Spencer Howard walked on to the baseball team at Cal Poly in the fall of 2014. Three years later, he walked off the field to a standing ovation and into pro ball as the 45th player out of 1,215 to be selected in the 2017 draft.
And in the intervening 33 months?
"We did a lot of stretching routines and kind of some meditation stuff," said Austin Dondanville, Howard's college teammate and close friend. "I think there's something to say about it. I think it kind of clears your mind."
Oh, so that’s how an unrecruited pitcher from a high school of about 800 students in a coastal city in central California turns into the Phillies’ top pitching prospect on the cusp of making his major-league debut Sunday against the two-time division-champion Atlanta Braves at Citizens Bank Park.
“Well, he’s also throwing 98 and got some good off-speed,” Dondanville said last week, laughing through his phone. “He’s just a super-level-headed kid. Doesn’t get too high, doesn’t get too low, but also loves to compete. I think that combination has set him up for success.”
Indeed, Howard exudes a matter-of-factness about his meteoric baseball ascent. The 24-year-old right-hander doesn’t come off aloof or cocky. He just seems, well, unaffected by it all.
Consider his reaction upon hearing a few weeks ago that none other than Bryce Harper pushed for his prompt call-up during a live stream on Twitch.
“It’s cool, man,” said Howard, who might never have known about it if his father hadn’t told him the next day. “Obviously he’s been one of the faces of baseball forever, it seems like. And for him to be a Philadelphia Phillie for [the next] 13 years or however long, I think he’s definitely looking out for younger guys coming up in the system. I think it’s really cool.”
Howard maintains that he’s “not super-big with social media.” He seems almost unaware that he has generated more hype than any Phillies pitching prospect since at least Aaron Nola in 2015 and probably Cole Hamels in 2006. His friends and former coaches agree that he’s driven to be elite but isn’t defined by baseball. After all, he nearly quit the sport in high school to play volleyball.
Chances are, though, before Howard takes the mound Sunday, he will reflect on how he got there. And he probably will recall the quiet afternoons in Baggett Stadium at Cal Poly, where he and Dondanville worked on training their minds as much as their arms.
“Before practice would start, like hours before, they’d be out there on their yoga mats on the outfield grass,” Cal Poly coach Larry Lee recalled by phone last week. “They had their app or something and they were doing their thing.”
Howard grew up in Templeton, Calif., about 20 minutes from Cal Poly's campus in San Luis Obispo County. Dondanville is from up north in the Bay Area.
They arrived at school at the same time and became fast friends.
They redshirted as freshmen, and when the team went on the road, they stayed back, hung out in the weight room, and trained four days a week. Howard gained more than 10 pounds -- and extra ticks on his fastball, which Lee said jumped from 86-87 mph in his senior year of his high school to the mid-90s.
But Dondanville also introduced Howard to Range of Motion Workout of the Day -- ROMWOD, for short -- a yoga-based stretching program tailored to athletes and CrossFit trainers. A summer-ball coach turned Dondanville on to it.
“It’s a time of day to kind of just not think about anything else and focus on your body and keep your body strong and in shape and flexible,” Dondanville said. “It’s real important in baseball, staying loose and limber. We would do it as a staff. I don’t think everyone took it as serious as Spencer. Spence kind of went a step further.”
Noticing that the breathing exercises from ROMWOD seemed to relax him, Howard got into meditation. He downloaded an iPhone app, grabbed his headphones, and found his zen.
"I think that really helped clear his mind and got him focused on the mound and really took him to the next level," Dondanville said. "We would kind of just find some time before a game, go enjoy some sun, and sit in the outfield grass and do it. That was always super-nice and enjoyable."
Lee always thought Howard possessed a “good, loose arm.” But he lacked a secondary pitch and therefore a guaranteed roster spot.
Howard got an opportunity as a reliever as a redshirt freshman in 2016 and posted a 2.95 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 36⅔ innings. He began the next year in the bullpen and didn’t make his first start until the 14th game of the season.
By then, though, Howard had developed a “Bugs Bunny type of changeup,” Lee said, that came out of the same arm slot as the fastball but was 16-18 mph slower. He began fiddling with a curveball and slider, too.
Lee designated him as the Saturday night starter, and Cal Poly became a Saturday night destination for pro scouts, including the Phillies’ Shane Bowers. In a dozen starts, Howard went 8-1 with a 1.96 ERA and 85 strikeouts in 78 innings.
“We’ve had major-leaguers before, but once they left I wasn’t quite sure if they were going to be able to get to the highest level and stay there,” said Lee, who coached pitchers Bud Norris and Casey Fien and outfielder Mitch Haniger during his 17 years at Cal Poly.
“With Spencer, it was the only time where I thought, barring injury, he could be a very, very successful major-leaguer, a high-end guy. I thought he had a chance to be one of the best.”
Calm and cool
After the 2017 season, Lee asked several players to jot down any training methods outside of Cal Poly’s program that they used. Two prominent items on Howard’s list: meditation and yoga.
It explained a lot, Lee thought, especially the calmness that seemed to overtake Howard whenever he pitched.
“I’m not sure if I’ve had a pitcher with a better demeanor on the mound,” Lee said. “Outwardly it looks like he has everything together. When you combine that with quality stuff, sky’s the limit.”
The Phillies have seen that look. In two postseason starts in the minors, Howard threw a no-hitter for low-A Lakewood in 2018 and didn’t allow a hit until the sixth inning for double-A Reading last year.
Unsurprisingly, Howard's secret is to not make too much of the moment.
“It’s probably subconscious, but I just treat it as another start,” he said in spring training. “It’s definitely fun to pitch at that time of year. Everybody’s a little more locked in. There’s a little bit of raised stakes, and it’s fun to pitch in that environment.”
Dondanville graduated from Cal Poly in 2018 and moved to Breckendridge, Colo., where he’s pursuing a career in real estate; Howard left school after getting drafted and made minor-league pit stops in Williamsport, Lakewood, Clearwater, and Reading.
But they keep in touch, talking often, texting even more.
Dondanville recalled the last time he saw his buddy pitch live. It was Howard’s Cal Poly swan song, a 10-strikeout gem against UC Riverside on May 27, 2017, that ended with his tipping his cap as he walked off the field.
“Still gives me chills,” Dondanville said.
Want to bet the feeling returns Sunday?
It’ll hardly matter that Howard’s family and friends can’t be here in person.
“Oh, we’ll definitely find a way to watch,” Dondanville said. “All our buddies are real excited.”
It's enough to blow the mind of even the most levelheaded person Dondanville knows.
“It’s definitely going to be something else,” Howard said recently. “With the [fake] crowd noise and all that, maybe I can pretend that some of that crowd noise is my family. But other than that, I don’t know. It’s going to be crazy.”
Some pregame outfield meditation might even be required.
“Spencer is self-made,” Lee said. “He is what he is because of what he put into it and his willingness to use everything within his means to become as good as he could be.”