As I wrote in a column Wednesday, the Phillies' lackluster offseason won't really matter unless their high-paid veterans figure out how to stay active -- specifically Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Roy Halladay.
In Howard's case, this need to stay on the field uninterrupted has more to do with the type of player he has been throughout his career: A power hitter who gets better as the dog days pile up.
In the column I mentioned that he needs "400 uninterrupted plate appearances" before he reaches his peak of productivity. Clearly, a switch doesn't instantly switch at 400 plate appearances. But historically, it has been around that point -- 400 plate appearances that come without a DL stint bifurcating them -- when Howard hits another level.
Here is the breakdown, year-by-year, of how Howard produced in at-bats before reaching that point and afterward. I stayed true to that stance in 2007, when he spent the minimum 15 days on the D.L. with a quad strain. That's why his plate appearances that year were so high before he arrived at the magic 400 mark (and in truth, he started heating up before that ... but he still was even better in those final 121 plate appearances).
Before 400 consective PAs (BA/SLG/OPS)
2005 (143 big-league PAs): .280/.488/.845 6 HR, 21 RBI
2006 (399 PAs): .282/.593/.947 32 HR, 80 RBI
2007 (527 PAs): .270/.573/.960 36 HR, 110 RBI
2008 (399 PAs): .231/.493/.816 25 HR, 80 RBI
2009 (401 PAs): .259/.534/.880 24 HR, 69 RBI
2010 (400 PAs): .299/.538/.895 21 HR, 74 RBI
2011 (401 PAs): .254/.471/.822 18 HR, 72 RBI
After 400 consecutive PAs
2005 (205 PAs): .294/.620/.976 16 HR, 42 RBI
2006 (305 PAs): .361/.762/1.280 26 HR, 69 RBI
2007 (121 PAs): .260/.635/1.049 11 HR, 26 RBI
2008 (301 PAs): .278/.608/.967 23 HR, 66 RBI
2009 (304 PAs): .306/.619/.998 21 HR, 72 RBI
2010 (51 PAs): .233/.442/.795 2 HR, 7 RBI
2011 (243 PAs): .256/.516/.854 15 HR, 44 RBI
In 2010 Howard suffered that ugly ankle injury at the beginning of August that cost him nearly a month. Ironically, that had been one of his most consistent performances in the first half of a season, and he never really got back to that when he returned.
It's worth noting that in 2011 Howard's numbers after the magic 400 mark only took a modest gain, and are strikingly lower than any of his other post-400 PA surges. However, when you look at his OPS+ -- the SABR stats that adapts your OPS to the rest of the league -- for that season (see below), his overall performance wasn't much different from his 2008. Oh, the magic of the post-Steroid Era!
The bottom line is this: Howard is a creature of habit. He needs plate appearances. He needs them in spring training, he needs them regularly during the season. And if he can make it to mid- to late-July without missing any time, the expectation should be that his production starts to lift. Granted, it probably never will return to the heights of 2006-09, but this is a pitcher's league these days. If he can be the hitter he was in 2011 -- ok, maybe a tad better -- the Phillies should be much, much better for it.