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Reassessing Ryan Howard's Phillies decline | Sam Donnellon

The torn Achilles he suffered in the 2011 playoffs might not have been as big a factor as thought.

When Ryan Howard was released this week by the Braves, stories routed his rapid decline in production to the torn Achilles he suffered while making the final out of the 2011 National League division series. Like Achilles himself, Howard became a mere shadow of himself after that, as the team that was constructed around him to win several championships crumbled as well.

So went the narrative.

Was it a convenient and not necessarily accurate one? I think so. After four consecutive seasons of reaching home-run totals in the high 40s and low 50s, Howard dropped to 31 in 2010, and in 2011, 33. His RBI totals followed that, from four seasons in the high 130s to 140s to 108 in 2010 and 116 in 2011.

The Achilles might have cost him the following season, but the bat was already slowing. This was not a matter of striking out too much. He actually cut down on Ks in 2010 and again in 2011 as he attempted to combat the power drop with a more selective approach.

This was not a matter of weight. If anything, a svelte Howard was a less potent one.

This was simply a matter of age – it's no secret that athletes age at different rates. And, perhaps, the stubborn habits forged by success. In 2007, his first full season, Howard went deep three times during a Sunday matinee at Citizens Bank Park: driving a first-pitch slider near his toes over the rightfield wall as if it were a golf ball and a mistake 1-1 fastball well over the centerfield wall and finally reaching for a 1-2 sinker over the outer half of the plate over the leftfield wall.

''You kind of scratch your head after that,'' Braves pitcher Tim Hudson said that day. ''What the hell are you going to do next?''

That guy was long gone by 2011. By 2011, Howard's propensity to pull the ball was so pronounced that he faced an extreme shift every at-bat. In the years after the injury, he worked hard to use all fields, but the days of him slugging two well-placed breaking balls on both sides of the plate over the wall had been over long before the injury took place. A grand slam in a Game 1 rout was one of two hits Howard had in 21 plate appearances that series. We all forget, but as that season wound down, Howard was already battling ankle, calf and bursitis issues.

The injury might have been the end result of that. But it is likely his final four seasons in a Phillies uniform were going to be painful to watch regardless, especially with that $25 million contract hanging like an anvil around his neck.

It's a Homer-esque spin, for sure, to say the ankle robbed him of more years of hometown heroism.

Just probably not accurate.