Howard became a star after fixing a hole in his swing

Everybody's always tinkering in baseball. Even today's brightest stars, like Ryan Howard, don't come fully formed. Sometimes it takes years for the light to go on.

Originally Published: March 28, 2007
By Buster Olney | ESPN The Magazine

Editor's Note: This story appears in the April 9 edition of ESPN The Magazine.

The next sound you hear could be a bat splintering against concrete, or maybe a door crumpled by a size-16 foot. Ryan Howard has just left the Phillies' clubhouse in a noiseless rage. Outfielder Shane Victorino glances over his shoulder at the door through which Howard exited.

"The Big Man," he says, "is hot."

Howard tends to internalize. The Silent Assassin, his older brother calls him. There is no explosion from the hallway, and Howard returns, walking over to where Victorino is sitting. The slugger tosses his cell phone across a table and slumps into a chair. "I'm never swinging again," he announces.

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Relationship trouble. Howard and his swing are not getting along at the moment.

The truth is, he doesn't feel like talking anyway. The truth is, he's bored with the subject of Ryan Howard, NL MVP. That guy is old news. Here in Clearwater, Fla., Howard is worried about 2007. He just struck out twice against the Astros, he doesn't have his friggin' swing yet ... and he's fuming.

Howard stares. There's a conversation going on, but there are no words.

He has been known to wear the broadest smile in the room, showing up draped in a Rams throwback jersey -- James Harris, No. 12 -- and cutting up with Jimmy Rollins or Chase Utley or rookie Michael Bourn. A few days earlier, Howard and Rollins and two writers stood around chatting about power hitters, like a group of guys hanging at a bar. Howard raised his 6'4", 250-pound frame out of a chair to step into a hitter's stance and wield an imaginary bat, explaining how players use their cores to create torque in their swings. He imitated Mike Piazza's swing, Alfonso Soriano's swing. He extended his mimed maple bat in the follow-through and snapped:

"Pow!"

The next morning, though, Howard trudged grumpily into the clubhouse, wearing dark sunglasses and carrying a pillow. "It's a 35-minute bus ride to St. Petersburg," he explained. "Thirty-five more minutes of sleep."

These temporary breakups are brutal, but you figure Howard and his swing will work it out. They are high school sweethearts. He remained devoted even when there were questions about whether they would make it together. There was once an enormous hole in his swing, a safe haven for pitchers, a place they could go if they needed a punchout. The problem was so pronounced that teams weren't interested in trading for the lefty hitter, and the Phillies weren't sure they would keep him.

During five long years in the minors, he fixed that hole, and as he hammered 58 homers last season, it became clear: There is no place in the strike zone pitchers can throw the ball without fearing that the Big Man is going to launch it 450 feet. "This is someone who takes his craft seriously," says Ed Wade, the former Phillies GM. "Some people helped him along the way, but he did the work." Howard doesn't want to talk about that now. His swing has abandoned him, without warning, as if it had bolted for spring break. "It's not right, right now," he says, one hand pressed against his forehead. "I'm trying to get it that way. I have no clue. I'm in a whirlwind. It's a debacle." March madness.

***

RIGHT NEAR HIS hands, that's where the hole was. Keith Guttin, Howard's coach at Southwest Missouri State, knew it would need fixing down the road, but few college pitchers threw hard enough to exploit it. After Howard took his stance in the batter's box, his stride would take him toward the shortstop rather than toward the pitcher, so he tended to jam himself. But because he was big and powerful and daunting, with an aluminum bat in his hands, pitchers tended to throw away from him. This is how he learned to hit the ball to the opposite field, his signature skill. (Last season, 18 of his 29 homers at Citizens Bank Park went to left or left-center.) When Howard whacked the ball, Guttin thought, the ping of the bat seemed different, louder. "You're talking about a guy with tremendous pride," Guttin says. "It was important to him to be successful." How important? As Howard took BP one day in the spring of 2001, his last season in college, one of his closest friends on the team, Andrew Jefferson, was fooling around outside the cage. Howard dropped the bat and walked right up to Jefferson. "Will you please shut up?" he said evenly. "I'm trying to work here." Jerry Lafferty, an area scout for the Phillies, witnessed the moment, and it stuck with him like a mental Post-it as he lobbied for Philadelphia to draft the big guy with the hole in his swing.

"You're not going to walk away from that kind of bat speed, that kind of power," Lafferty says. "I was so enthralled with this kid that I didn't focus on the negatives. I wanted this guy. A great kid, from a very good family." Howard's father, Ron, a project manager at IBM, is a serious man with high expectations. Growing up in suburban St. Louis, the Howard children -- Ryan has a sister and two brothers, including a twin, Corey -- had to get good grades or there would be consequences; bad grades meant a loss of privileges. When Dad said cut the grass, the only response was "Yes, sir." Ron and Cheryl Howard both grew up in Birmingham, Ala., and in May 1963, they were among the children who marched down the streets and into jets of water and the jaws of the K-9 units directed by police commissioner Bull Connor. These were scary days in the civil rights movement, and Ryan Howard has heard the stories. "I think it sucks that anybody would have to go through that," he says. "But it shows you the strength of character my parents have -- not only my parents, but everybody who went through it." Walking away was unacceptable to the Howards. There were always solutions to be found. When Ryan was a kid, he once got fed up with practicing his hitting, and when he expressed his frustration, Ron Howard was quick to respond: There's no such thing as can't. The perspective was inherited, like a family heirloom.

That hole in his swing? It was just a puzzle to be solved.

Lafferty, the scout, convinced the Phillies to take Howard in the fifth round of the 2001 draft. The 2002 season didn't bode well: At 22, an age when many elite prospects are beginning their major league careers, Howard had 145 strikeouts in 493 at-bats for the Class-A Lakewood (N.J.) BlueClaws.

Ryan Howard
Dilip Vishwanat/US PresswireRyan Howard won the NL MVP Award and led the majors with 58 home runs last season.
He was projected as a first baseman, but there was enough doubt about his future that the Phillies committed $85 million to sign Jim Thome before the 2003 season. That summer, Howard had 151 K's in 490 ABs at Class-A Clearwater, often flailing at inside fastballs. At the trade deadline the following year, as Howard was in the process of belting 37 homers for Double-A Reading, exactly zero teams expressed interest in trading for him.

Wade mentioned to another GM that Howard had great power. "A lot of guys hit home runs in Double-A," the rival executive replied. "Remember Sam Horn?" What the guy didn't know was that Howard and his swing were edging toward accommodation.

***

THE FIRST TIME Charlie Manuel saw him hit, in the spring of 2003, Howard stood miles away from home plate, which is what a lot of batters do when pitchers keep busting them with inside fastballs. Because he's a power hitter, Howard felt pressure to jack the ball out of the park to right. "If the pitch is in," he says, "they want you to show you can hit it." But standing back also means surrendering part of your plate coverage, limiting the damage you can do. Manuel, then a special instructor, spoke with Howard about moving closer to the plate, one of many changes Howard embraced. The minor leagues are littered with sluggers who can't or won't make adjustments, but when Manuel and the Phillies' other coaches talked, Howard listened. "You should want to learn," the player says. "You should want to keep an open mind. I don't have all the answers. It's common sense." Rather than standing upright, Howard bent his knees as he set up. He lowered his back elbow, because if you start with your elbow high, you have to lower it to load up your swing, losing precious time. And he dramatically cut down his stride.

The changes helped him better judge strikes on the inside corner, and attack them. Howard clubbed a total of 48 homers in Double-A, Triple-A and a short stint with Philly in 2004, and when Thome got hurt the following season, Howard was in the big leagues for good. He slugged 22 homers in 88 games, earning the 2005 NL Rookie of the Year award. The Phillies made the simplest of decisions: They kept the young guy and traded the old guy.

But the young guy wasn't satisfied. There was more work to do. So Howard arranged to spend a couple of days in San Diego that winter with Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, the head coach at San Diego State. On the face of it, Howard and Gwynn would seem to have little in common as hitters. But Howard was a Gwynn fan, and believed in his philosophy: waiting on the ball until the last possible millisecond and trusting your hands to react. Gwynn set up Wiffle balls on a tee, and was immediately impressed by how balanced Howard's swing was. "If your balance is not good, you can't attack pitches on both sides of the plate," Gwynn says. "But he could." Gwynn had never seen anyone put backspin on a baseball -- the rotation that makes a fly ball carry -- the way Howard did. He would drive balls into the netting of the batting cage, and they spun so rapidly, Gwynn says, "they would just hover there for an instant," fizzing against the netting like bottle rockets.

"The one thing that made me concerned was when he got into the Home Run Derby last summer at the All-Star Game," Gwynn recalls. "I had seen what it did to Bobby Abreu, taking him out of his swing, and I was worried about Ryan." As it turned out, though, the Derby may have helped Howard go from good to great.

***

HOWARD DIDN'T HOLD out much hope for the Derby. Unlike, say, Barry Bonds, he doesn't hit tape-measure shots in BP. When Howard works in the cage, he swings loosely, lightly, jabbing at the ball rather than taking big hacks.

He really thought he had no chance.

But he didn't want to get shut out, either, so he attacked the ball aggressively, looking to pull, and he wound up beating David Wright, 5-4, in the finals. When Howard's walk-off blast caromed off the "Hit It Here" sign in right-center at Pittsburgh's PNC Park, Chris Berman wasn't the only one who got excited. Rollins phoned Howard and said, "I'm glad you found out you can pull the ball." Rollins believes (and Howard concurs) that the Derby helped the Big Man realize he could maintain the mechanics of his swing while still looking to drive the ball.

In 265 at-bats after the All-Star break, Howard blasted 30 homers, hit .355 (up from .278 in the first half) and had an on-base percentage of .509. If they pitched him away, he hit it out. If they pitched him up, he hit it out.

If they pitched him in, he hit it out.

The hole was history.

"I don't think people really understand how good a hitter [Ryan Howard] is. When he strikes out, it's often because the ball gets so deep on him before he swings. He is like [Tony] Gwynn in that way."
-- Phillies manager Charlie Manuel

"I don't think people really understand how good a hitter he is," Manuel says. "When he strikes out, it's often because the ball gets so deep on him before he swings. He is like Gwynn in that way." But when Gwynn waited on a pitch, he could slap a single past the third baseman. Howard can club the same pitch into the stands.

In Howard's first at-bat against the Braves last Sept. 3, Tim Hudson tried to spin a slider down and in at his feet; Howard smashed it over the center field wall. His next time up, Hudson threw him a breaking ball over the plate; another homer, almost to the same spot in center. "Then I threw a four-seamer away," Hudson recalls. "I didn't get it up as much as I wanted, it was outside corner, maybe an inch or two off the plate, maybe a little bit above the belt. And he hits an oppo homer." It was No. 52 on the season.

With nowhere left to go, with Howard having surrounded the strike zone with his swing, pitchers did what they had to do: They surrendered. Howard got the Bonds treatment in September -- 132 plate appearances, 35 walks.

***

HOWARD ATTENDED FIVE awards banquets, winning good-guy points with baseball writers, and spent a week on the Phillies' winter caravan. So when spring training began, he and his swing were a little estranged. It felt good to go to the banquets, Howard says, and it's good to be the MVP, although he was a bit miffed when the Phils renewed his contract for $900,000 (he's eligible for arbitration after this season). "But you can't get stuck in the past," he says. "If you're looking at what you did, rather than what you should be doing, you'll be looking at the wrong thing." And so Howard came to Florida searching for his swing. On a cool morning in early March, when the other Phillies hit the road for an exhibition, he stays behind. Through an alley near the team's clubhouse, you can see him at work, alone with a basket of baseballs and a pitching machine, the sound of it like a metronome. Whump ... whump ... whump ... Most of the time, Howard opts not to swing, cocking his bat but not firing, and the pitches slap against the canvas behind him. Thump ... thump ... thump ... He lifts his front foot, his right foot, so slightly and so briefly -- as if sticking his toe into a pool of cold water -- that there is barely room to slide a pack of baseball cards underneath. There is no long stride toward the pitcher; Howard now has what hitters call quiet feet, which usually means little head movement, allowing him to see the ball better. When he does swing, the ball often smashes against the steel bars inside the cage.

The pitching machine empties, and Howard picks up the balls, one by one, and reloads. He hits for about half an hour and utters a single sound: one four-letter word.

***

THREE DAYS LATER, Howard steps into the box in Winter Haven and draws a line in the dirt, as always; this is about the area where he wants to set up his back knee. At the moment the pitcher looks in for the sign, Howard raises the bat with his right hand and points it toward the mound, a timing device that he, like Thome before him, learned from Charlie Manuel.

The instant the pitcher nods and brings his hands in front of him, Howard pulls the bat back and settles into his stance -- knees flexed in a slight crouch, with a twitch of the left elbow to remind him to keep it down.

The pitcher is C.C. Sabathia, the Indians' ace, who three years ago would have had the perfect repertoire to beat Howard: good fastball, left-hander, a guy who can jam the best hitters. This time Sabathia slings a fastball inside, at about the same spot where the hole used to be. Howard's front foot gets down, that quiet front foot. He draws his hands in, accelerates the bat head.

Pow.

The ball lands beyond the left field fence. "He inside-outed the ball, like David Ortiz," says Indians GM Mark Shapiro, astonished.

But a couple of days later, Howard is back in the doldrums. Something still doesn't feel right. "It's a work in progress," the Big Man says, pulling on a pair of batting gloves. Soon he is headed off to the cage again, where he'll keep trying to woo his swing.

Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Buster Olney | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine