Like you and everybody else, Spencer Howard is looking to put 2020 behind him.
Last season was a turbulent go for the Phillies’ top pitching prospect. Plagued by arm fatigue and shoulder injuries, Howard struggled with maintaining his velocity through what were a difficult opening 24.1 IP to his major league career.
Howard, who is competing for a spot in the back of the team’s starting rotation this spring, is now healthy after an offseason in which he was able to regroup and resume his normal training regimen. According to Howard, the starts and stops of two different lead ups to last season derailed his preparation, which took a toll both physically and mentally.
“I think that was a pretty big part of it. A lot of my mental aggressiveness comes from preparation, so not having access to a full gym and what would have been my normal routine leading up to spring training during that three month shutdown there from the first spring training to the second spring training really did a number,” Howard said Wednesday afternoon following workouts in Clearwater.
The unique circumstances in which Howard began his career were less than ideal, particularly for a rookie who had not previously pitched above Double-A.
On Sept. 13, the day after he lasted just 3.2 IP in a start against the Marlins, the Phillies placed Howard on the injured list. It would be the last time he would pitch in 2020, leaving him with an unimpressive 5.92 ERA and 1.64 WHIP during limited game action.
Howard described his injury as rotator cuff inflammation. It was the second time in as many years he had arm trouble, but he doesn’t anticipate recurring issues moving forward.
“It’s nothing structural. I think I took a month off throwing. I was doing PT a couple times a week this offseason and I focused a lot on my hips, so I think a lot of it had to do with just from the shutdown, sitting more than normal, leading up to spring training, my body just wasn’t functioning like it should have,” he said. “For me, it was tough to battle through that and do what I could, but I’m excited for this year. I think a lot of it cleaned up this offseason. Mechanically, I’m feeling good right now.”
To be fair, it wasn’t all bad for Howard, who showed glimpses of his potential, particularly early in games.
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) August 20, 2020
He held opposing hitters to a .184/.259/.204 slash line the first time through the lineup last season. The line skyrocketed to .405/.460/.738 his second time through the order.
Despite the shaky numbers, manager Joe Girardi seems to share optimism about Howard’s physical progression this spring.
“I think the stamina issues, getting through the lineup the second and third time, we can trace that back to some possible things,” Girardi said. “The weight loss in between camp one and two. He’s actually looked really good this spring and he looked really good in the first spring training last year, too. He looks much stronger to me. He looks like his endurance is going to be much better, and that’s a good sign for all of us.”
One key for Howard will be maintaining his plus velocity deeper into his outings. He completed five full innings just once in his six starts.
“Last year, I would feel good, and then, all the sudden, everybody saw the velo would go down during games and it would take me a little bit longer to get warmed up, so it wasn’t as sharp of a pain, like pinchy in my shoulder,” he said.
“It was just more of like, ‘Oh, I don’t have that much there anymore,’ which was more concerning to me, honestly, because it was like, ‘Well, am I just a bad pitcher now? Am I going to throw slow forever, is this the new me, I guess?’ But getting away from last year and having some time off really helped, so I’m excited.”
Howard remains confident that the work he put in this offseason has him physically right.
Now he must prove he belongs in a rotation that suddenly features legitimate depth. The organization made late offseason additions in both Matt Moore and Chase Anderson. Vince Velasquez also remains in the mix.
Meanwhile, recent reports indicate the team has also checked in on free agent starting pitcher Jake Odorizzi.
That leaves open the possibility that Howard could begin the season at Triple-A or in the Phillies’ revamped bullpen. For now, he says he’s not worried about where he will be on Opening Day.
“I know if I take care of what I need to take care of, and if I can keep my shoulder feeling good and just do what I know I can do, then everything else will happen and I won’t have to worry about anything,” he said.
Girardi previously indicated the the fourth and fifth rotation spots are up for grabs. When asked if Howard would head to Triple-A to stretch out as a starter should he not win one of the available spots, the manager was noncommittal.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say that because you just don’t know what’s going to happen in spring training,” he said before noting, “We’re here to win, so if we have to be a little bit creative, we will be.”