Spencer Howard didn’t feel the same “pinchy” tightness in his right shoulder that caused him to miss two months of the 2019 season. But he couldn’t loosen his arm as easily as usual last September and sensed the slowing of his fastball without peeking at the ballpark radar gun.
Most troublesome, the Phillies prized prospect didn’t know why any of it was happening.
“It was like, ‘Well, am I just a bad pitcher now? Am I going to throw slow forever? Is this the new me?’” Howard said after a spring-training workout Wednesday in Clearwater, Fla. “But getting away from last year and having some time off really helped.”
The Phillies’ medical staff detected rotator cuff inflammation, but no structural damage, in Howard’s shoulder. He didn’t pitch for the final two weeks of last season, then took most of October off from throwing. He spent the offseason training in San Diego and attended twice-a-week physical therapy sessions to strengthen his hips, increase his mobility, and get him ready to compete for a spot in the Phillies’ starting rotation.
After a few months, Howard felt normal again.
But this isn’t a normal time for pitchers, all of whom experienced a reduced workload in a 60-game season last year. The trickle-down effect will be seen in 2021, as pitchers must adapt to the toll that 162 games takes on their arms and bodies. The adjustment will come easier to some than others.
Howard, though, faced workload challenges even before the pandemic.
A shoulder injury in the minors in 2019 limited the 24-year-old to 99 1/3 innings, including the Arizona Fall League. The Phillies put him on a slower progression in spring training last year and were mulling creative solutions to maximize his impact later in the season when camps were shuttered in March.
Howard wound up pitching only 24 1/3 innings after making his major-league debut in August. Add in training camp last summer and at the Lehigh Valley alternate site and it might double his innings total. But even if you peg Howard’s overall workload at 50 to 60 innings, what’s a reasonable expectation for him this year?
Phillies manager Joe Girardi won’t put a number on it, at least not publicly, and Howard said he hasn’t been informed of an innings cap. General manager Sam Fuld said the team “will monitor [Howard] as closely as anyone,” just as it did last spring. And the Phillies signed free-agent starters Matt Moore and Chase Anderson for a total of $7 million to deepen the rotation.
But Girardi isn’t ruling out Howard winning a spot out of camp even if it means that he might be less available later in the season.
“I always say we’ll have an innings limitation in mind and it will take care of itself,” Girardi said. “If he reaches that before the season is over, I guess he reaches it before the season’s over. But I don’t think you can try to manipulate it too much because then you get in danger of them not reaching their innings and you’re worried about it the next year and the next year.”
Indeed, when Howard pitches this season is almost less important than making certain that he pitches enough. Otherwise, the Phillies run the risk of his catching up from the COVID-shortened season becoming a multiyear endeavor.
Howard lacks the experience of Moore, Anderson, and rotation holdover Vince Velasquez. But he has the most upside of the group, even if it wasn’t evident last season.
In a half-dozen starts, Howard posted a 5.92 ERA. He gave up 30 hits, including six home runs, in 24 1/3 innings, and got through five innings only once. One time through the order, opponents batted .184 and slugged .204 against Howard. After that, they hit .412 and slugged .843.
Howard conceded that endurance was a problem. He stayed in Clearwater during baseball’s three-month hiatus last spring and didn’t have access to a gym after a COVID-19 outbreak at the Phillies’ training facility in June. He dropped about 10 pounds between the end of spring training and the start of summer camp.
Surely there are lessons in Howard’s struggles, although he said he’s more inclined to “flush it” and start fresh.
“I wasn’t feeling my best physically and that kind of trickled into mentally on the mound,” Howard said. “A lot of my mental aggressiveness comes from preparation, so not having access to a full gym and my normal routine really did a number. I just put it behind me. I learned a bunch.”
Neither Howard nor the Phillies seems concerned about the condition of his shoulder. If anything, Howard said the root of the problem last year wasn’t weakness in his shoulder but rather out-of-whack mechanics stemming from not being in peak shape for the season.
If necessary, the Phillies have ways of managing Howard’s usage. They could shorten his starts by bringing another starter into games behind him. They could give him two- and three-inning stints out of the bullpen for a stretch of the season. They can think further outside the box.
First, though, it appears they will give him an opportunity to win a rotation spot outright.
“I know everybody’s real big on previous years’ innings and things,” Howard said. “The way I feel right now, I feel better than probably the last three years going into spring training. Physically I feel ready for whatever they throw at me. I’ll be prepared.”