp. And you can’t be predictable. Nola threw 34 fastballs, 32 changeup and 23 curveballs.

Power plant

Bryce Harper (No. 3), J.T. Realmuto (No. 5), Didi Gregorius (No. 3), Roman Quinn (No. 1) and Jean Segura (No. 1) all hit home runs.

The Phillies actually hit for the cycle in home runs. Segura and Quinn hit solo shots, Realmuto hit a two-run shot, Harper a three-run shot and Gregorius a grand slam.

The Phils have scored 55 runs this season and 33 (60 percent) have come via home runs. 

Quick start 

Manager Joe Girardi gave Andrew McCutchen the night off and used Phil Gosselin as his DH/leadoff man.

Gosselin had another good night with a pair of singles, a walk and two runs scored. He is 8 for 17 on the season.

Gosselin helped the Phils get off to a quick start. He and Rhys Hoskins singled against Sean Newcomb in the first inning and Harper followed with a three-run homer.

Gregorius smacked his grand slam in the second as the Phils built a 10-1 lead. It was one of three homers the Phils hit in the second inning.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, this was the first time the Phillies had ever scored 10 runs and hit four homers in the first two innings of a game.

Scary moment

Harper took a pitch off the back of the right hand during his at-bat in the second inning. Though the pitch was a changeup from Newcomb, it hit Harper squarely and he was in some pain. Harper was wearing a pad on the back of his right hand and that may have saved him from injury. He stayed in the game. 

Up next

The Phils open a three-game series against the Baltimore Orioles at Citizens Bank Park on Tuesday night. Zack Wheeler, who has been brilliant in his first two starts with the Phillies, will pitch against right-hander Alex Cobb (1-1, 2.51). Wheeler is 2-0 with a 2.08 ERA.

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