SURPRISE, Ariz.—Surprise Saguaros pitcher Nick Howard is in the midst of a very long yet exhilarating baseball season.
The 21-year-old righthander from the University of Virginia began his year with his college team's winter throwing program just Jan. 1. More than nine months later he's still pitching, only now across the country in the Arizona desert. In that time, Howard converted from a starting role at Virginia to be the team's closer before moving back into the rotation after joining the Cincinnati Reds as their first-round pick in June.
Howard also pitched deep into the college season with the Cavs reaching the College World Series finals before losing to Vanderbilt in the championship game.
Despite the finish, Howard's time in Omaha with his college teammates is something he'll never forget.
“That was a great experience," Howard said. “That's why you sign up to go to college just to have that kind of experience. The last couple of weeks of the season and into the postseason our team had something really special going, and that's something we'll cherish for the rest of our lives."
Howard saved 20 games for the Cavaliers, posting a 1.91 ERA with 60 strikeouts in 37 2/3 innings, while also seeing time in the Virginia infield. After signing with Cincinnati for just under $2 million, the 19th overall pick reported directly to low Class A Dayton and pitched in 11 games, going 2-1, 3.74 with a .233 average against.
He's now capping off his whirlwind season with an assignment to the prestigious Arizona Fall League, one of only three 2014 draftees in the AFL.
It would be understandable if Howard was both mentally and physically overloaded. Instead, he's still feeling strong and ready to keep going.
“You just have to know how to manage your body," Howard said. “I like hitting the weight room pretty good after a start so I can get all that energy back in my body that I lost."
In addition to the ongoing adjustment to a starting role that he had in his sophomore year at Virginia as well as the next summer in the Cape Cod League, a goal for Howard this fall is to continue to improve his current four-pitch mix. Howard's fastball has been up to 96 and he's working to get consistency with his off-speed pitches.
Surprise pitching coach Jeff Andrews (Rangers) noticed in Howard's most recent start that his usually more reliable slider wasn't as effective, so he instead went more with the changeup and curveball. “That's a good thing that (the other secondary pitches) are starting to take a place in his mindset when he's out there pitching," Andrews said.
Improving his other secondary pitches is all part of what Howard is trying to accomplish during the fall season.
“I'm really trying to focus on my breaking ball and changeup," he said, “and trying to get lefty hitters out with the changeup and keeping hitters off-balance by taking off speed or (if) it's a breaking ball trying to change their eye level and keep them off-balance."
A change to his delivery has been another big adjustment for Howard since turning pro. Like all pitchers coming through the program at Virginia, he would start his delivery with a bend in the knees. The purpose, according to Howard, is to stay on your legs and focus on throwing with your legs.
The Reds, instead, have Howard standing straight and trying to be fluid with his motion.
Andrews remarked that Howard tends to throw across his body at times and is working on being more direct to the plate with his lower half.
The return to the rotation hasn't been that big of a change for Howard, although it took a little getting used to.
“There's an adjustment period," Howard said. “The first couple of starts I had this summer I had gone through some trial-and-error stuff, like how much time I took to warm up and how many pitches I wanted to throw between my starts. It's been an adjustment period, but I'm starting to find myself."
One more subtle change is that Howard is now clean-shaven. While he didn't keep the facial hair on through the whole season as Virginia's closer, it was something he tried out for the intimidation factor soon after assuming that role.
“It got to the point where I didn't shave for a while," Howard said, with a laugh. “I didn't plan on having a superstition, but teammates were giving me some crap about it and said I couldn't shave so that's how it happened."
One big plus that Howard sees as a starting pitcher is that he'll eventually he'll get more opportunity to bat, something he misses from his days as a two-way player.
“When I'm shagging (in) BP I still feel like I should be hitting," Howard said, “but whenever I get pitcher's BP or hopefully if I get a chance to hit next year I'll definitely be looking forward to it."
Being with a National League affiliate means that Howard will be able to get back into the batter's box when he makes it to the Double-A level. Considering the progress he's made already, that may happen as soon as next season.
The industry angst over the well-publicized regular season difficulties of 2013 first overall pick Mark Appel (Astros) seems a distant memory as the Stanford product has pitched very effectively for the Salt River Rafters. Appel is unscored upon in his first 12 AFL innings, yielding only four hits while striking out 12 batters.
He got his first AFL win Monday, throwing five scoreless innings in a 4-2 win over Peoria.
In his second start Appel was called for exceeding the 20-second pitch limit being tested at Salt River Fields, resulting in an automatic ball, but that was just a temporary setback in an outstanding game.
Appel has been working with his fastball in the 93-97 mph range, a slider at 82-87 and a changeup 82-84. To add to his effectiveness, he's been able to take something off his slider with more up and down movement. According to a scout covering the Arizona Fall League, “He's throwing with confidence and making some tough pitches versus some good hitters."
Frank Kremblas (Pirates) was filling in for Jeff Banister as the Scottsdale Scorpions interim manager while the latter interviewed for a big league job. With Banister being named the Texas Rangers new manager, Kremblas will now stay at the helm of the Scorpions through the rest of the AFL season.