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Strike One -- Howard's Real Achilles' HeelRyan Howard spent 24 minutes Wednesday in the Phillies' camp, talking about his Achilles' heel. That would be the Achilles tendon he blew out on the final pitch of last October's National League Division Series.But before Howard ever made it in front of the cameras and microphones, his manager, Charlie Manuel, spent nearly as much time dissecting Howard's other Achilles' heel.That would be the one that drives Howard's many detractors insane.And what would that be? Every darned year, dating back to when he hit .313/.425/.656 in 2006, this guy has negated much of what he does best by swinging at fewer and fewer strikes.Here are the facts, courtesy of FanGraphs: From 2005 to '09, Howard's first five full seasons, he chased only about 26 percent of all pitches outside the strike zone. But over the past three years, he has hacked at almost one-third of all nonstrikes -- including 33.1 percent of the time in 2010 and 31.8 percent last year.Want to know how that's worked out for him? You can probably guess. According to ESPN's pitch data, Howard batted a piddly .143 (31 for 217, with only four doubles and two homers) last season -- and slugged just .189 -- when he swung at pitches outside the strike zone.But when he swung at strikes? Slightly different result. He hit .324 (110 for 340, with 26 doubles and 31 home runs) -- and slugged .679.If we subtract strikeouts, those numbers inflate to .410, with an .862 slugging percentage inside the strike zone -- versus a .265 average and .350 slugging percentage on pitches he made contact with outside the zone.Sooooo … we don't need to call in Tom Emanski to tell us what this guy needs to work on once his other Achilles gets healed. Do we? It couldn't be more obvious if we slapped it on every billboard in Florida.And Ryan Howard's manager knows it all too well."It's a matter of him getting more selective," Manuel said Wednesday. "When he first came up, he looked for balls he liked to hit. … Then the pitchers studied him and let him get himself out."The year Howard hit .300, "that was the most disciplined and selective he's ever been," Manuel said. And the manager thinks he could do that again if he rediscovers that level of selectivity.But when Howard was asked if he thought he could hit .300 again, he had a fascinating response: "Personally," he said, "I feel like I hit .300 every year. I don't know how many hits get taken away every year by the shift. … But I feel like sometimes I'm doing the same things [at the plate that he was doing when he hit .300] … because I'm playing on a different field."So is that true? Well, ESPN's pitch data shows he hit .107 last season (12 for 112) on ground balls to the right side. The only left-handed hitter with a lower average on pulled ground balls was Prince Fielder (10 for 101, .099). Both those guys are among the most shifted-on hitters in baseball. But guess what? Fielder still managed to overcome it and hit .299. Howard, meanwhile, batted .253.So how big a disadvantage is Howard really at? He should know that the average left-handed hitter batted only .176 on ground balls to the right side. Adrian Gonzalez and Joey Votto, two guys who use the whole field, hit just .165 and .160, respectively.We're talking, in other words, about only a handful of hits a year. We're not talking about the 28 additional hits Howard would have needed to be a .300 hitter last season. And we're certainly not talking about the shift alone being responsible for the nearly 60 points Howard has lost off his on-base percentage since 2006.That isn't about the shift. That's about selectivity. But I think we already mentioned that, didn't we?And so did Ryan Howard's manager.
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