Top pitching prospect Spencer Howard made his much anticipated debut for the Phillies on Sunday afternoon. The newly turned 24 year-old started the second game of a double header against the Atlanta Braves. We gave an introduction to Howard after it was first reported he would get the nod. Here, we’ll break down how his start went. 

The Numbers

Howard’s start was a little rough. He left the game after 4 ⅓ innings and was charged with four runs. He surrendered home runs to Ronald Acuna Jr. and Freddie Freeman. The young right hander threw 81 pitches, 55 of which went for strikes. According to Statcast, 55 of Howard’s pitches were fastballs, 19 were sliders, 15 were changeups, and 5 were curveballs. He threw the slider and curveball primarily to right handed batters (15 to 4 and 4 to 1 respectively) and had an almost even split with the changeup (6 to 9). 

Hard Contact

The Braves were able to barrel up Howard’s pitches on numerous occasions, excluding even the home runs. There were a good deal of line drives that were hit right at Phillies defenders. The average exit velocity on the 17 batted balls the Braves made contact with was 90.4 MPH.

Howard’s fastball in particular was hit hard, resulting in five of the Braves seven hits against him. Here, Freddie Freeman takes a 95 MPH fastball low and away the opposite way for a two run home run in the third inning.

Acuna’s homerun wasn’t on a fastball, but rather on a well located curveball that Acuna was somehow able to muscle the other way

 

Velocity

Howard’s velocity was noticeably down from his usual 98-99 MPH on his fastball. That’s not necessarily cause to panic, as it was his first “real” game of 2020. He had pitched in Spring Training and in Summer Camp, but other than that he has been pitching in glorified scrimmages in Lehigh Valley ever since the season started. Even Aaron Nola suffered from lower than expected velocity in his first start, but has since regained form.

But, Howard’s tendency to throw strikes, especially first pitch strikes, mixed with the low velocity got him in some trouble. Howard threw 19 of the 22 batters he faced a first pitch strike. Over 59% of his pitches were around the strike zone. As the game went on, Braves hitters started swinging early expecting a strike. Of course, throwing first pitch strikes is not necessarily a bad thing. But, with the dip in velocity and overall lack of sharpness on the fastball, Braves hitters were successfully able to ambush Howard. He will have to work on his ability to throw quality first pitch strikes to counter this approach. 

Flashes of Dominance

Howard’s start was not all negatives. He was able to retire the side in order in both the second and the fourth inning. The fact he did so in the fourth inning considering it was now the second and third time through the order as he was tiring is encouraging. 

Howard was able to spin some nasty secondary pitches, showing off the elite strikeout potential that he possesses.

Here is Howard making Adam Duvall look silly with a perfectly thrown curveball:

Here is an example of one of a number of good changeups Howard threw, this one to Nick Markakis:

And on what would be his last pitch of the game, here is a sharp slider that gets Marcell Ozuna swinging and breaking his bat in frustration:

What to expect going forward

The Phillies are going to need a six man rotation. They have a minimum of five more double headers on the schedule, including a brutal stretch in mid-September of 17 games in 11 days. Joe Girardi and the Phillies might not be ready to publicly state it, but they are going to need Howard on the roster the rest of the season. Of course, it’s highly unlikely anyway he was promoted for just one start.

Howard is now lined up with Vince Velasquez, as they both pitched on Sunday. It would appear that Velasquez is on a very short leash, but again the Phillies will need six starters. Perhaps they use Velasquez to piggy-back off of Howard on normal game days and have them both start on double headers.

His debut may not have gone as planned, but Howard certainly has things to build on from that start. One can assume his velocity will be back to normal soon and with that perhaps comes less hard contact, or at least some more quality strikes. He will also need to work on limiting his pitch count, as 81 pitches through just over four innings is not going to get him deep in games. However, his secondary pitches showed that he has not only a place in the majors, but the ability to be a frontline starter.