Ryan Howard’s contract as big a problem as his bat for Phillies

The Phillies’ 2011 season ended with Ryan Howard crumpled in a heap between the batter’s box and first base. What was suspected then was confirmed later: Howard had suffered a rupture of his Achilles. Howard’s five-year, $125-million extension was to begin in 2012.

It just about goes without saying that Howard’s contract with the Phillies has been a disaster. It’s important to understand that most analysts predicted that the deal would be a problem for the organization. It’s just as important to understand that the deal has gone far worse than anyone could’ve thought. The most-wrong person here is Ruben Amaro, but in a way the skeptical analysts were also wrong, for not projecting a bad-enough outcome. That’s not entirely fair, but the point is that even the biggest cynics didn’t think what has happened with Howard would happen.

And here’s what’s happening: it’s 2014, and Howard’s deal has two more years remaining. According to Jon Heyman, the Phillies are trying hard to deal Howard away, expressing a willingness to eat a lot of the money. So far, of course, there have been no takers. Meanwhile, Ryne Sandberg is starting to sit Howard, trying to find room for Darin Ruf. Ruf, in Triple-A, hit one home run this season. Contained within that piece is a note that the Phillies have internally discussed just dropping Howard from the roster, paying him, and moving on. His contract is a little more than halfway over. Said Amaro at the time of the extension agreement: "There’s always risk when you’re doing guaranteed deals, but based on what he’s done, I think it’s a good risk."

The contract, for the Phillies, has been catastrophic. It hasn’t singlehandedly prevented them from competing, but no reasonable contract can do that to a team, and it’s certainly made the situation more difficult. Probably, it’s not the worst contract in the history of baseball, in terms of the difference between dollars paid and dollars worth. The one bit of good news is that Howard inked a five-year deal, whereas, say, Albert Pujols is under contract through 2021. So, at some point in the somewhat near future, Howard will be off the Phillies’ books. But Howard is well on his way to an ugly feat. One that seems almost inconceivable, but one that captures the reality of all that’s gone down.

So far in Major League Baseball, there have been 54 nine-figure contracts. The first was given to Kevin Brown, beginning in 1999, and 49 of those contracts have kicked in, if not expired entirely. (Five will begin in the coming years.) Obviously, players have performed differently under those contracts. Alex Rodriguez, for example, was worth about 70 Wins Above Replacement between 2001 and 2010, the period for which the Rangers figured they were signing him. Albert Pujols was worth about 56 WAR between 2004 and 2010. Derek Jeter was worth about 46 WAR between 2001 and 2010. It’s easy to calculate how star players have done during the terms of their massive deals.

Well, Howard’s deal isn’t up yet. It won’t be up until the end of the 2016 season. But since the start of 2012, Howard has been worth -0.7 WAR. At least, according to FanGraphs; according to Baseball-Reference, he’s been worth -0.8 WAR. So far over the course of his $125-million contract, Howard has been a below-replacement-level player, and he doesn’t project to improve very much from here on out. Our projections on FanGraphs put Howard at +0.1 WAR the rest of this season, and he turns 35 in November. He is probably finished with his days of regular playing time.

At this point, the odds look good that the Phillies will have paid Ryan Howard $125 million to be less valuable than a guy they could’ve found in the minors and paid the league minimum. It won’t surprise you to learn that no other nine-figure contracts have gone this way, exactly. Nine-figure contracts tend not to be given to players who end up this bad, this fast.

Certainly, there have been disappointments. Barry Zito wasn’t very good for the Giants. Vernon Wells came undone in a hurry. Carl Crawford’s deal is a mess, and we’ll see what happens with Matt Kemp. Shin-Soo Choo has gotten off to a miserable start in Texas, and Joey Votto hasn’t had it a lot better this year in Cincinnati. But Votto’s been hurt and has a track record of being a superstar. Choo has been playing through an ankle injury for several weeks and presumably will be a lot better than this. We can’t make a lot of predictions about contracts that are just getting going, but it stands to reason even the biggest albatrosses will belong to players who were better than replacement-level from start to finish. Howard is without question the best bet to have his nine-figure contract expire having covered a sub-zero WAR.

If it’s consolation the Phillies are after, they might find some in Detroit: Justin Verlander, suddenly, is struggling, and his new money starts next April. There’s also the matter of that Pujols contract, and the Prince Fielder contract that got dumped on Texas. But it is unthinkably astonishing how little the Phillies have gotten back for their investment. And at this point, there’s no saving it. Howard isn’t one tweak away from getting back to being a reliable threat. Howard’s never been a distraction for reasons other than his performance and by all reports he’s one of baseball’s better people, but the Phillies aren’t thinking about cutting him because they’re frustrated. They’re thinking about cutting him because it’s quite possibly the rational thing to do.

Never has Howard run the bases well. He’s never been better than a marginal defensive first baseman. The one strength of his game has simply eroded. From 2005-2008, 34% of Howard’s fly balls left the yard. From 2009-2011, that dropped to 23%. From 2012-2014, it’s dropped further still, to 18%. There’s evidence of a slowing bat, and opposing pitchers have noticed; used to be, Howard saw about 52% fastballs. The last three years, that’s gone up to 58%. Pitchers have grown less afraid of challenging Howard because they’ve grown less afraid of Howard.

For sure, Howard’s still capable of doing some damage. He’s not completely and utterly punchless. Up the middle, he has a career 1.279 OPS; this year, he’s at 1.133. The other way, he has a career 1.419 OPS; this year, he’s at 1.305. But here’s what Howard has done when pulling the ball:

Season Pull OPS
2005 0.878
2006 1.090
2007 1.396
2008 0.949
2009 1.027
2010 0.933
2011 0.958
2012 0.806
2013 1.030
2014 0.439

For his career, he’s at .982; for this season, he’s at less than half that. A third of the field has been taken away from Howard, a sign that he’s more ripe to be exploited than ever. This year, 282 players have pulled at least 50 balls in play. Howard’s gotten worse results than all but two of them. As a star earlier in his life, Howard thrived by going the other way, but what’s happening in 2014 is evidence that Howard’s almost run out of ways to do damage. He seems to be looking for fastballs he can send to the biggest part of the field, but if his timing is off or if his guess is wrong, he’s been virtually helpless.

Where does someone like Ryan Howard go from here? The ZiPS projection system pegs him for a 100 wRC+, which would be exactly league-average. He’s almost 35, and the rest of the season the same system projects him for 0.1 WAR. Carlos Pena is 36, and he’s projected for a 90 wRC+ and a 0.0 WAR. The Rangers signed Pena to a minor-league contract in June and designated him for assignment in July. It seems sensible that Howard might have a little more left in the tank than Pena does, but teams weren’t exactly lining up to give Pena a shot, meaning Howard is right around the place where he might not be able to find good work even when cheap. He’s not a guy anyone wants to start at first base. He’s not a guy anyone wants to start at DH. To move Howard, the amount of money the Phillies might have to cover is all of it. They might not be able to get out from under a single cent.

Because Ryan Howard went and found his worst-case scenario. A little more than halfway through a $125-million contract, Howard has been worse than a decent minor-league free agent. This has gone far worse than the Phillies expected, and this has even gone far worse than the analysts expected. This has gone about as badly as possible, and while history won’t show Ryan Howard as having had the worst contract in the history of baseball, that’s only because Ruben Amaro had the good sense to stop it at five years. Although there is a sixth-year, $23-million club option. So, you know, maybe.