It wasn't that long ago that #6 scared opposing pitchers to their very core. Everything from taking practice swings with the massive weight in the on-deck circle or his trademark pointing of the bat timing mechanism There wasn't any secret, Ryan Howard was a feared hitter. His tremendous power could change the game anytime he stepped to the plate. His presence in the lineup was felt throughout the lineup allowing fellow hitters to get better pitches to hit because of the fear of facing Howard with man on base.
Its crazy to think that it has really been 4 years since we lost our voice. Harry just had a way to describe players perfectly. During Thome's brief career as a Phillie, HK called him the big man a lot. But as quickly has Howard replaced him in the lineup, he was called "the Big Man" by Harry. After a massive blast off the bat of #6, he would say, 'Its a big blow from the Big Man!"
The presence in the lineup was greatly missed at the start last season when the Phillies failed to have any hitter who could match his ability to drive runners in (Watching Wigginton bat third was hard to watch). At Howard's peak, he was as good as any power hitter in the game. Throughout his 1st 4 full seasons as a pro, he averaged 49.5 homeruns and 143 RBI's! Howard became just the 4th player (Ruth, Griffey and Sosa are the other 3) of all-time to have 4 consectivive seasons of 40 or more HR and over 130 RBI's! And in his first 5 seasons, he collected a Rookie of the Year award, a NL MVP and finished in the top 5 of the MVP voting 3 other times (2007-5th, 2008 2nd, 2009 3rd)!
Even at his peak, Howard still had his fair share of detractors. Some proclaimed that Howard struck out too much and needed to make more contact. Others pointed to his struggles against lefties and especially lefty specialist late in the game. While advanded stat guru's pointed to his comparably low OPS to other sluggers and argued his RBI's were a product of the guys infront of him. While I think there was some truth to this, Howard's strength was his power and legging out a infield single isn't what the fans or his manager wanted. And yes Howard needs men on base to get RBI's but it takes a special player to be able to consistently drive players home.
In April of 2010 the Phillies rewarded Howard with a 5 year $125 million contract extention. Howard still was under contract through the 2011 but the Phillies wanted to set the market for slugging 1st baseman before the price went even higher. At the time, there was some criticism for the timing of the contract but it was hard to argue based on his past performance.
For me the degression of Ryan Howard started on that summer day at 2nd base in DC. I can still remember the moment Howard awkwardly went back to 2nd base and turned his ankle. He returned 20 days later, but I don't think he ever regained the strength in the ankle. I'm not a doctor but I can't help but think the lingering effect of that injury somehow had a factor in him eventually rupturing his achillies tendon in Game 5 of the 2011 NLDS.
Howard didn't make his debut last season until July 6th as he recoved from his achillies injury. Even though he "returned," it clearly wasn't the same Ryan Howard we all came to know. He set career lows in almost every catogory as he hit just .219 with 12HR and 56 RBI in just 71 games. The power was there at times but Howard on the bases was almost hard to watch. At one point, he was pinch ran for by Erik Kratz and we all know catchers are not known for there speed.
It was a disappointing season for Howard, but conventional wisdom says it takes 12-18 months to fully recover from a torn Achilles Right now, we just about 18 months after the injury. The great spring by the Howard was met with a lot of optimism and some skeptisism. In 28 spring games, he had a line of .322/.621/.981 to go along with 7 homeruns. He still had a slight hitch in his run but looked closer to the Howard we all knew.
But sadly the strong spring hasn't transitioned into a hot start for Howard. He is currently hitting .274 but his lack of power is a big concern. In his first 66 plate apperences, he has just 1 homerun, 5 total XBH and an .OPS of just .690. Howard has also missed the last 2 games due to a sore groin but he is expected to be back in the lineup tonight. Could his sore groin be a factor in his slow start? Maybe. Howard has always been a streaky hitter and it could just be a funk he is going through. But there is a part of me that thinks we will never see "the Big Man" ever again.
The achillies injury may be one of hte nastiest injuries in all of sports right now. It is even less forgiving to a 33 year old man of Howard's size. Will he ever be able to generate the power we all grew accustomed too? I think its too early to answer that. If by the middle the season he doesn't improve, I just don't think he will get much better. But regardless of his struggles, he's not going anywhere. After this season he still has 3 seasons and $75 million (Plus a $23 million team option with a $10 million buyout for the 2017 seaosn) left on his contract. We can only hope that his leg gets stronger and we get to see the "Big Man" we all grew to love!!