A few months ago, before phrases like “social distancing” and “flatten the curve” seeped into the vernacular, the Phillies’ biggest challenge was figuring out how to maximize their top pitching prospect’s impact on a season in which his workload would have been capped by an innings limit.
It was a more innocent time.
"If our season goes the way we hope it's going to go, Spencer Howard is going to be pitching meaningful innings for this team in the second half of the season and maybe before that," general manager Matt Klentak said on Feb. 13. "We need to make sure he has enough innings and pitches remaining in his season to help us down the stretch. So every pitch he throws in March is a pitch he's not going to be able to throw in September."
Needless to say, that isn't a problem anymore.
After following a more deliberate schedule than other pitchers in spring training as a consequence of having his 2019 season curtailed by a sore shoulder, Howard finally made his Grapefruit League debut on March 10, allowing two hits in a scoreless inning against the Minnesota Twins. Two days later, Major League Baseball delayed the start of the season because of the outbreak of coronavirus.
You know what happened next.
But amid the unprecedented uncertainty for the sport wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, this much is clear: Time, the Phillies’ enemy in terms of their plans for Howard this season, suddenly is on their side.
The most optimistic projections have spring training resuming at some point in May and the season beginning in June. And that’s the absolute best-case scenario. If the virus isn’t contained until July or August, the entire season could be in jeopardy.
If baseball does resume, MLB and the Players’ Association share an interest in playing as many games as possible, even if it means staging the World Series in December at a warm-weather neutral site. There are questions, however, about the practicality of doing that.
One thing, however, seems certain: The season will be truncated.
“We’re probably not going to be able to do” a 162-game season, commissioner Rob Manfred said recently in an interview with ESPN. “I think that’s clear.”
If the Phillies play, say, 81 games or even 100, they will find it much easier to chart a course for Howard, who threw a grand total of 99 ⅓ innings last season, including a playoff start for double-A Reading and six starts in the Arizona Fall League.
There isn’t one formula for a generally accepted innings increase from one season to the next. Several years ago, Sports Illustrated and former major-league pitching coach Rick Peterson concluded based on a study that pitchers under 25 years old risk injury or regression if their workloads are increased by more than 30% over the previous season. Some evaluators and team officials agree with that theory; others contend the 30% figure is arbitrary.
“Not every inning is created the same," Klentak said when spring training began. “We have a lot of ways to measure fatigue now, whether it’s measuring an arm slot, velocity, and different technologies that we can use to see when a player is tiring. We will have some guidelines in terms of innings, pitches, workload, but we don’t want to box ourselves into a hard cap.”
Using the Sports Illustrated model as a loose guide, adjusting for a shortened season, and erring on the conservative side (manager Joe Girardi has said repeatedly that the Phillies are keeping Howard’s next 10 years in mind), the team could cap the 23-year-old right-hander at roughly 100 innings. In a theoretical 100-game season, he could average five innings per start over 20 starts and reach his limit.
Besides, all starting pitchers will be restricted early in the season because of the interrupted spring training. The Phillies could conserve Howard’s workload without handling him much differently than anyone else.
“This is the best I’ve felt in spring training in three years,” Howard said on March 10. “I stayed on top of my mound work a lot [more] this offseason. Tried to stay off a slope in offseasons of the past, just trying to get away from baseball and let my body recover. But I figured that’s something I needed to do if I was ever going to repeat my delivery. As much as they’ll let me go, I’m ready.”
The Phillies didn’t settle their fifth-starter competition before spring training was halted. Neither Vince Velasquez nor Nick Pivetta had seized the job based on his performance in Grapefruit League games. Left-hander Ranger Suarez remained in the mix, too.
It’s all moot now.
Regardless of which pitcher the Phillies choose to complete the season-opening rotation behind Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, Jake Arrieta, and Zach Eflin, they’re going to need every available arm to get through the first month of games. They will be able to carry more pitchers, too, because rosters are expected to be expanded to 29 players at the outset.
It’s conceivable, then, that the Phillies could tap Howard —with his upper-90s fastball and three quality offspeed pitches — as the No. 5 starter and bring in Velasquez or Pivetta behind him while everyone rebuilds arm strength.
“My question is, as we run through this, if we’re out a long time and spring training is short, I think we’re going to need multiple-inning guys. So, I think we’re going to use all of them in a sense,” manager Joe Girardi said recently. “We have not named anyone yet [as the No. 5 starter] and we probably won’t because we have to see where we’re at.”