The Phillies rotation received a boost when former top pitching prospect Spencer Howard was recalled from Triple-A last Saturday. The original plan was for Howard, who had recently just lost the prospect label, to serve primarily as a bullpen arm to control his innings in 2021. That had to be scraped a month into the season after it was clear that the team’s seven million dollar investment in back-end starters Matt Moore and Chase Anderson was a wash.
Howard dazzled his way through the first seven hitters in Boston’s order. He struck out five, allowed no hits and sat in the mid-90s with his fastball. The 24-year-old displayed precise command and a confidence in himself that was absent all last year.
Then a familiar problem emerged. His fastball velocity diminished as his outing moved along. In his postgame conference, Howard hinted that his inability to regroup himself after running to first following an at-bat in the second contributed to his struggles.
Some took Howard’s explanation as a flimsy excuse for his velocity dip.
“In the third, the physical part of it is where I kind of got in the way of myself,” Howard said after his start on Saturday, “trying to ramp up and do more than I should have. And that sacrificed location across the board.”
The Phillies would be ecstatic to learn that Howard’s diminished velocity in his first start was a direct result of hustling to first and failing to adjust on the mound accordingly and nothing else. It’s an easy fix to a complicated problem. They’ll know more when Howard takes the mound Thursday against the Miami Marlins and in subsequent starts.
The problem is that Howard’s fastball faded last season. In his only MLB victory against the Washington Nationals on Aug. 31, 2020, Howard’s fastball sat in the 93 to 96 range. By the fifth inning (his longest outing), the fastball was anywhere between 91 and 93. His best start as far as sustained velocity goes came in a Phillies loss against the Toronto Blue Jays in Buffalo on Aug. 20.
The good news is that Howard’s most dramatic dip in velocity last year came in his first outing. The stop-and-start nature of 2020 did him no favors. He battled a shoulder injury that landed him on the injured list in September.
“Last year, I would feel good and then all of a sudden the [velocity] would go down during games and it would take me a little bit longer to get warmed up,” Howard said during spring training. “So it wasn’t as sharp of a pain, like pinchy in my shoulder, it was just more of like ‘I don’t have that much there anymore,’ which is more concerning to me honestly because I was like ‘Well, am I just a bad pitcher now? Am I going to throw slow forever? Is this the new me, I guess?'”
The team is confident that Howard is healthy. Joe Girardi called Howard “a well-conditioned kid” on MLB Network Radio, deflecting the notion that his velocity is down due to a lack of fitness. The Phillies manager attributed his struggles to a lack of aggressiveness, especially when he walked the opposing pitcher Nathan Eovaldi on eight pitches.
The problem is that pitchers can still be aggressive in the strike zone without velocity. Girardi’s explanation for why Howard lost heat on his fastball doesn’t address the actual problem. If Howard is healthy and sustaining velocity is still an issue, the Phillies might have a much bigger problem on their hands.
The team needs Howard to hover around 93 to 94 in the fourth inning. He won’t be asked to throw into the sixth or seventh innings because his innings limit won’t allow for it. The bullpen should be able to cover five or six innings on his start day because they have multiple long relief options in Anderson, Ranger Suárez and David Hale and a top three in Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler and Zach Eflin that consistently eat up innings.
“There are internal things that we continue to work on,” Girardi said Wednesday. “His health is really good … We hope to see more consistency through his next start and we’ll just continue to work on it.”
Howard had three minor-league outings in preparation for his eventual return to the mound. Girardi said he may have lost a mile or two on the fastball in the outings, but not enough to consider it an issue. In his first MLB start of 2021 on Saturday, Howard maxed out at 97 in the first and fell to 90 by the fourth. They’ll sound an alarm if this becomes a trend over time.
The right-hander does deserve a bit of leeway in this situation. The Phillies have gone back-and-forth with their plans regarding how they’ll best deploy Howard. A clean outing against a depleted Marlins lineup could ease some anxiety, but if the third inning comes around and Howard can’t throw consistently into the mid-90s, the Phillies are going to have to start tackling tough questions on what Howard’s long-term future with the organization looks like. Being a full-time reliever in the long run won’t be the worst thing for him. Right now, the Phillies need Howard to be their fifth starter and he can’t be effective if he consistently loses velocity as his outing moves along.
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