Phillies

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 to sign Matt Szczur, according to sources

Phillies to sign Matt Szczur, according to sources

The Phillies are about to sign a player with a resume chock-full of impressive — and important — accomplishments.

According to sources, Matt Szczur, the 30-year-old outfielder from South Jersey, has agreed to sign a minor-league contract with the Phils. The deal will include an invite to major-league spring training camp.

Szczur — pronounced SEE-zur — has spent parts of five seasons in the majors with the Chicago Cubs and San Diego Padres. He is a product of Lower Cape May Regional High School and Villanova University. He was a two-sport star at Villanova.

On the football field, Szczur was a dynamic receiver and return specialist for Villanova’s 2009 NCAA FCS national championship team. He racked up 270 all-purpose yards in the title game win over Montana and was named the game’s Most Outstanding Player.

On the baseball field, Szczur was an all-Big East player and a fifth-round draft pick of the Cubs in 2010. He played in 107 games for the Cubs team that won the World Series in 2016.

Szczur’s accomplishments extend beyond the playing field.

Off the field, he did something extraordinary when he took time off from his junior year baseball season at Villanova in 2010 to donate bone marrow that ultimately helped save the life of a young girl from Ukraine who had battled leukemia. Szczur’s life-saving gift started with his involvement in the Andy Talley Bone Marrow Foundation. Talley was Szczur’s football coach at Villanova. Szczur has subsequently started his own charitable enterprise, the Szcz The Day Foundation.

Szczur hit .259 with five homers and 24 RBIs in 185 at-bats for the World Series champion Cubs in 2016. He was traded to San Diego in 2017. He spent parts of that season and the 2018 season in the majors with that club. He signed a minor-league deal with Arizona last season and hit .322 with eight homers, 28 RBIs and a .967 OPS in 44 games at Triple A Reno. His season was shortened by a quad injury.

The Phillies are set at the corner outfield spots with Andrew McCutchen and Bryce Harper and Adam Haseley is going to get a chance to hold down the center field spot with Roman Quinn in the picture as well. Szczur will give the Phillies some outfield depth and his ability to play center field is a plus. He is an excellent defender at all three outfield positions and could push for a spot on the big club as active rosters will expand from 25 to 26 men in 2020.

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Winter meetings complete, what’s next for Phillies?

Winter meetings complete, what’s next for Phillies?

SAN DIEGO — A year ago, Phillies officials left the winter meetings with much of their offseason work still in front of them.
 
Manny Machado was still a front-burner free-agent item. Bryce Harper was still in the background and J.T. Realmuto was headed to Atlanta, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, New York … anywhere but Philadelphia.
 
You know the rest of the story.
 
Spring training had already begun by the time the Phillies settled their offseason last year. A year later, Phillies officials departed the winter meetings on Thursday with their heavy offseason lifting complete.

The Phils signed free-agent pitcher Zack Wheeler to a five-year, $118 million contract last week and free-agent shortstop Didi Gregorius to a one-year, $14 million deal at the meetings this week. The signings left the Phils about $5 million under the $208 million luxury-tax threshold for the coming season and the club will be mindful of that. It’s likely — though not certain — that any further moves the Phillies make will qualify as tweaks.
 
Here are a few things to keep an eye on over the remainder of the offseason.

The starting rotation

Aaron Nola and Wheeler give the Phillies a “1 and a 1-A,” as manager Joe Girardi said.

Jake Arrieta is healthy and will be ready to go Day 1 of camp and Zach Eflin will hold down a job. Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez are slated to battle for the fifth job, though it would not be surprising to see the Phils bring back Drew Smyly on a minor-league deal to join the fight. The Phils were keeping an eye on Rick Porcello to see where his market was headed, but he signed for one year and $10 million with the Mets. Lefty Wade Miley could be someone to keep an eye on, depending where his market goes. The Phils are committed to having top prospect Spencer Howard start the season in Triple A, but he could have a major impact as the season goes on. The Phils will watch Howard’s workload — because of injury, he pitched under 100 innings last year — so adding bargain depth is a must.

The bullpen

At the moment, it looks like a fairly unchanged unit. The Phils are banking on Adam Morgan and Seranthony Dominguez being healthy again and Hector Neris, Jose Alvarez and Ranger Suarez carrying a heavy load again. Pivetta, Velasquez or both could be used in the ‘pen, depending on the depth that is added in the rotation. If the Phils want to push the tax, they could make a play for former Yankee Dellin Betances. Someone from the system like Garrett Cleavinger or Connor Brogdon could surprise in spring training. How about Tommy Hunter? The Phils put a lot of time into his rehab after elbow surgery last year. Could he be a fit on a bargain deal? Ditto for Jared Hughes and Mike Morin.

The bench

Former All-Star and .300 hitter Josh Harrison has been signed on a minor-league deal. He can play anywhere and figures to have a good chance to make the club. Phil Gosselin, another jack of all trades, is coming back on a minor-league deal and the team has shown some interest in free agent Matt Szczur. Brad Miller remains a free agent and a potentially good fit. Jay Bruce will add power off the bench. Andrew Knapp returns as backup catcher but it would not be surprising to see the Phils sign one or two more veteran catchers to push for work and add depth. Remember, Girardi has said he’d like to keep Realmuto to between 120 and 130 games so he is fresh in October. “That’s where the prize is,” Girardi said. Austin Romine would have been a nice fit, but he signed with Detroit. 

Trades

While it appears as if most of the team’s major moves are done, general manager Matt Klentak and his group will continue to stay engaged on the trade front and you never know if one could materialize. Nick Williams could be dealt. Miami has long liked him. Velasquez could be dealt for some salary relief, particularly if the Phils are able to add starting pitching depth. The Phils would surely listen on Jean Segura, but he has three years and $45 million left on his deal so that would not be easy.
 
Could the Phils make a major trade?
 
After seeing the Realmuto deal come together so quickly last February, it can’t be ruled out. Even something crazy is possible. By crazy we mean Kris Bryant. Yes, he’d be a nice fit as the Phils make a quick push at a title before he becomes a free agent. But it’s a real long shot and it would probably cost top prospect Alec Bohm, and it would definitely push the Phillies over the luxury tax threshold, though managing partner John Middleton has said he would go over it for the right championship-caliber opportunity. Maybe that’s Bryant. There will continue to be buzz about him and the Phillies will continue to be connected to him as long as there is.
 
J.A. Happ could be another guy to watch on the trade front. The Phils made him an offer last winter and he signed with the Yankees. The Yanks are now eager to move his $17 million salary and might attach a good prospect to the package to help make the deal. Happ would put the Phillies over the tax, but, given the Phils’ need for more pitching, it might it be worth rolling the dice on the left-hander having a bounce-back year if and only if the Yanks attach a good prospect or two to the deal. 

What about Herrera?

The end of the winter meetings begins to put spring training in focus and the Phillies have a big decision to make before then: Do they bring Odubel Herrera to camp? Do they release him? The Phils would eat most of his salary to trade him, but there has been no interest.
 
We dealt with the Herrera situation more deeply in this story.

Realmuto's extension

Sometime before spring training, the Phils are expected to pursue a contract extension with Realmuto.

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