While Miggy comes alive, Howard remains an overpriced shell of himself

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Ryan Howard

It wasn't long ago that Detroit sports-talk radio was obsessed with Miguel Cabrera – the decline of Miggy, maybe even – gasp – the end of Miggy.

And Tigers fans, a shocking number of them, really, bought in to the topic du jour, wondering even how the ballclub might be able to dump his contract come trade-deadline time.

Seems silly now that he's back to being the best hitter on the planet.

Another fella at Comerica Park this week, however, hasn't been as fortunate.

"He gets it going, same way I'm gonna get going at some point during this year," Ryan Howard was saying Monday night, in the Philadelphia Phillies’ visiting clubhouse at Comerica Park.

"The pitching in baseball right now is better than it's been in the past, and you learn how to try to make adjustments."

It's been a hard road for Howard, in that regard.

He was rookie of the year in 2005, National League MVP in 2006, won a World Series in 2009 and was among the game’s most-lethal bats through 2011, a year that ended with him tearing his Achilles in the postseason.

Howard hasn't been the same since.

From 2006-11, he batted .274/.369/.559 while averaging 44 homers and 133 RBIs in 153 games.

Since then, he's batted .222/.294/.417 while averaging 18 homers and 68 RBIs in 118 games.

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This year has been a total disaster, as he's batting .161/.233/.381. Howard is so far from the hitter he once was, in the seventh inning of a tie game Monday night, the Tigers intentionally walked a third baseman named Maikel Franco to get to the cleanup hitter, Howard.

And Justin Wilson dusted him with three straight fastballs, 96, 97, 98, for the inning-ending whiff.

"Man, it's been brutal, ain't gonna lie," Howard said, arms crossed following the Tigers' 5-4 victory in the season opener. "I need some breaks, man.

"When you don't get those hits to fall in for you, it just kind of compounds everything."

Howard, 36, has been the face of the Phillies for a long, long time -- he was the face of glory, he was the fast of the rapid and harsh decline.

He's making $25 million this year, and will get another $10 million at season's end when the Phillies almost certainly buy out the remaining year on his deal -- a five-year, $125-million contract that Yahoo! Sports' Jeff Passon this week reasoned is the worst-ever in Major League Baseball.

It's gotta be a tough pill to swallow that the Phillies, written off long before the season, actually are 25-20, but in spite -- not because -- of Howard's contributions, at least statistically.

The Phillies still love his leadership. He was right there in the dugout Monday night to explain to Odubel Herrera why not hustling is never an option, and why manager Pete Mackanin was dead right to yank the youngster out of the game after that seventh-inning display of indifference.

"He's an energy source on this team," Howard said. "He goes, we go."

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Of course, the truth remains, the Phillies have a better chance to keep going if Howard gets going.

There are, at least, signs that maybe the numbers don't tell the true story.

Told he was among the league-leaders in hardest-hit outs, Howard kind of furrowed his brow.

"Hardest outs?" Howard said, puzzled. "There's a stat for that? Is there an app for that, too?"

"It's tough, because when you're hitting the ball hard, those are some of the balls you count on getting in," he continued. "I guess the laws of average over the course of a baseball season say everything's gonna even out.

"You start to catch breaks here and there. Right now, I just haven't caught them. Luckily, it's still early to where I can get it turned around, get a hard, line-drive hit here, a seeing-eye single somewhere out there, a broken-bat single, then you're off and running."

Of course, in baseball, like in life, you often make your own breaks.

Legend Ben Hogan once quipped, "Golf is a game of luck; the more I practice, the luckier I get."

And the truth is, while Howard's steady free-fall could be traced, to some extent, to the ugly Achilles tear suffered running to first base in Game 5 of the 2011 National League Division Series -- the end of his run of dominance, and the team's -- there's also this truth: The shift, once a fad and now the norm, has certainly messed with his game.

Few players in baseball have been shifted against more than Howard. The most recent data I could find was from 2014, via Fangraphs, which reported he basically was shifted on just about almost every time up. He put the ball in play 405 times on those occasions, for just 87 hits.

How long will the shift be the new normal? Well, until players start beating the shift with regularity. Howard knows this. He also knows it's not as easy as snapping your fingers and hitting them where they ain't.

And until he figures it out, the frustration -- for himself, a still-proud ballplayer, and the Phillies, who continue to cut him big checks -- will continue.

"The game itself, guys are getting shifted, lefties, righties, and normal pitches back up the middle on a tough at-bat, you're feeling good, 'Man, I battled,'" said Howard, the big, hulking, left-handed-hitting first baseman. "That used to be a hit, but now, you know, the third baseman or the left fielder or whoever is playing over there making a play on the ball.

"It's tough, man. It's tough. Once the ball comes off the bat, you can't control it. You can try, with certain pitches in certain areas.

"It's tough. But you've just gotta keep trying to grind it out. That's the game."

That's the beauty of baseball, the fact fortunes can change so darn fast.

Just like they have for a guy named Cabrera, with seven homers and 12 RBIs in his last nine games.

Howard, though, continues to wait, as patiently as possible -- though even his patience has to be wearing thin.