Ryan’s Role Reversal

By Jim Salisbury
Updated: May 12, 2009

PHILADELPHIA — In baseball, sometimes it takes only one word to fill out a scouting report. A pitcher who is a thrower usually has a good arm and excellent velocity but no idea how to change speeds or locate a pitch.

A player who is scrappy usually has limited skills but gets the most out of them through maximum effort.

And then there’s the word ballplayer. It’s one of the finest compliments a player can receive. It connotes completeness. It is attached to a player who produces at the plate, on the base paths, and in the field.

In his first four seasons in the major leagues, Ryan Howard was defined by one word: slugger. The label certainly fit. He hit 22 home runs in 88 games and won the National League’s rookie of the year award in 2005. Over the next three seasons, one of which netted him the league’s MVP award, Howard led the majors with 153 homers and 431 RBIs.

That, folks, is a slugger.

But Howard wanted more. He didn’t want to be a one-dimensional player. He didn’t want to be just a slugger.

“Everyone looks at you in that one sense,” Howard said. “But I’ve always tried to be a good all-around player.”

Over the winter, the hulking 29-year-old first baseman decided to try a little harder.

He dropped 20 pounds, putting his playing weight at about 255. He reported to the Phillies’ Florida training facility in early January and began the challenge of improving his all-around game. Howard knew the area in which he needed work. From 2006 to 2008, he had led all major-league first basemen with 45 errors, including 19 last season.

“In my opinion, I could have played better defensively,” Howard said.

From early January throughout the end of spring training, Howard engaged in remedial defensive drills with Sam Perlozzo, the first-year infield instructor and third-base coach. The two worked on positioning, footwork, quickness, glove position, and throwing.

The results have been striking.

Howard hasn’t made an error in 29 games, and he’s made plays – including one on Atlanta’s Kelly Johnson on Sunday – that have been of Gold Glove quality.

“Hopefully, I’ve opened some eyes,” Howard said.

He has.

“His defense is better,” manager Charlie Manuel said. “He’s quicker on his feet, moving better. He’s throwing better. He’s becoming a more complete player.”

Said Howard: “I feel a lot better in the field. Sam Perlozzo gets a lot of credit for that.”

Howard set out to improve his defense as he and the Phillies were working out a three-year, $54 million contract this winter. Money was not his motivation for improving. Personal pride and the quest for another championship were.

Howard knew his defense had been criticized. He knew people were starting to speculate that someday he’d have to move to an American League team, for which he could be a designated hitter.

“Everyone has an opinion,” Howard said. “I love playing first base, and I want to do it as long as I can. In this game, you want to do things on your own terms. I want to dictate my own fate at the position.”

Howard’s weight loss has improved his athleticism. That can be seen not only in the field, but also on the base paths.

On April 29, against Washington, Howard was on first when the Nationals’ Scott Olsen bounced a pitch with Jayson Werth at the plate. The ball escaped catcher Jesus Flores by just a few feet, but Howard, in a decision that showed how much he trusted himself, took off for second and beat the throw. Would he have done that last year?

“I don’t know,” he said.

Howard’s off-season work seems to have also helped him at the plate.

After slow starts the last two seasons, he is 33 for 115, an average of .287, with six homers and 22 RBIs. He has a .364 on-base percentage and his slugging percentage is .539.

In his first 115 at-bats last season, he had 19 hits and was hitting .165, with on-base and slugging percentages of .294 and .351, respectively.

Howard’s strikeouts are down from this point last year. He had 46 in his first 115 at-bats last year and 32 this year.

Howard still falls into traps when he chases bad pitches from pitchers who want no part of him. He will become more of a complete hitter when he lays off those pitches and takes the walk. But his improvement at the plate is noticeable in some of the adjustments he has made during an at-bat.

On May 4, Howard faced St. Louis’ Kyle Lohse with the bases loaded. Howard was fooled on a first-pitch backdoor slider and swung off-balance. Two pitches later, Lohse threw another slider, and Howard stayed right on it and belted it for a grand slam.

“He missed that first breaking ball by two feet,” Manuel said. “The next time he saw it, he hit a home run. That showed me something.”

Howard is pleased that he put in the extra work in the off-season. He does not believe he has come close to peaking in the game. He believes his best years are to come.

“I think I’m capable of great things,” he said. “I think I can be a guy who changes the outcome of games on both sides of the ball, either offensively or by making a play to help us win.”

Howard hopes his good start — in the field and at the plate — will earn him a trip to the All-Star Game, which will be played in his hometown of St. Louis.

Fittingly, he used one word to describe what that would be like.

Cool.