Spencer Howard spent a large portion of this season in the big leagues, but his time with Philadelphia Phillies so far in 2021 was hardly an extended look.
The 24-year-old made nine appearances — including five starts — in the majors, yet never threw more than four innings in a game. A combination of pitch count restrictions, an inconsistent role and ineffectiveness as he threw deeper into games forced him into pitching only short outings.
But that could be changing soon as Howard, now back in the minors leagues for the second time this year, looks to build the stamina and workload of a regular starter.
“As far as I know, that’s the plan,” Howard said Thursday via Zoom from the home dugout at the Lehigh Valley IronPigs’ Coca-Cola Park. “They did tell me that they were going to take the reins off and let me get up to 100 pitches here pretty soon, so that’s exciting.”
The team’s top pitching prospect entering the season, Howard began the year in Lehigh Valley at the team’s alternate training site, working to pitch in a multi-inning “hybrid” role. He was then called up for two separate stints to pitch in relief in April.
Pitching in that multi-inning relief spot was new for Howard and took time getting used to.
“They kind of wanted to stretch me out and see just what the year was going to hold, I guess,” he said. “I wasn’t completely new to the bullpen either. I had been in the bullpen in college too, so it wasn’t completely foreign. But just to do it at that level was a little bit of an adjustment.”
Howard didn’t have a fully defined role like a closer or set-up man does. He needed to be ready to throw if the starter was pulled early or if the team needed to use him late. It was fairly demanding.
“I’d say the, the mental side of being in the bullpen is pretty taxing,” Howard noted. “And it’s not something that I even realized. And probably a lot of people don’t realize that. If the starter gets in any sorts of trouble, then you kind of expect the phone to ring and you want to have been like fully prepped and be prepared to get in the game. … But for me when I was there, I wanted to be prepared for any situation.”
Howard was optioned in time for Triple-A opening day on May 4 and took on another role. The right-hander made three starts for the IronPigs in May, going two, three and four innings apiece.
Then on May 22, Howard returned to the majors to pitch as a starter, but usually with another “piggyback” pitcher such as Ranger Suárez or Bailey Falter to follow in long relief.
In his nine major-league outings, Howard threw 21 2/3 innings with a 5.82 ERA. He was sent down to Lehigh Valley again on June 29 to stretch his arm out.
“Getting his pitch count up,” IronPigs pitching coach Aaron Fultz said the goal is on Tuesday. “Just getting him ready to hopefully go back up there and contribute whenever he gets the chance, but just making sure his arm strength stays up.”
The plan certainly indicates the Phillies want Howard to prepare as a starter who can pitch deep into games.
“The only thing I know is we’re getting his pitch count up, and I don’t see any other reason for that other than: one — to get experience — and two — to be a starter,” Fultz said. “I mean, if they were looking for him to be a reliever, I think he’d probably need more preparation down here for that, so I’m assuming a starter. Again, we’re getting his pitch count up as high as we can.”
The pitch count has been a concern, because Howard dealt with shoulder injuries in the 2019 and 2020 seasons. The Phillies didn’t want to give him a full workload right away and possibly need to shut him down late in the season, so they decided on the hybrid role. Poor performance and time on the injured list from starters later Chase Anderson and Matt Moore pushed Howard into the rotation, even though he was only able to provide short starts.
With Moore returning and starting to pitch well, the Phillies sent Howard down. The young pitcher understood and accepted the decision.
“Obviously, I would want to be in the big leagues,” Howard said. “But having an opportunity like this to just focus on my craft and kind of get back into higher pitch counts and try to work through lineups three times and all the intricacies of pitching is really exciting.”
As a starter in the big leagues, Howard didn’t face an opposing lineup three times through in 2021. In addition to the pitch count limits, Howard struggled too much while facing hitters twice. Opponents batted .103/.222/.128 when facing Howard as a starter the first time, but slashed .353/.520/.824 the second time.
The Phillies believe that can be fixed with better control of Howard’s breaking pitches. The pitcher also saw his fastball velocity dip as he went deeper into games, but Howard said that can be corrected with a few mechanical adjustments.
The real issue, according to both Fultz and Howard, was hitters being able to jump on fastballs in their second plate appearances, because they knew they wouldn’t be thrown other pitches for strikes.
“His fastball plays well, even at 92 or 94 [mph], because he has angle on it and he sticks it where it’s supposed to be. It’s just all about off-speed command,” Fultz said. “I mean, you’re talking about guys in the big leagues who are the best in the world at what they do. And that’s hit fastballs typically.”
Howard added: “If you can locate off-speed and get guys off your fastball, it makes your fastball play that much better. And I know it’s in there. In the past, I felt really good just flicking off-speed stuff in, in any count. And then for whatever reason — it might have been mechanical or just not getting deep into games or whatnot — but that became kind of a struggle for me, probably in the past year and a half.”
That was less of a problem for Howard in his first start back with Lehigh Valley. This past Saturday against the Buffalo Bisons in Trenton, he tossed five innings for the first time all season at any level, allowing no runs and just one hit with five strikeouts and two walks. He threw 68 pitches, matching a season high.
His most recent outing was definitely an important stepping stone, but there’s more work to be done.
“The way I like to describe it … is: Here, five innings in Triple-A is probably equivalent to three in the big leagues, so it’s still a different ballgame,” Fultz said. “But when he can hold his velo and his stuff over six, seven innings here, I think there’ll be a big confidence booster for him.”
Howard seemed ready to use his return to the minor leagues to build himself back up as a starting pitcher.
“I could have looked at it as being bummed that I was getting sent down, or excited to work on it,” he said. “And I think I chose the ‘excited to work’ mindset.”
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