Spencer Howard Dominates On Way To Phillies' Top Spot
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — In 2018, the Lakewood BlueClaws put together a tremendous pitching staff. Their team ERA (2.74) and WHIP (1.15) led the minor leagues, and three of the five starters in the rotation posted ERAs lower than 2.06.
The most talented of those pitchers, however, might have been the one who struggled the most. That would be righthander Spencer Howard, who went 2-6, 6.58 with 45 hits and 18 walks that year between May and June.
Underneath those ghastly numbers was a pitcher with an arsenal of four tremendous pitches but sagging confidence.
“It was a mental battle. There was a stretch there in Lakewood where I had no confidence in any of my pitches,” Howard said during his time in the Arizona Fall League. “So it was having a little success and trying to build off of that and ultimately just learning from it.”
He closed that June with six innings of three-hit shutout ball with 10 strikeouts and one walk against Hagerstown. The outing served as a springboard for the rest of his season. From that start forward, he went 5-1, 2.36 with 71 strikeouts in 53.1 innings.
That doesn’t even include the cherry on top of his season, a nine-inning no-hitter against Kannapolis that sent the BlueClaws to the South Atlantic League’s championship series. His fastball touched 100 mph in that game for the first time in his life, and gave onlookers a preview of what was to come in 2019, when he took the top spot among the Phillies Top 10 prospects.
Although this past season was interrupted by a bout of shoulder soreness that kept him out of action for roughly two months, Howard showcased knockout stuff at high Class A Clearwater and Double-A Reading before heading to the AFL.
The Phillies’ second-round pick in 2017 out of Cal Poly finished the year 3-1, 2.03 with just 43 hits allowed in 71 innings. He struck out 94 and walked just 16.
Howard’s arsenal is fronted by a fastball he throws in the mid-to-upper 90s and is backed by a trio of offspeed pitches that each project as above-average but flash a tick better.
“It’s incredible how he can just go out there and be, like, 96-99, just any given day. It’s really fun to watch, and he’s backing it up with three really good pitches after his fastball,” said Connor Seabold, who was one of Howard’s teammates during the regular season and again in the AFL.
“He’ll drop in a curveball that’s 20 mph (slower than) his fastball, and there’s nothing a guy can do about it. It’s so much fun to watch sometimes. He’s the real deal.”
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Howard went in to his college career expecting to play on the club team at Cal Poly, but his mid-80s fastball helped him earn a spot on the varsity squad as a walk-on. He spent his first season and part of his second season in the bullpen before moving into the rotation for 12 starts during his sophomore year.
By the time he was drafted his body had matured and his fastball had jumped into the low 90s with hints of 96, his slider was flashing above-average and his changeup was beginning to take shape.
“I always felt like I could throw four pitches more or less around the zone, and so it was just being able to repeat my mechanics and do that more consistently,” Howard said. “It still isn’t perfect, but (now it’s about) baby steps.”
Now armed with a full four-pitch complement, Howard impressed scouts all season long.
“He’s a young guy who’s going to have his ups and downs, so some inconsistency is expected. He’s got the body of a horse and the makings of four pitches. His fastball is 93-98 with a chance for a solid-average slider,” a scout who saw Howard early in the season said. “The curveball was a plus pitch and the slider could get to plus too. His changeup has good fade life and gets some swings and misses with it. He’s loaded.”
The changeup was one of Howard’s focal points during the AFL. When he got too rotational in his delivery, the pitch tended to float away from lefthanded hitters. When everything clicked, though, it showed the same fade and bottom as the scout saw early in the season.
He finished the AFL 1-1, 2.11 with 27 strikeouts against 10 walks in 21.1 innings. He’s likely to return to Double-A Reading to begin 2020 but if he shows success similar to what he achieved in 2019, a callup to Philadelphia might not be too far down the road.