Beerleaguer hands over the morning post to a long-time reader, who offers his insights into Ryan Howard’s slump.
Howard regressed in hitting left-handers in 2009, with a drop in OPS from .746 in 2008 to .653 this season. This, despite the fact that he had better protection in Jayson Werth and should have seen better pitches to hit. So a steady diet of lefties from the Yankees will certainly have an impact. Yet in his seven plate appearances vs. righties, he has not put a single ball in play, walking twice and striking out five times. It's not just left-handed pitching that has him stymied right now.
Is he choking? Very doubtful. He's a big-time player and played in last year's World Series. He was extremely clutch in the 2009 postseason up until now. Has he been unlucky, hitting balls at people? No. He's not hitting balls at all.
I can offer a couple of possibilities, aside from those offered by the experts about swing mechanics and weight shift. First, this slump could simply be the law of averages bringing him back to his mean level. He was on fire through the first two rounds of the postseason, so you knew it couldn't continue for much longer. It is poor timing indeed that he could cool off at this time, but it was due to happen sooner or later.
Second, from watching the games, it looks like he has lost track of the strike zone. He is swinging at balls and taking strikes. He has fallen behind on the first pitch 15 times out of 20 PAs, with nine called first strikes. He has never had a 2-0 count. He has been 0-2 six times and 1-2 six times, 2-1 just four times.
Let me suggest that this problem with the strike zone is to some degree the fault of the umpiring. I have never seen such inconsistency in what constitutes a strike. The results work both ways, with pitches that should be strikes being called balls, and vice versa. It has been consistently bad for both teams and for both pitchers and hitters, and it inconsistent from pitch to pitch, not game to game. Players cannot adjust in such a situation. (I specifically recall a crucial at bat where Utley was facing Rivera with two men on and one out. Two consecutive pitches that were clearly out of the strike zone were called strikes, putting Utley in the hole instead of ahead in the count. That is a world of difference. As it was, he was forced to swing at another ball out of the zone and subsequently killed the rally.)
If Howard loses confidence in his ability to work the count, he cannot afford to wait for the pitches he can drive. The problem is compounded because the Yankees continue to throw breaking balls, and in a situation where there is a moving strike zone, he’s forced to swing at unhittable pitches. My guess is Howard will only break out if the pitcher makes a mistake, or tries to overpower him with fastballs (unlikely). Otherwise he will continue to have at-bats that resemble a blindfolded batter trying to break a pinata.
Beerleaguer: An inspired take. I’ll add the Yankees clearly had the Phillies well scouted, reportedly sending 10 scouts to the NLCS. It can be seen in their mindful approach, not only to Howard, but to Werth, knowing he’s taking at least the first pitch. They also refuse to throw Shane Victorino fastballs.