Sunday, March 04, 2007

Ryan Howard is sexy. And his swing is too.

Ryan Howard's swingHoly shit, we can't wait for opening day.

Great article in Sunday's New York Times Play Magazine about Ryan Howard. Nice big two-page opening spread. And, shit, the New York Times can sure take some hot ass photography.

Be sure to read the article in its entirety, but here are a few clips.

About RyHo’s physique:
Now, here is Ryan Howard of the Philadelphia Phillies on Sept. 3, 2006. He is a baby in baseball years, still in his first full big-league season, but a man-child at the plate: 6-foot-4, 250-plus pounds and big all over. He has biceps that it would take two large hands to fully encircle, thick-muscled forearms and — more noticeable in the locker room than on the field, where he wears a baggy uniform top — a surprisingly ample midsection. Howard is Ruthian, only bigger. Even his round, expressive face — quick to break into a smile, more open and inviting than the typical impassive countenance of the big-time pro athlete — seems extra large.
About the Phils’ front office and Howard's path to the majors:
A certain amount of ignorance, on the part of baseball executives, most likely impeded Ryan Howard’s baseball progress. A man his size is not easily overlooked. But his career trajectory strongly suggests that his talent was underappreciated. He was not a coveted prospect out of high school and went to Southwest Missouri State to play baseball. After the Phillies selected him in the fifth round of the 2001 draft, he began a slow, four-and-a-half-season climb through the minor leagues, making stops in five different minor-league towns and hitting for power and a decent average in each of them.

In 2004, splitting time between Double A and Triple A, he hit 46 home runs and knocked in 131 runs, the kind of performance that ought to bring about a promotion to the big leagues — especially considering that Howard was already 24. But the Phillies had a veteran at first base, Jim Thome, to whom they had paid millions as a free agent, and Howard began the 2005 season in Scranton, Pa., back in Triple A.

Thome was signed after Howard had already been a Phillies minor leaguer for two seasons; another team, recognizing what it had in Howard, might have spent its free-agent money elsewhere to avoid a logjam at first base. But the Phillies, with no postseason appearances since 1993, have not been the canniest of franchises.
Ryan HowardAbout Howard’s swing, which is only likely to improve:
In one sense, though, Howard was probably lucky to end up with the Phillies, whose manager, Charlie Manuel, while not much admired for his in-game strategy, is widely considered to have a deep knowledge of hitting. Howard was still in the low minor leagues when Manuel, then an assistant in the Phillies’ front office, first saw him bat. Manuel noticed something unusual about Howard’s style: he stood way off the plate, and his posture was oriented toward foul ground in left field, like a golfer who compensates for a wicked slice by aiming wide of the fairway.

In Howard’s case, he did not like to handle pitches inside, in on his hands, and his strength still allowed him to hit outside pitches a long way. So he took a stance that forced pitchers to throw the ball about a foot inside the plate to jam him. Manuel saw Howard hit a home run to left field and concluded that because of the way he was standing, it was more like a center- or right-field home run — he had to pull the ball just to keep it fair.

“We got him straightened out a little bit, so it wasn’t so extreme,” Manuel says. “He was the type of kid you always could talk to.”

All hitters, though, have a way they want to hit, a style that feels natural. Howard’s left-field orientation is still a large part of his approach. When he hits the ball to the left of second base, he almost always lifts it, which is what pitchers specifically try to avoid with home-run hitters: fly balls. When he pulls the ball, he hits more ground balls and low line drives with top spin — the type that do not carry over fences. “The amazing thing is, even with all those home runs, Ryan’s still learning to pull it,” says Milt Thompson, the Phillies’ hitting coach. “When he learns to clear his hips out of there and get the ball in the air, you’ll really see something.”

Pitchers defeat hitters with good pitches, of course, but all hitters have a way they get themselves out, the most common being a lack of patience. Instead of hoarding their energy — their “load” or “power load,” as it is called in baseball — they commit to a swing too soon, particularly on off-speed pitches, and by the time the bat meets the ball they have expended much of their power.

Howard is different. When he gets himself out, it is more often the result of an overabundance of patience. He lets the ball get too close to his body and does not get the barrel of the bat fully around it. “It’s unusual in any player, let alone a big strong kid just into the league,” Manuel says. “But that’s why Ryan hits the ball the way he does. He’s rarely out in front of where he wants to be. He’s got his full load intact when he does make contact.”

Howard takes a slight uppercut, quick and compact. “Ted Williams used to say, The longer the arc, the farther the ball will go,” Manuel says. “I say, The longer the arc, the slower the swing. Ryan has all the power he needs with that shorter arc.”
And about Howard’s intellect:
After Howard and I were finished eating at O’Charley’s and the table was cleared, I unpacked my laptop and we watched a sort of greatest-hits collection, a compilation of his home runs that the Phillies had copied onto a DVD. He enjoyed it — what player wouldn’t? — but what struck me was how much he remembered. He came to the plate 704 times last season and saw 2,859 pitches, yet now he recalled pitch sequences from months before. He doesn’t keep a notebook, as some hitters do, but it seems he doesn’t have to.

“This is a pretty good AB,” he said as we watched him step in for his at-bat against the New York Mets’ Guillermo Mota. “He was mixing it up pretty good. Fastballs, change-ups, inside, outside.” After eight pitches, including several foul balls, the count was full. Mota threw a change-up, and Howard barely managed to foul it off. “That was a tough pitch — nasty,” he said. “Here comes the fastball now.” The next pitch was indeed a fastball, which Howard hit over the center-field fence for his 47th home run.

Not surprisingly, considering he is the son of a computer programmer, Howard talks about hitting as if each at-bat is a problem to be solved: “If the pitcher is one you’ve faced before, you have to be thinking, How did he try to get me out? He might try something different this time, but you have to have that in the back of your mind. Each at-bat and each pitch you have a game plan that comes about from processing all the information you have.”
Meanwhile, Ryan Howard got his one-year contract extension on Friday for 900K. Should have gotten more. Excerpted from a different article.
But from the get-go, these negotiations weren't as much about money as they were about making a statement. The Phillies say Howard is a special player. They say they want him around for many years to come. For these reasons, the Phillies needed to go above fair and appropriate. They needed to set aside the constraints of service time and the guidelines of the commissioner's office. They needed to do it for this one guy.
We concur.

Related:
Ryan Howard, No Asterisk [Play Magazine, New York Times]
Dissecting the Game’s Most Feared Swing [New York Times]
Howard’s contract: Phillies miss their chance to make a statement [Philadelphia Inquirer]

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