Perspective is important, especially in the context of a 162-game, six-month season, so here goes: Spencer Howard threw 42 pitches to 11 batters Wednesday night in New York, a fraction of what is typically expected from a full-fledged member of a starting rotation.
But within those parameters, the Phillies’ top prospect was as impressive as ever in his brief major-league career.
Pressed into action with Zach Eflin out with a knee injury and Bailey Falter on the COVID-19 restricted list, Howard came up from triple-A Lehigh Valley, started on short rest, and delivered three scoreless innings in front of an announced crowd of 34,112 at Yankee Stadium, a daunting environment that he described later as “a Colosseum.”
At the risk of making too much of three innings, it was progress for the 24-year-old right-hander, whose checkered history of shoulder issues and limited workload over the last two years has prompted the Phillies to handle him with such extreme care that they have struggled to devise and stick to one development plan for him.
“I’m proud of what he did tonight,” said manager Joe Girardi, who added that Howard is “in the conversation” to make another start, on regular rest, when Eflin’s turn comes around again Monday night at home against the Washington Nationals.
Since the Phillies demoted him three weeks ago, Howard made three starts for Lehigh Valley, all on six days’ rest. He topped out at 84 pitches two starts ago against Worcester. His most recent start, last Saturday night against Buffalo, was cut short by rain after three innings and 51 pitches.
If the Phillies hadn’t called him up, Howard would have pitched Wednesday night anyway for Lehigh Valley. The idea was to get him back into a starter’s routine, and although the training wheels aren’t off yet, he’s getting closer to being treated as a normal starting pitcher again. It’s imperative that Howard gets to that point if he’s going to be a consideration for the 2022 rotation.
“Just the feeling of pitching later in games is something that I kind of forgot how to do, and it’s a skill definitely,” Howard said. “Being able to go down there and [throw] 86 or 85 pitches or so, I think those reps vs. hitters late in the game are where a lot of my improvements are. That’s where I see myself improving. It’s definitely beneficial.”
Considering he was pitching on three days’ rest after the rain-shortened start in triple-A, the Phillies hoped to get two innings from Howard against the Yankees. Knowing it would be a shorter-than-usual outing against a righty-heavy New York lineup, Howard decided to pair his slider with his fastball and mostly shelve the changeup, his offspeed pitch of choice to left-handed hitters.
The strategy worked, at least for the one time he had to go through the order. He held his mid-90s fastball velocity, a challenge in many of his earlier starts, and threw a slider that Girardi noted was harder than the Phillies had previously seen.
“Yes, I’ve been working on that,” said Howard, who averaged 88.6 mph and 2,144 rpms on his slider compared to 78.4 mph and 1,973 rpms in his previous three major-league starts. “Just messing around with it in catch play and thought it was better than the one that I had been throwing and definitely more consistent, more in the zone, so I just decided to run with it.”
In his best moment of the game, after issuing a two-out walk to No. 9-hitting Estevan Florial and hitting DJ LeMahieu, Howard set up dangerous Giancarlo Stanton with a first-pitch slider, then threw three consecutive fastballs. The last one, an elevated 95-mph heater, froze Stanton for strike three.
If Howard had kept going in the game -- and if he takes Eflin’s turn again Monday night -- he likely will have to incorporate the changeup, which he threw only twice against the Yankees. But he said he feels “completely comfortable” with the slider now. If Howard is able to command three pitches with more consistency, it will justify the Phillies’ decision to resist using him in a relief role, even for the time being.
“Even if a lefty’s in the box, it would usually be the changeup,” he said. “But the comfortability of throwing a backdoor slider or two, I thought that was the way to go.”
Said Girardi: “I thought he kept his stuff up for the three innings. I thought his slider is harder now, and I thought he used it obviously more. He threw one great changeup, and I think even that’s harder now, so it’s more deceptive in a sense.”
Three starts in triple-A and three innings in a spot start aren’t enough to proclaim that Howard has finally finished off his development. But it was a step in the right direction and likely merits another look sooner than later. Eflin’s injury may enable the Phillies to get it. Girardi said Eflin is “doing better” but noted that the Phillies haven’t determined a return date. Eflin isn’t eligible to return until at least Tuesday night, leaving another opening for Howard.
“That would be ideal,” he said. “But I was just happy to take the ball and contribute any way that I could. Short rest, short stint, whatever the Phils need, I’m here for it.”