Ryan Howard is making $25 million a year, but has struggled over the last three years to be a productive hitter. So why can’t he hit well anymore? There are a few different things to look at. When a player has such a great start to a career, and signs such a mega-deal, he is forever trying to live up to both your past performance, as well as the deal you signed. In this article I’ll break down both the mental and physical part of hitting that should shed some light on Howard’s struggles.
Howard’s Numbers in Perspective
First lets note, this downturn isn’t isolated to Howard, hitting overall is down throughout the league. Over the last few years pitching has been the strength of MLB. Homeruns, runs, and average are all down across the board. You are now seeing 30 homeruns and 100 rbi as a productive year from a slugger. Five years ago 40 homeruns and 120 rbis were the high end of productivity. So 30 is the new 40 and so on.
For Howard, while the drop in his own numbers are substantial, its actually less significant when you look at the fact that league wide numbers are down. No one in baseball is close to his 58 homeruns and 149 rbis of 2006. Nelson Cruz led baseball last year with 40 homeruns (Howard 23 – 14th), and Adrian Gonzalez led all of baseball with 116 rbis (Howard 95 – 4th).
Howard’s Physical Struggles
We’ve put Howard’s numbers in perspective, and they aren’t as bad as perceived. However, this isn’t to say Howard’s numbers haven’t dropped further than most have dropped. He was after all the top producer in homeruns and rbis, and is now just above average in those power numbers. So what happened? The starting point was his last at bat in the World Series when he tore his achilles.
If you have ever come to a hitting clinic I’ve taught, you will quickly learn that hitting starts from the ground up. That simply means hitting starts with the feet, then knees, hips, torso, hands and then head/eyes. The lower half of the body controls both your balance, and your bat speed. A hitters lower half rotation, and explosive movement, will help determine how fast the hands come through the zone.
When you have an injury of that magnitude, even if your rehab was perfect and your totally healed, the player may never regain the same lower half explosion. It’s also possible that with an injury, the body and mind naturally start to make subtle changes in movements, to make up for that weak area. This loss of explosiveness is compounded by natural aging. The ultimately resulting is decreased bat speed. So for Howard, the physical part of the challenges is a definite decrease in bat speed. While this happens to every hitter over time, without the use of illegal P.E.D.s, Howard’s challenges are greater due to his achilles injury.
Adjusting to Declining Bat Speed
The mental part of hitting is the deciding factor to determine whether hitters can still be successful as they loose bat speed. A hitter must first become aware, and accept, they don’t swing as hard and fast as they once did. To adjust, they now have to make decisions earlier as the pitch is coming toward them.
They also have to make physical adjustments to their swings to compensate for this change. If you ever watched Cal Ripken throughout his career, you will see an obvious adaptation of his stance and overall physical approach to hitting. This is mostly because of his recognition to his the loss of bat speed. This is another reason why “juicing” has become so prevalent with older players.
Howard’s Mental Struggles
Howard now has to react earlier with less bat speed. When a player makes this adjustment it can produce a distrust in our swing, and cause us to react even earlier to every pitch. As our confidence as a hitter is no longer where it was.
For Howard his K’s continue to rise, and his production continues to decrease. This is because he no longer has the confidence to wait long enough to make a good decision on wether to swing or not. Arod and Jeter have gone through the same issues the last few years, as injuries and time has caught up with them as well.
Confidence is the key to being successful at any level of sports and life. At the highest level of professional sports, if you don’t think you are good anymore, you aren’t, and then it’s over. Until Howard makes some physical adjustments in his stance, swing, and plate approach, to adjust for his reduced bat speed. His confidence will continue to decrease, his numbers will continue to decline, and he will find himself out of the game very soon.
We all age physically and eventually are not what we once were. We have to come to that reality and adjust accordingly. Howard is still trying to physically hit like he always did, and that’s not working.