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Ryan Howard: Men on base, three-ball counts and 2011

As I point out in my game story today, it is far too early to make any definitive judgments about this Phillies team. Last year at this time, Jimmy Rollins had reached base in more than 50 percent of his plate appearances, the Phillies had a team OPS of over .900, and Ryan Howard had three home runs in six games.

But one thing caught my eye during the Phils recent three-game sweep of the Astros:

Of the 14 plate appearances logged by Ryan Howard, 10 came with men on base, and seven came with runners in scoring position. A lot of the focus this spring involved Howard's "protection," and the fact that he would no longer have an accomplished right-handed bat hitting behind him.

But throughout Howard's career, the more important factor has been the players hitting in front of him.

Howard has a career OPS of 1.009 when there are runners on base. That number plummets to .881 with the bases empty, a difference of 128 points. The gap is far greater than that of other National League sluggers:

Now, this is a random sampling of players. I pretty much took the OPS leaders from last season as my sample. So it isn't scientific.

But it got me thinking: Has Howard been seeing fewer runners on base in front of him in recent years?

The answer: not really.

Below are the percentage of Howard's plate appearances that have come with Men On Base and Runners in Scoring Position over the last five years, along with his OPS with the bases empty:

As you can see, there is a far greater year-to-year difference in Howard's production with the bases empty than there is in the runners that are on base in front of him.

The reason he won the MVP in 2006 wasn't solely the runners he had on base in front of him. A lot of it had to do with the .337/.413/.673 line and 29 home runs he posted with the bases empty.

Moving forward, it will be interesting to monitor Howard's production when he doesn't have runners on base. In those situations, pitchers are obviously able to be more selective with the way they pitch the big guy. Which, in turn, requires the big guy to be more selective with his swings if he hopes to reach base.

Howard is standing closer to the plate this season than he has in previous years. After yesterday's game, he didn't really feel like talking about the impact the change has made thus far. That's understandable, since we are only three games into the season.

But if Howard is covering the outer part of the strike zone better than he has in the past, it can have two positive results. First, he can get better contact on balls on the outer fringes of the strike zone. The two hits that stuck out most to me during the Astros series: On Saturday, Howard hit a line single up the middle on a Wandy Rodriguez curveball or slider on the outer third of the plate. On Sunday, his three-run home run to dead center field came on a belt-high fastball that looked to be just off the plate.

Second, it can force pitchers to stray even further away from the plate than they do now, resulting in more balls.

Of his 14 plate appearances against the Astros, three of them featured three-ball counts. Two of those started out 3-0.

Last season, Howard saw 34 3-0 counts in 620 plate appearances, and saw three-ball counts in 148.

Here is the breakdown of his career in those situations:

As you can see, the percentage of three-ball counts Howard sees -- counts where the hitter is likely to draw either a walk or a good pitch to hit -- has dropped steadily over the last four seasons.

Again, none of this is scientific. And it is far too early to predict what the 2011 season holds for Howard.

But his performance against the Astros this weekend provides a good jumping off point for a plot line that will be interesting to monitor as the season develops.

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