,PHILADELPHIA -- The second-leading home run hitter in the National League is not going to the All-Star Game, even if he does lead the league in RBIs and games played and RBIs per at-bat, even if he is ranked in the Top 10 in hitting with runners in scoring position.
Not even if he is the MVP once removed.
Not for $10 million.
"The numbers," Ryan Howard was saying Monday night, in the clubhouse before the Phillies-Mets game, trying to do the math and winding up as stumped as everyone. "I'm not settling for them."
Even as baseball made a 21st-century shift from a sport to high algebra, with the sabermetricians figuring it all out on a spreadsheet and not a boxscore, Howard is singlehandedly complicating every known formula for the sport's ultimate solution.
There he is, having one of the best seasons, statistically, that a player can enjoy, entering play Monday on a course for 138 RBIs and 42 home runs.
Yet there he is, too, having one of the least productive seasons, statistically, that a player can be made to endure, on a pace for 224 strikeouts and a batting average of .223.
Practically no one achieves the ultimate batters-box achievement -- swatting a ball over the fence -- with more regularity. And yet no one had to do more walks of shame after waving at Strike 3.
That means either Howard is the best player in the National League, or that he's down there among the worst. And that makes him the personification of a Phillies season that has tormented fans ... yet nonetheless looks fine enough on paper ... the paper on which the N.L. East standings are printed.
"How would I characterize my first half?" said Howard before Game No. 90. "It was tough. Obviously, people are going to look at the batting average. They are going to look at the strikeouts. The batting average is down. The strikeouts are up, or whatever. Hey, it is what it is. There's not too much, really, that you can do to change it."
He's right. Once the scores are published, the ink doesn't smudge. But while changing the results is impossible, explaining them is still worth a from-the-heels cut. And that's what Howard will do during the upcoming break for the game where the leading RBI and home run hitters typically are on gleaming display.
"I've hit some of those balls that people don't see," he said. "I was hitting balls hard for extended periods of time, but it seemed like everything I hit hard was right at somebody.
I've had balls taken away because of the shift. And I didn't get those -- as I like to call them -- 'floater hits' that you might not necessarily hit hard, but find their way ... those seeing-eye singles, those bloop hits.
"But as far as the home runs and RBIs and that, they are right there."
The shift -- an under-publicized sport-changer as effective as a needle and a vitamin -- has probably robbed Howard of 15 batting-average points, a handful of RBIs and some deserved peace of mind. But there had been 123 times before Monday when the defense could have been sitting upstairs in a club box eating shrimp and still would have gotten him out. Howard has insisted that a strikeout is no different than any other out, and that's true when no one is on base. But a whistler corralled by a centerfielder in the gap adds stress to a defense and rouses a pitcher's nerves, necessitates in pitch-calling adjustments and has the opportunity to result in an error. There's a difference. And that's why Howard isn't settling for his strong midseason candidacy for the Double Crown, even if it would make for a compelling addendum to his next proposal to a salary arbiter.
That's why he is working, when he can, to improve his contact hitting.
"It all depends on the situation," Howard said. "There are times when I will go into the cage and do stuff. And there are other times when I will back off. If there is something that I feel is right on the verge, then I may go and work on something in the cage and hit and see if I can figure it out. If it's not, then there are some things that you just let play out."
The Phillies are into Howard for that $10 million this year -- that, and four years of marketing goodwill. That's why they are letting him play it out. He has played in every game and will continue to do so, even if he hits closer to .200 than to .300. Besides, in that sputtering offense, the guy leading the world in strikeouts is closer to the solution than to the problem, all flaws considered.
In the second inning Monday, Howard muscled a Pedro Martinez pitch into center, and as it bounced in front of Carlos Beltran, he had a 10-game hitting streak. Good hitters produce double-figure streaks. Good hitters lead the league in RBIs. Good hitters challenge for the home run lead.
Sometimes, they even make the All-Star team.
This -- this oddly contradictory season for a recent MVP -- is not one of those times.
"I didn't even think about it," Howard said. "Whatever happened would have happened. First base is a tough position. There are a lot of talented first basemen out there. All the guys who made it deserved to go. They are all having great years. There is nothing shabby about it. It's a tough position. That's what happens."
That's what happens when a great year is also a bad one ... and vice-versa.