Nearly every publication, analyst, and website from FanGraphs to the MLB had him ranked as the team’s top prospect. Fast forward four months and the soon-to-be 25-year old pitcher has been demoted to AAA.
Howard debuted at the major league level on August 9, 2020, and made six starts. Throwing 24 1/3 innings for the Phillies last season, he went 1-2 and posted a 5.92 ERA with 23 strikeouts in his first taste of big-league action.
Despite those lackluster first few outings, expectations were high for Howard this year. He began the season in AAA, but it wasn’t long before he got the call to join the major-league roster. So far, though, he’s struggled mightily. Now, many fans are wondering what his future with the ballclub might look like.
What happened to Spencer Howard and the Phillies?
The biggest issue for Howard this season has been the noticeable dip in his velocity early in games. It’s become a common sight to see Howard start a game hitting around 95 mph with his fastball, only to watch him struggle with velocity in the low 90s just a couple of innings later.
The team even called up pitcher Bailey Falter to “piggyback” off of Howard in his starts. Howard would open the game, and then Falter would step in for multiple innings. This was highlighted most recently in this week’s 12-4 loss against the Cincinnati Reds.
Howard started, but was pulled after allowing two runs in just 2 1/3 innings. Falter then came in and pitched four innings of two-hit ball. Unfortunately, the bullpen imploded after Falter was pulled and the Phillies lost 12-4.
Phillies’ manager Joe Girardi has said publically that he likes the idea of pairing Howard with another pitcher. A couple of weeks ago he was even quoted as saying:
"“We have not given up a lot of runs in those games. I think we’re 2-2 maybe in these games and we have not given up a lot of runs, so I definitely think it can work.”"
Regardless of what Girardi thinks, Howard’s issues have been glaring and they’ve limited what the Phillies can do with him. It’s gotten to the point where the team can not rely on him to make his way through an order more than once. In fact, Howard has failed to pitch more than four innings in any of the five games he’s started this season.
Is Spencer Howard better suited for the Phillies’ bullpen?
It’s no secret that the Phillies have a massive issue with their bullpen, which leads MLB with 22 blown saves, while no other team has more than 17. But with some of their starters unable to pitch enough innings to qualify for a decision, Phillies are continually forced to heavily feature the weakest part of their roster.
Earlier this week, the Phillies activated second basemen Jean Segura from the injured list. As the corresponding roster move, they sent Howard down to Triple-A so he can continue to build himself up as a starter. He’s back with Lehigh Valley after going 0-2 with a 5.82 ERA in 21 2/3 innings across nine games (five starts) in Philadelphia.
The Phillies reportedly want Howard to work his way up to throwing 100 pitches a game. It’s a solid goal for him, but fans have to wonder: if Howard can’t get there without the continued dips in his velocity, might he be better suited for a bullpen role?
The first time Howard has faced a batting order as a starting pitcher he has held them to a .103/.222/.128 slash line, allowing just four hits and no runs. However, his second time through the order things fall apart. Hitters have crushed Howard in their second plate appearances against him, hitting .353/.520/.824. Worse, he has double the number of walks (six) than he does strikeouts (three) when seeing a hitter for the second time.
Howard has pitched just 15 2/3 innings as a starter this season. Admittedly, that is a very small sample size, however, those splits combined with his dips in velocity are enough to warrant concern about his long-term viability in the rotation if he can’t fix these issues.
The Phillies plan with Howard seems to have shifted multiple times at this point. For now, it feels like they are folding on him for this year and are looking ahead to 2022 when he can hopefully build up enough arm strength to rejoin the rotation. You have to wonder, though, if at this point the Phillies have been doing more harm than good for his development.
Howard has flashed elite arm talent for the Phillies in the minor leagues, and many fans had dreams of seeing him ascend to the top of the rotation with Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler. That still might happen, but for now, both Howard and the Phillies have a lot of work ahead of them.