The surprise wasn’t that the Atlanta Braves just released Ryan Howard. The surprise is that, a mountain of evidence to the contrary, he still believes he can play in the majors. Since tearing his Achilles while making the final out of the 2011 NLDS against St. Louis, Howard has had next to nothing left. I don’t mean that figuratively. I mean it numerically.
These are the WAR rankings , as calculated by Baseball-Reference, of Howard’s final five seasons with the Phillies: Minus-1.2, 0.6, minus-1.2, minus-1.2 and minus 1.2. Yes, he could still hit the (very) occasional home run, but that was all he hit. In 2014 he drove in 95 runs with 23 homers, which sounds OK until you notice his strikeouts (a league-leading 190) and his OPS (.690, which was 28th-worst among qualifying hitters and is about as bad as you can do with 23 homers).
The Braves signed him to a minor-league contract because he carried no risk and they were hoping against hope. If he’d hit even a little at Gwinnett, they’d have thought about activating him and letting him DH for the next week — two games in Houston, two more in Toronto. In 11 games, he had one extra-base hit (a homer, naturally) against 11 strikeouts. He was batting .184. His OPS was .501. The worst hitter in baseball last year — Adieny Hechavarria of Miami — had an OPS of .594.
The regret is that Howard is a famously good guy. The Braves really hoped he’d show them something, but his bat speed had diminished to the extent that they saw nothing in 11 games that made them think he could hit even a homer a month as a pinch hitter or a (very) occasional fill-in for Freddie Freeman. I hate it, too, because for a while Howard was my favorite player to watch.
Not afield, no. And not on the bases. And advanced analytics were unstintingly unkind to him. But swinging the bat against right-handers — he was all but hopeless against lefties (career average of .217) — he was something to behold. As was once said of Wilver Dornell Stargell — another big left-handed hitter — when Ryan James Howard hit one, it stayed hit.
Nice try by the Braves. Wish it had worked. Just didn’t. Rats.