CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Is the big guy back?

The statistics say sure: a .311 average, five homers and a team-leading 18 hits and 12 RBIs. Even his outs have been smacked.

"He's hitting the ball to left field," hitting coach Milt Thompson said. "Once he does that, it's easy. That's his strength."

Though Howard will never acknowledge that he's content with his batting stroke, the results say it's fine. The 2006 NL MVP has produced much better than last spring, when a poor spring led to daily "what's wrong" inquiries.

It got so bad that Howard declared a mental health day, and refused to answer questions. A right-quadriceps injury contributed to a slow start and the final results showed a nearly 50-point drop in batting average. Still, he clubbed 47 homers and drove in 136 runs in a down year.

A down year?

"Everybody talks about a bad year, but that's a [heck] of a bad year," Thompson said. "When you put up the numbers he's put up [in 2006], you tend to expect that. He hit over .300 and had a great, MVP year. He wasn't healthy a lot of the year, and struggled a little bit. When you're not healthy, you try to compensate in a lot of ways."

Quietly, the $10 million slugger regained the opposite-field swat that earned him the MVP Award in 2006. Thompson could Howard is similar to Mike Piazza in terms of waiting on a ball long enough to pound in hard the other way.

For his part, Howard expects bigger things after admittedly arriving in camp overweight, the overcompensating for his injury by trying to pull balls into an over-shift, which turned line drives into outs.

"People look at it as far as the home runs and the average being down, they [should] look at it and say, 'Hey, this guy hit 47 home runs and missed 25 games,'" Howard said. "You had the leader, [Alex Rodriguez] hit 54 and played pretty much the full schedule without getting hurt.

"Then, you look at how many hits were taken away by teams playing the shift. That's probably the difference.You can look at the numbers the way they are, but you also have to look at some other factors in the game. Some people can choose to look at it straight up and say he did what he did and it's an off-year. And people can look at it the other way and say, he did what he did, but he missed 20 games."

Thompson didn't hesitate when asked about Howard's spring.

"I just want him to concentrate on seeing the ball and trusting his hands. He's a great hitter. He's going to do his thing. No doubt about that."