Monday, September 18, 2006

Ryan Howard
Ryan Howard is the NL MVP.

When the MVP award ballots are due from the Baseball Writers Association of America at the end of the regular season, there shouldn't be too much confusion as to who should go home with the prestigious award: Ryan Howard, first baseman of the Philadelphia Phillies. Some votes may go to Albert Pujols, Alfonso Soriano, or even Lance Berkman, but none are as valuable to their teams as Howard is to the Phillies.

Since the infamous concession made by GM Pat Gillick near the July non-waiver trading deadline, when outfielder Bobby Abreu and starting pitcher Cory Lidle were shipped to the Yankees for an array of Minor Leaguers, Howard has strapped his team to his back and now has propelled them to within one game of the Wild Card-leading Los Angeles Dodgers. Abreu was traded on July 29. Since then, Howard has hit at a .307 clip with 23 homeruns, 55 RBI, and has improved his plate discipline such that he has walked 46 times in that time span.

As of 9/18/06
Stat Howard Pujols
AVG .314 .327
HR 57 45
RBI 140 123
OBP .414 .429
SLG .677 .675
BB 91 84
VORP 76.4 78.2
C&L RBI 21 20
C&L HR 8 8

Ignoring, for the moment, that Albert Pujols -- Howard's closest competitor for the award -- is 12 homeruns and 17 RBI behind Howard, and only has a better batting average by .013, Pujols missed nearly three weeks (19 games) of the season due to an injured oblique muscle. Pujols should lose the award on that alone, because he is certainly not being valuable to his team by being injured and not hitting third in the lineup, regardless of whether or not it is intentional. Howard has played in 146 of the Phillies' 149 games.

The way that opposing managers and pitchers approach Howard has only been seen practiced as frequently on one other hitter, who happens to be one of the best, if not the best hitter in the game: seven-time MVP award-winner Barry Bonds. In 2004, Bonds broke his own record of 68 intentional walks, set in 2002, with 120 intentional walks, bringing his overall walks total to 232, breaking another of his records, also set in 2002, of 198 walks in a season.

Howard is being approached similarly, such that opposing managers intentionally walk or pitch around him even if it moves the other runners into scoring position. Like Bonds, Howard's presence in the lineup alone changes the game entirely. Whether it's putting runners in to scoring position so his teammates can knock them in, being walked to load the bases and allowing the hitter behind him (Pat Burrell or Jeff Conine) to see hittable pitches, or by batting fourth, allowing the three-hole hitter to see hittable pitches. To recognize that he won't see a hittable meaningful pitch for the rest of the season, and to adjust accordingly by being extremely patient at the plate (instead of swinging at everything in trying to be a hero), truly shows how valuable a player Ryan Howard is.

Phillies Records
Stat Record Holder Howard
HR 57 Ryan Howard 57
RBI 170 Chuck Klein 140
SLG .687 Chuck Klein .677
OPS 1.123 Chuck Klein 1.091
TB 445 Chuck Klein 364
XBH 107 Chuck Klein 80
IBB 27 Ryan Howard 27

It's not that Pujols isn't feared -- he is, with 26 of his 84 walks being intentional -- it's that Howard has struck fear in the minds of managers and pitchers in September with his team in the thick of a playoff race. St. Louis has been in control of the NL Central for most of the season except for a spurt in late-August when Cincinnati tied the Cardinals for first place in the NL Central for one day; the Phillies have never been in first place, and have been fighting an uphill battle since the season began.

In an historic season in which he may break the single-season homerun record (to baseball purists), Howard, in his first full season in the Major Leagues, has left his mark in Phillies history already. In 2005, he became only the fourth Phillie to win the Rookie of the Year award, and the second consecutive Phillie to win the Homerun Derby. He has shattered the team's single-season HR record, formerly held by Mike Schmidt with 48. He could break the team's record for slugging percentage, held by Chuck Klein at .687, among a bevy of others. Even if justice is not served and Howard does not win the MVP award, he has become one of the best hitters ever to wear a Phillies uniform. The MVP award would justify his place in history.