While the team didn’t explicitly say his name, it’s looking likely that today is the debut of the Phillies’ top prospect Spencer Howard. Manager Joe Girardi mentioned the initials “S.H.” when asked who would be starting the second game of today’s doubleheader, so unless Scott Hartnell has suddenly developed a curveball, we can be pretty safe in our assumption of who it will be.
Many of you are familiar with Howard and how much his success could mean to the team this year and beyond. It’s an enormous amount of pressure that is being heaped on the young man’s shoulders, but that is partially due to the fact that poor player development on the part of the team has forced us as fans to bring those expectations out when a player shows even a shred of potential. Had someone else been drafted, developed and graduated to the major leagues that looks to have even close to the talent that Howard has, the team would not be in position to rely on free agent help so much, but here we are.
For those of you that aren’t as familiar with Howard, let’s take a look at some of the scouting reports that have floated about this season prior to the coronavirus pandemic shuttering minor league baseball for the season. From Baseball Prospectus:
Spencer Howard had a breakout at the end of the 2018 season, leading to anticipation about how quickly he could move through the organization during the 2019 season. The Phillies conservatively did not double jump him past Clearwater. Instead, an early season arm injury cost him two months and delayed his promotion to Double-A until late July. In addition to the missed time, it meant that it was over four months into the season until the late 2018 version of Howard took the mound.
Once he did get fully healthy to end the season Howard was back to sitting mid 90s, touching 99. Howard did lose velocity during his starts, but that could potentially be attributed to his conditioning being thrown off by the injury. His top secondary pitch is his changeup, a future plus pitch with good arm-side fade that took a large step forward late in the season. Howard’s slider gives him a second plus pitch. It is a two-plane breaker, that can sometimes get a bit long and loopy. He still leans too much on his humpy curveball, which is at best an average pitch. It has been effective in the minors based on the velocity separation from the fastball, but advanced hitters will be able to read it out of his hand.
Howard repeats his delivery well, and has made big strides with consistency in pro ball. Like many young pitchers he is still working to fully make the move from control to command, but he has shown the ability to work his fastball up and his changeup to the outside of the zone.
The arm injury could have set back Howard’s timetable for the majors, but the Phillies made sure he got plenty of innings in Double-A and the AFL to close the gap. He will compete for a spot out of the Phillies rotation to open the season, but the team has expressed a desire for him to get some work in with the major league ball in Triple-A before reaching the majors.
As a bonus from BP, friend of the site Matt Winkelman wrote up a piece about Howard this week over there. Here is the main takeaway from that write-up:
Immediate Big-League Future: On talent, Howard is probably the Phillies third-best starting pitcher. Prior to the COVID-19 shutdown, the Phillies were looking to limit Howard’s innings this season, but given the short season the only limitations will come from ramping back up to a full workload after the shutdown. The Phillies currently have six starting pitchers in their rotation, and will likely need at least that for most of the season as they deal with doubleheaders. It is possible Howard sees some time in long relief if Vince Velasquez, Zach Eflin, and Jake Arrieta miraculously string together competent starts, but that is asking a lot. Long term, Howard slots in nicely behind Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler to give the Phillies a good 1-2-3 punch for the next half decade.
Heading over to Fangraphs, we see a lot of the same type of thing from their preseason writeup of Phillies prospects:
Teams were understandably late to identify Howard as an upper-crust draft prospect. He redshirted, then only threw 36 innings the following spring and began his draft year in the bullpen, a relative unknown. He moved to the rotation in March and crosscheckers started showing up to see him much later than is typical for a first look at a second round talent. In 2018, his first full season as a member of the rotation, Howard thrived and late in the year his stuff took off. He was sitting 94-98 and working with three nasty secondary pitches. That carried over to his first four starts of 2019 but was interrupted by shoulder soreness that benched him for two months. After he returned, the Phillies moved him pretty quickly to Double-A for six starts, then had him finish in the Fall League. His stuff was great in Arizona. He touched 99, sat mostly 93-97, his curveball and changeup were both plus, and his slider’s two-plane tilt gives Howard a second viable breaker, capable of garnering whiffs when it’s located away from righties. He barely pitched at Double-A last year and is likely to start 2020 there, but if he’s good for a month, especially in hitter-friendly Reading, then a promotion to Lehigh Valley makes sense. If at any point the competitive Phillies think he’s one of their five best arms, he needs to be in the big leagues.
Again, it’s an impressive scouting report of Howard, one that seems to believe in his ability to be a top of the rotation arm. For another look at the phenom, we can look at Baseball America and see what they believe about Howard:
The two-month layoff did nothing to slow down Howard. He showed up in summer camp and immediately looked like one of the Phillies’ best pitchers. It’s a little much to expect him to be that good in 2020, but it is reasonable to think his four-pitch mix will make him a useful rotation piece for most of this 60-game sprint.
Finally, let’s end our scouting report journey with a look at MLB Pipeline and see what they had to say:
Howard has four potential out pitches at his disposal. He was touching 99 mph during his AFL stint and sits very comfortably in the mid-90s. It has a ton of life in the strike zone and he has the ability to elevate it up to get swings and misses. His breaking balls are two distinct pitches and on any given day, he can use either as out pitches, with his slider a shade better than his curve. The right-hander’s changeup has taken a huge jump forward and it was one of the nastiest secondary offerings in the AFL. He’ll throw it at any point in the count and his confidence in the pitch, which has fade, depth and downward action, has risen as he’s thrown it more.
The only small question about Howard is regarding his command. He struggled a bit with it during the Fall League, but he’s shown the ability to fill up the strike zone in the past with all four pitches and shows very good understanding of hitters and how to get them out. Assuming his command continues to improve, he has the chance to be a frontline starter.
Curiously, Pipeline was the only site that had Howard ranked as their #2 prospect in the system, behind only Alec Bohm.
If you missed any of Howard’s work during the summer camp time, here are a few looks at what he has to offer, along with some older video of his starts back when minor league baseball was still a thing.
Spencer Howard, Filthy Breaking Balls. pic.twitter.com/oJeepw8hhb— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) July 17, 2020
Spencer Howard 7IP 1ER 2H 12K 090519 pic.twitter.com/V0uLTs3EDT— PHI Prospect BurnerAcct (@PBurneracct) September 5, 2019
Get excited, people.