CLEARWATER, Fla. -- As a point of reference, consider the home run Ryan Howard hit on the evening of Aug. 31, 2006, at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium in Washington. That shot, off Pedro Astacio, was significant on at least two levels.
First, it was Howard's 49th homer of the year, breaking the single-season franchise record previously held by Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt.
More subtly, the blast reached the upper deck, just to the left of dead center field, close to the deepest part of the cavernous old ballyard. The following season, Howard hit what is generally regarded to be the longest home run in the history of Citizens Bank Park, a drive off Aaron Harang of the Reds that cleared the brick batter's eye in center field.
Fast forward to the Phillies' Grapefruit League game against the Pirates on March 2. Howard flied out to left field in his first two at-bats. But there's a connection to be made here.
From 2006-09, Howard averaged 50 homers and 143 RBIs per season. He won the National League Most Valuable Player Award once (in 2006) and finished second ('08), third ('09) and fifth ('07) in the other years. In those days, Howard hit the ball where it was pitched, which often meant it was hit to left or center field.
But then Howard started trying to pull the ball more often. He hasn't been the same hitter since. And while there have obviously been other factors that led to Howard's reduced production -- most notably the ruptured Achilles tendon he suffered in the final game of the 2011 NL Division Series and the ankle problems that preceded it -- he is working hard this spring to return to those thrilling days of yesteryear by rebooting his approach at the plate.
So far, the results have been noticeable. After Tuesday's game against the Braves, Howard had put the ball in play 15 times. Ten times the ball went to left or center. Only five times -- 33 percent -- has he pulled it. Last year, according to BaseballReference.com, Howard pulled the ball 40.3 percent of the time.
"I've never been a pull hitter. But my biggest problem was trying to pull the ball. Now I'm trying to work back to what my strength is," Howard said. "I'm trying to work the middle of the field. That's the goal. It's all about timing. It's all about rhythm."
In 2006, only nine of Howard's 58 homers (15.5 percent) were pulled. In the past two seasons, seven of his 25 homers (28 percent) went to right. Howard isn't quite sure how things got so out of whack.
"It's a lot of it that was kind of preached over the years, trying to have me pull the ball, and I just got away from what I do. What my strength was. The battle now is to try to find that and get that back," he said. "You get in the habit of trying to pull the ball, and sometimes you start trying to cheat and they throw the ball away. It should be reaction, unless you're actually looking for that specific pitch.
"I'm just trying to hit to my strengths, and not swing at weaknesses or pitcher's pitches. Sometimes it just happens. But we want to try to minimize that and maximize the goodness as much as possible."
It almost goes without saying that a bounceback year by their cleanup hitter would mean a lot for the Phils, who have struggled to score in recent seasons. Last season's 610 runs was the club's lowest full-season total since 1988.
"[Howard is] much better when he uses the whole field," said one longtime NL scout. "When he came up, he was very good at going the other way. And it's really what made him into a top-flight player. Then he got very pull-happy. First, it makes him much easier to defend. And, secondly, it's affected his mindset.
"So he's getting back to his roots, basically. When he first came up, that's what he did a lot. He's getting back to that, which is good for him, and obviously good for the team."
Ryne Sandberg also noted that one way to neutralize the extreme shift teams routinely employ against Howard is to hit the ball the other way.
"With the defense and the shift alignment, going to left-center and working to left field works to his advantage, because the defense isn't there," the manager pointed out. "Just opening up the field. His stroke is left-center to right-center. When he's right and the pitch is away, that's where he needs to hit those pitches."
Steve Henderson said the Phillies aren't using any special drills or gimmicks to help Howard get back into the habit of going the other way.
"He's doing it on his own," the hitting coach said. "He's concentrating on trying to hit the ball up the middle more.
"He knows where they're pitching him. So he's trying to make the adjustments. In the past, he always hit the ball hard over there. We're just trying to get back to where he was in his MVP year and everything. He can pull the ball. That's no problem. But if they're pitching him away, he's got to make that adjustment.
"He's working hard at it. If we can get him back there, everything will be fine. Real fine."
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com.