On July 1, the Phils got shellacked 9-1 by John Smoltz and the Braves. Vicente Padilla, the loser in the game, saw his ERA swell to 6.96 and his record fall to 3-8.
Phils saw their own record fall to 40-40:they were at .500 for the first time in a month. They were in last place in the NL East, 8-1/2 games behind then-leader Washington and four behind the current leader, the Braves.
They also had just lost their putative offensive leader Jim Thome, to what turned out to be a season-ending injury, tendonitis in his elbow. The Phils also had 3.5 years remaining on his immense contract. In 2005 he registered just 7 homers in 193 at-bats with abysmal ratios (.207/.360/.352/.712).
The Phils turned to highly touted (by some--read, Bill Conlin) though largely untried rookie Ryan Howard. Eh, why not? The Philly press had already given up on baseball and was following Terrell Owens' daily vicissitudes. Besides the Phils aren't built to win, just to draw enough fans to justify the investment. Oh, and the Phils had used utility man Tomas Perez to fill in for their slugger, not advisable.
Howard had tanked in a trial in May during Thome's previous appearance on the DL. He started the season 2-for-21 but went on a tear May 15 and 17, going 4-for-7 with a home run, double, two runs scored, and one driven in. So what did the Phils do next? Send him down to Scranton of course.
On July 2, Howard took over at first and has since batted .300 with a .571 slugging percentage, .937 OPS, and 18 home runs in 247 at-bats and 67 games. That projects to 44 over 162 games, not bad for a rookie.
Here are Howard's stats divided between his two major-league stints this year:
Meanwhile, the Phils have gone 42-31 since Howard replaced Thome. Though hardly anyone in Philly seems to notice, The Phils are in the midst of a wild card run, and Ryan Howard is a big part of that. His grand slam to defeat the Braves in the tenth yesterday nicely bookends that July 1 loss.
And this was a player I advocated that they trade, for his own good as well as the team's, coming out of spring training this year. Given Thome's presence at first and Howard's inability to play elsewhere, retaining Howard seemed a luxury the Phils couldn't afford especially when they had a thin starting rotation and bullpen, not to mention visible holes at many positions (center field?). This is a team, however, that carried two putative starting second basemen to start the season as well.
Howard's success now complicates the first base situation in Philly immensely. Howard's got the job for the rest of the year, but what happens next spring? The Phils probably cannot offload or simply eat Thome's contract. And now they wouldn't dare to trade Howard in case Thome's career is done.
It'll be one of their many issues next spring. Thank goodness the Phils have the Michael Brown of GMs, Ed Wade, to guide them through these choices. And if the Phils don't make the playoffs, it all gets that much more depressing.
OK, now, I have to change the topic since I'm all too demoralized. Howard is now one homer short of twenty and he is assured of not reaching 100 games. Those sorts of stats instantly call to mind one Kevin Maas.
Maas, another first baseman, hit 21 home runs in 79 games in 1990 filling in for an injured Don Mattingly. He hit his first ten home runs in just 77 at-bats. The expectations were that he would easily double that if he played a full season, So he was given the DH job in 1991, replacing a rapidly aging Steve Balboni, but he never came close to his first-year success again. He started for the Yankees in 1991 recording 23 dingers in 148 games and hit just 21 more in parts of his three remaining seasons. And he still can't hit a curveball.
I wondered how many batters there were who had Maas-like seasons. I looked up all batters with 20 dingers in 100 games or fewer while never having started for a team before (i.e., never played 100 or more games previously).
Here's the elite group that Ryan Howard will join with his next homer:
Surprise, surprise! There's the guy whose job Howard took. Of course, Thome was a third baseman back then.
Bob Horner went from Arizona State to third base for the Braves and had a great rookie year, winning the 1978 NL Rookie of the Year award.
Which brings me to another subject: Could Ryan Howard win the NL Rookie of the Year Award this year while playing under 100 games?
Well, there are two instances of such players winning the award, Horner being one (and barring pitchers):
Hmm, it took the voters just 52 games to see the mettle of future Hall-of-Famer Willie McCovey.
The odd thing for Howard is that his main competition for the award is another player, Atlanta's Jeff Francoeur, who will not have played a hundred games by year's end either. The two rank one and two in rookie VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) in the NL.