Originally posted on Phillies Nation  |  Last updated 6/30/12

Ryan Howard hadn’t run the bases in a competitive situation until arriving in Lakewood on Thursday. He hadn’t hit in a game that counted. Until Friday, he hadn’t fielded at game speed.

That the Phillies chose to allow Howard to play first base one night after he made his rehab debut was a positive sign. Howard in his postgame press conference Thursday said repeatedly that he didn’t know what the next step was. He didn’t know if he’d play two nights in a row. He didn’t know when he’d play the field. He had to talk the “guys upstairs.”

Then about 10 minutes later, Lakewood’s director of public relations entered the press room and announced that Howard would play first base Friday night.

The Phillies miss Ryan Howard. A lot.

This season has taught us a lot about the Phillies. One lesson is that, despite what WAR may and may not say, a platoon of mediocre first basemen is not equal to Howard. Forget about the strikeouts and the declining slash-lines. The prior notion that a league-average first baseman could produce as much as Howard is simply not true.

Phillies’ first basemen entered Friday with a season batting line of .261/.321/.417, with 11 homers and 41 RBI. They had 26 walks to 80 strikeouts.

In 2011, easily the worst season of Howard’s career, he hit .253/.352/.484 over the first 78 games, with 16 homers and 62 RBI. He had 41 walks to 88 strikeouts.

Those numbers are nearly identical to what Curtis Granderson is doing this season, and Granderson has been worth 10.8 offensive runs so far, according to Fangraphs. Phillies’ first basemen have been worth 1.4 offensive runs.

Howard had five more homers, 21 more RBI, 15 more walks and eight more strikeouts through 78 games than the Phillies’ 2012 first basemen. Thirty-one more points of OBP, 67 more points of slugging.

That difference of nearly 10 runs between Howard and the collection of Ty Wigginton, Laynce Nix, Jim Thome and John Mayberry could have come at any time. It could have come in the form of a first-inning three-run homer that allowed the Phils to cruise to a victory they didn’t get. It could have come in the form of an RBI single with a runner on third, where Mayberry or Wigginton flew out gently. With how awfully the Phils have performed in close games this season, no single run can be taken for granted.

Howard will return at July 17 or earlier, barring a setback. He is no longer worried about his Achilles’, he said Thursday night, only about recovering his timing at the plate, in the field and on the bases. He won’t be 100 percent during the second-half of the season, but 85 percent of Ryan Howard is still probably more valuable than the league-average production the Phils have received from first base.

Those prolonged myths about Howard being expendable because his WAR said so… those can be laid to rest.

He’s not Joey Votto, he’s not Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder or Miguel Cabrera. But he’s a difference-making bat who will give you between a .850 and .930 OPS over the next handful of seasons. Whether that’s worth $125 million, let’s debate it for the 767th time… another time.

Hopefully the first 78 games of the 2012 season explained why we’ve been foolish to take Ryan Howard for granted.

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