Draft Dish: Howard Turns Up Heat With Midland

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Arkansas is known as The Natural State, so it's only fitting that righthander Dillon Howard from Searcy, Ark., is a natural on the mound.

At 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, Howard looks like he was born to pitch and he's been doing so nearly that long.

"I've played baseball ever since I could walk," Howard said. "My dad was a great athlete and he played baseball and kind of got me started into it."

Howard played football, basketball and tennis growing up, but decided to focus solely on baseball in ninth grade. The only other sport he plays now is the occasional round of golf.

"Baseball was the one I excelled at and there's really nothing like toeing the mound and all eyes are on you every pitch," he said. "I thrive on that."

All Eyes On Midland

Howard has had plenty of eyes on him over the past two summers as a member of the Midland Redskins, one of the nation's most successful summer outfits. While some players might buckle under the pressure of being away from home or the pressure of playing everyday, Howard rose to the occasion. Howard is just the latest top prospect to call Amelia, Ohio, home for the summer as a member of the Redskins. The program, which started in 1966, has produced several big leaguers, including Barry Larkin, Ken Griffey, Mark Mulder, Zack Greinke and Brett Anderson, to name a few.

"That's my greatest baseball experience," Howard said about playing for Midland. "I plan on going back this summer. It's just so unique to any situation. You have kids from all over the country that come in and stay with host families. We practice or have games every day with one day off, so you're with a core group of guys every day for a summer. So you bond with them and make relationships and make new friends."

The experience is very similar to summer college leagues and helps prepare players for what to expect at the next level, whether that's in college—Howard is committed to Arkansas—or at the professional level.

"It's almost like I had a head start, that's how I like to think about it," Howard said. "I had a head start on a lot of people by going to the Midland program. It was the first time I've been away from home and it's a true test of character. It's all about accountability and being responsible for yourself without your parents checking in on you. It's a character test and I'm glad I went because it made me stronger, not only as a pitcher, but as a person, as well."

Over his past two summers in Ohio, Howard has lived with Midland's director of operations, Brian Hiler. Hiler said he noticed a big change in Howard from the summer of 2009 to last summer. There were physical changes, sure, but Howard's biggest evolution was with regard to the mental aspect of the game. He showed a lot more maturity last year, worked on getting into a better routine between starts and, ultimately, made the leap from a thrower to a pitcher.

The changes manifested with Howard showing more stamina on the mound.

"I think the biggest thing you see from him is endurance," Hiler said. "His ability to go six, seven, eight innings is because of his endurance and that has a lot to do with his conditioning. He runs like crazy. He's not a traditional weightlifter. He's a lightweight guy with a lot of reps. And he runs and runs and runs. He does sit-ups, he does medicine balls . . . he builds up his endurance and that's where we saw the biggest jump this year."

That added endurance helped the Redskins defend their Connie Mack World Series title in Farmington, N.M. While just playing for a team like Midland helps a player grow up, having the team reach the Connie Mack World Series takes things to the next level.

"Farmington, New Mexico is 6,500 fans per game, sold out, scalping tickets, going crazy," Hiler said. "They live and die for this. I mean, the town shuts down, they have a parade and it's a lot of pressure. It's the closest thing to Omaha that these kids are going to get at the amateur level. That's bigger than some minor league stadiums draw. And when it's packed wall-to-wall and you've got the ball with a bunch of flash bulbs going off in a night game in the desert, I think it's going to help anybody."

Howard was the team's ace last year and was named the Connie Mack MVP. He was up against some tough competition, too. After all, the team Midland beat in the championship game was the D-BAT Mustangs, who featured Oklahoma fireballers Archie Bradley and Dylan Bundy. Other pitchers in the tournament included this year's top high school lefthander, Daniel Norris, and 2010 Rangers' supplemental first rounder Luke Jackson, among others.

Heavy Fastball, Heavy Praise

With his combination of size, stuff and track record, Howard could be the first high school first rounder from Arkansas since the Astros drafted Tony McKnight in 1995 and could even surpass Hugh Walker (No. 18, 1988) as the earliest Arkansas prep pick ever.

"I saw him last spring early in the season and it was early and really, really cold that day, but I was impressed with his size and his body because he was just a junior at that time," an American League scout said. "His arm worked good and you can see there's a lot of potential there. I was really impressed with his body and his makeup and his mound presence. He looked like a young Roger Clemens."

Howard throws a four- and two-seam fastball, a changeup and a breaking ball that he calls a curveball, though because of his lower three-quarters arm slot it moves more like a slider.

"I feel like I can throw any pitch at any time," Howard said. "I like to think I can use any of my pitches in any count to any hitter. I feel like you have to do that to get to the next level, much less succeed."

While his fastball sits in the low to mid 90s with reports that he touched 98 this summer, it's not his best offering, according to Hiler.

"His changeup's his best pitch by a mile," Hiler said. "He's got the same arm action, same arm angle, same mechanics, same delivery. . . same everything as a fastball, except the grip's different and it's got some major sink to it. We play wood bat all day, every day and I can't tell you how many groundballs he threw."

Hiler said Howard also shows maturity beyond his years by making in-game adjustments and working on his craft in game situations, not just during bullpen sessions.

"The great part about him is, if you watch him real closely and we're up big in a game, he's not afraid to experiment in the game with different pitches," Hiler said. "You can work on stuff in the bullpen all you want, but sometimes you have to work on it in the game. He obviously picked his moments, but he's very good at being able to work on things within the game."

As a bonus, Howard's skills in the kitchen go pitch-for-pitch with his talents on the mound.

"He's a great kid," Hiler said. "I've got two young boys and he wrestles with them like he's a big brother. He helps out around the house. He'll get up and make homemade doughnuts from scratch for my boys. I mean, with the powdered sugar and everything. . . it's like having Krispy Kreme at your house, or something."

Howard laughed off the praise.

"It's not really a secret, it's just biscuit dough," Howard said. "You just do it in a pan or a skillet with oil and it's deep fried doughnuts. My dad taught me how to do it and I thought it was pretty cool."

From The Draft Blog

• The last time Villanova produced single-digit draft picks in back-to-back years was 1971-1972. But, after outfielder Matt Szczur went in the fifth round to the Cubs last year, the Wildcats could do it again this year thanks to righthander Kyle McMyne. A bad inning allowed Duke to beat Villanova on Feb. 25 in front of 12 scouts, but McMyne looked like a single-digit pick. His fastball sat in the 93-95 mph range and he touched 96 several times. He threw a 12-6 curveball in the 75-78 mph range, a slider between 82-84 mph and mixed in a couple changeups. "The breaking balls were pretty good," said one scout in attendance. "There were flashes that were above-average and then there's a few that kind of hung up there a little bit. You're looking for some consistency, but the flashes are there. I think they're both separators and they both have value."

• Righthander Carson Baranik from Parkway High in Bossier City, La. spent the summer traveling around the country as part of the showcase circuit. He mostly pitched at 86-89 mph during his outings, but the time spent around all the other pitchers inspired him to work harder on his conditioning and he also started on a long toss program this winter. The early results are nice: Baranik was up to 95 mph in workouts before his senior season began. "He's sitting 91-93. He's not staying 95, but he's been there," a National League area scout said. "There's effort behind it—not the head whack and recoil and all that, that's not what I'm talking about—but it's a strong delivery. You can tell he's trying to throw hard, which is fine. I don't know if he's going to stay at 95, but he's been there."