An article in The Philadelphia Inquirer by columnist Phil Sheridan highlighted the intense difference in popularity between two of the most important players on the Philadelphia Phillies — first baseman Ryan Howard and second baseman Chase Utley.
Sheridan focuses on the disappointing amount of All-Star Game votes for Howard, who has fewer votes than teammate Chase Utley. Utley, after all, spent the first 46 games of the season on the disabled list. But Howard has been easily the team’s most valuable hitter this season, ranking third in the National League in runs batted in and seventh in home runs.
It’s been Ryan Howard who has been the most valuable hitter on the team for the past five-plus seasons. Howard won the 2005 Rookie of the Year award and the 2006 Most Valuable Player award. He finished fifth in 2007, second in 2008, and third in 2009. Even during his well-publicized down season last year, he finished 10th in MVP voting.
Howard has never received the praise he deserves for stealing the first base job away from Jim Thome during the 2005 season. Thome, after all, hit 47 home runs in 2003 and 42 home runs in 2004. He was, along with Bobby Abreu, Jimmy Rollins, and Chase Utley, the backbone of the team, and Howard took his starting role pretty easily.
In the 2008 World Series, Howard hit three home runs and drove in six runs. In 2009, Howard won the National League Championship Series MVP.
But Howard has always received the blame for what he can’t do instead of what he did do. He took a lot of (well-deserved) heat for striking out 13 times in the 2009 World Series. And critics were merciless when he failed to drive in a run during the 2010 postseason. His lasting image, as of now, is his strikeout looking to end the NLCS against the San Francisco Giants.
No matter what Howard does, he hasn’t been the fan favorite that Utley has.
Utley does have a well-deserved reputation as a hustler who will do anything to get on base and help his team win a game. He regularly leads the league in hit by pitches, and he’s made a few plays that fans will never forget, such as his fake-to-first and throw-to-home in the fifth game of the 2008 World Series. He also belted five home runs against the Yankees in the 2009 World Series, including two in Game 1 and two in Game 5.
He’s been the best second baseman in the National League, maybe in all of baseball, since 2005. He’s a five-time All-Star who has finished in the top 15 of MVP voting five times.
But he’s never finished higher than seventh in the MVP voting, let alone win an MVP like Ryan Howard.
He’s also had his share of postseason struggles. He hit .167 in the 2008 World Series win. And he’s a .243 career postseason hitter, hitting .211 or worse in five of the nine postseason series he’s played in.
But in Philadelphia, popuarity is based as much on success as it is on attitude. Utley is a blue-collar guy, the kind of athlete who thrives in a passionate city like Philadelphia.
The popular saying in Philadelphia has been that Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins are the MVP winners but Utley is the player who makes the team go around.
Utley better than Rollins? Definitely. There aren’t many people who would argue with.
But Utley over Howard? Maybe. It’s a lot closer than people have realized.
All Ryan Howard does every year is hit 40 to 45 home runs and drive in 130 runs. His batting average is very respectable for such a dominant power hitter. He’s rarely injured. His defense is a little underrated. He makes a lot of big hits in the postseason.
Howard and Utley are pretty equal as players. They’re both among the best in the game. At this stage in their career, Howard might be the safer option.
But as for popularity, he’ll never match Chase Utley. He just doesn’t have the same blue-collar attitude.
And that’s why he’ll always be underappreciated.