Saturday, February 15, 2014

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it

Ruben Amaro Jr. recently discussed the ill-fated Ryan Howard contract. It probably wasn't the most pleasant thing to have brought up in his interview with Ken Rosenthal, but given how the deal has backfired, it is understandably a topic of conversation. Of course, this isn't exactly surprising. The deal was fairly universally panned at the time, including in one of my earliest posts, for many reasons. Howard couldn't play defense, his skill set (often called "old player skills" - lots of walks, home runs, and strikeouts) tended to decline rapidly, he was rather old for his service time as he had been blocked in Philly by Jim Thome, and perhaps worst of all, it was made almost two full seasons before Howard was going to be a free agent. Ryan Howard's most similar players through that stage of his career were Cecil Fielder and Richie Sexson, both of whom flamed out fast and hard in their early 30s, and Howard was 30 at the time of the extension. Quite simply, there was absolutely no reason to make that decision at that point.

In the interview, Amaro called Howard "the single most productive player in the game at the time", when he signed his five year, $125 million contract extension. In the previous 4 full years prior (2006 - 2009) to the April, 2010 extension, Howard ranked 13th in offensive contribution. Add in poor defense at the least demanding position on the diamond by using a stat like Wins Above Replacement, and he suffers even more, dropping all the way to 22nd. By WAR, Howard was HALF as valuable as Albert Pujols (16.1 WAR vs. 33.4 WAR for Pujols) over those four years and was also almost doubled up by teammate Chase Utley (30.5 WAR). There were two categories Howard did lead the league in, and he did rank first in RBI (in a loaded Phillies lineup) and home runs.

Wins Above Replacement is certainly not an end all, be all statistic, but it clearly has massive advantages over RBI and home runs. There is no doubt in my mind that Howard was not a top 5 player over that stretch and to say he was the most productive is ludicrous. No, I don't think anyone could have foreseen Howard tearing his Achilles, as Amaro Jr. was quick to point out, but don't forget that happened almost TWO FULL SEASONS after the extension was signed. To top it all off, Howard wasn't even particularly good before the injury, accumulating a total of 2.5 WAR in those two seasons, good for 105th out of 134 players. Amaro Jr. has either completely failed to understand the failings of evaluating players on these counting statistics, or is just presenting a sanitized version of the past, and that Achilles injury provides a great scapegoat.

To quote Mark McGwire's appearance on the Simpsons, "Do you want to know the terrifying truth, or do you want to see me sock a few dingers?" Ruben Amaro Jr. seems to fall into the "sock a few dingers" camp, both now and in 2010.

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