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Howard's unrealistic hope
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Reality and fantasy. Some players can see the difference ... others obviously can't. Hopefully fantasy owners are much more astute observers of the human condition.

Take a recent statement from Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard: "I'm more than capable of hitting 58 home runs," he told beat writer Eliot Shorr-Parks. "I believe it every year."

That's pure fantasy.

Howard did hit 58 homers once in his career. Back in 2006, at the prime age of 26, he pounded out more long balls than anyone in the majors. He also batted a career-best .313 and knocked in 149 runs that season.

It's been mostly downhill since. Oh, he had three more very good seasons from 2007-09, but fantasy owners have seen over the past four years a player, more accurately a hitter, who simply can't do it anymore.

Over the past two seasons, Howard has missed 173 games to knee and Achilles injuries. And when he played, he was just a shell of the earlier version. He averaged just 12 homers and 50 RBI over that span. Delving even deeper, he's hitting a home run every 21.84 at-bats versus 13.14 at-bats in the six seasons before that.

"I've (finally) got two legs," Howard reasoned. "Basically I've been playing on one leg. But now that I have two legs, I'm feeling better and I'm able to hop around on the field. My swing is coming back to where I want it to be."

On the other hand, it's only February and spring training has been open for just a couple of days. Everyone feels good and has set their goals high. The marathon 162-game schedule takes a lot out of a player, particularly at 34 years old, after nine-plus hard seasons.

Fantasy owners need to see the truth so they don't get caught up in his "fantasy."

Plate discipline has become a major issue.

Howard is swinging at more pitches out of the strike zone than ever before. During his peak years (2006-09), he only chased 26.35 percent of pitches outside the zone. Over the past four seasons, the number has jumped to 33.92 percent (stats provided by Baseball Info Solutions).

Another interesting piece of the puzzle is that while he's swinging at less strikes, he's making more contact. Again in his four peak years, he made contact 39.2 percent of the time. The rate since 2010 is 49.3 percent.

In other words, he's swinging at more bad pitches yet putting more of the balls into play. The result has been a ton of weak ground balls. His ground ball- to-fly ball ratio has risen from .9775 (2006-09) to 1.130 (2010-13).

Ground balls don't leave the yard and rarely knock in runs. Unfortunately, those are the only two reasons you draft Howard onto a fantasy team.

The last time Howard was considered a top-three first baseman was five years ago. That likely won't change in 2014.

As for 58 homers, that's pure fiction. If you eventually end up selecting Howard, make sure it's at a level where you will be happy if he hits 25-30 out of the park.




Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Steve Schwarz at sschwarz@sportsnetwork.com.

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