We had another exciting MLB debut as starting pitcher Spencer Howard made his MLB debut for the Philadelphia Phillies.
The quick scouting report was a mid-90s heater that can touch the upper register, a pair of plus pitches with his slider and changeup, and an occasional curveball to steal strikes.
Howard’s 14%+ SwStr rate and 30%+ strikeout rate while maintaining low walk rates across the minors ticks off many boxes we look for prior to prospect call-ups and I was excited to see if he was ready to make an impact from day one.
Here is Spencer Howard’s MLB Debut GIF Breakdown in 3,000 words and 34 GIFs.
Howard pumped 95 mph to Ronald Acuna right down the middle to start his career, which was swatted far down the line for a long foul ball. At 0-1, we saw a loopy slider miss off the outside corner, then 1-1 back down the pipe, that was swung through by Acuna.
Three pitches in and not overly impressive. Two poorly located fastballs at a good 95 but not “whoa, 97/98!” and a slider that didn’t have the tightest of break to it.
At 1-2, Howard attempted to elevate at 95 mph, failing to get a bite and landing at 2-2. He went back to the heater for the final pitch of the at-bat:
It’s a better pitch than the other two heaters and induced a broken-bat, but it’s still not an excellent heater. If he was able to get that higher and farther inside, it could have returned his first career strikeout.
Dansby Swanson followed and saw a first-pitch fastball for strike one:
Again, not extraordinary, but it worked. Note the slide step from Howard, which can help keep runners at bay.
He threw a near-identical heater but just under the zone for ball one, then tugged a slider well into the opposite batter’s box to get to 2-1. He’s 0-for-2 on executing his slider so far and I’m getting antsy to see a good one.
Howard then pulled the next two fastballs down and away as well to lead to a five-pitch walk. The nerves are getting to him, clearly.
With Freddie Freeman stepping into the box, I expected to see a changeup early. It looks like that’s what we got at 81 mph:
He didn’t want this one elevated, but a 14 mph difference is huge. That can mean a ton of whiffs if he can get this pitch low enough, and it seemed to have a decent amount of horizontal action. I can feel that a nasty one is on the horizon.
Howard tried to go up-and-in with a fastball next and pulled it far in at 94 mph for a 1-1 count. I wonder if he’s going to sit at this velo all day or dwindle as the game continues.
He floated an 85 mph breaker into the zone that was incredibly hittable, but Freeman fouled back instead:
If I had to stop watching this game and make a full assessment of Howard, it wouldn’t be a positive one. His slider isn’t sharp, his fastball is slightly above average but far from an electric weapon, and I’m not getting the feeling of an elite prospect arm yet. Fortunately, we have the narrative of MLB debut on our side and I’m hoping things change as he settles in.
At 1-2, Howard pumped another 95 mph heater right down the pipe that Freeman, fortunately, fouled back. Yikes.
We do it again and it’s another changeup, this one at 79mph that was properly laced into right:
Yeah, this isn’t great. It’s as if he’s not getting his top-half out to truly come through his changeup, and I imagine if he was able to get on top of the pitch, this changeup at 15 mph slower would have earned a punchout.
Now with Marcell Ozuna at the plate, Howard earned his first career strikeout with the three best pitches I’ve seen.
First, an 0-0 slider to earn a whiff:
Then an excellent fastball along the inside corner:
And a perfect 0-2 slider off the outside edge that Ozuna just couldn’t resist:
This works. Once again, it’s not overwhelming and breathtaking like Nate Pearson’s repertoire, but moving in-and-out does the trick and these two sliders had more break than these GIFs show (the Phillies’ camera angle is one of the worst out there).
Travis d’Arnaud stepped in with two outs and met two quick fastballs inside the zone for an 0-2 count. Neither overly impress me, but I like that Howard seems comfortable with his mechanics to control heaters for strikes.
At 0-2, I was thinking another breaker down-and-away. It’s what Realmuto called and here’s the result:
Ooooof he got lucky. First the hung changeup to Freeman, now this meaty breaker that was properly crushed straight in Jean Segura’s glove. Howard got out of his first MLB frame unscathed and I’m hoping we see something different in the second inning. His control is good, but the overall command is not there and I’m missing that wow moment we normally get from prospect debuts.
My guess is that it’ll come from that changeup, but we’ll have to see if he can find the feel.
With left-hander Nick Markakis leading off, I was hoping to get a glance at a well-executed changeup. It started with a fouled off fastball and then this breaker:
That’s a 74 mph huge, and it’s huuuge one. Not sure if I like it yet, but it’s a little better than I expected as a show-me pitch.
He missed with another two fastballs before earning a groundout on a decent fastball away. Again, not excellent and not locked in with approach, but that could change.
Adam Duvall saw a 95 mph fastball on the outside corner for strike one followed by another curveball, this one a little prettier:
Okay, that’s better. I’m shocked to see his curveball as the filthiest secondary pitch this far and it may just be in the moment. But that was nice.
At 0-2, Howard went on the attack with a heater and froze Duvall with a pitch 20 mph harder than the last:
I’d rather the approach be up-and-in instead of down, but nevertheless, that’s paint at 94 mph. Gotta love that execution after a huge 74 mph hook.
With two outs, Howard served an 83 mph slider up for a whiff, then followed it with 95 mph elevated for a foul back:
That’s the “BSB”!
After throwing a hittable slider that was fouled off, Howard tried to execute a changeup down and once again missed it way too up for an easy foul ball. I just want to see it once this game…
Still at 0-2, Howard tried to climb the ladder with heat again, but it fell low-and-away for a lazy pop out to center and close the book on his second frame.
We’re making progress here. Still 94/95 mph heat, but now a curveball that adds to his repertoire. I’m not impressed with his changeup and his slider isn’t quite as overwhelming as I was hoping it would be. Let’s see what the third inning brings.
We saw a poor 93 mph fastball miss away to Johan Carmargo followed by this 1-0 changeup:
Huh. Not ideal as he missed his spot, but that looked like ball two for a while before it floated into the plate.
I still love how it’s coming in 15 mph slower than his heater, I just can’t tell how aggressive the break is and I’d love for Howard to fade it properly down-and-away. We’ve yet to see it.
A trio of heaters finished Carmargo’s at-bat, including one straight down the middle and another away struck hard but caught in right field. I’m not a fan of the ultra fastball approach as Howard has a good array of secondary pitches and I think he bailed out Carmargo a bit.
To lead off Ronald Acuna, Howard tried to steal a strike with a fastball away:
Yes, it’s Acuna and all, but I hope this showcases the hitability of Howard’s fastball at 93 mph. It’s just not debilitating or making uncomfortable at-bats. It just kind of…is.
With Dansby Swanson returning to the box for a second time, Howard started him off with an 81 mph slider that missed high, but then came back with the same pitch at 1-0:
That’s a solid pitch. Makes me think of Brandon Woodruff’s as it’s not the ultra-sharp, biting breaker, but Howard is able to flip it into the zone effectively to get strikes when he needs to.
At 1-1, Howard went back to the fastball and Swanson rolled over it for a near double-play:
This pitch makes me wonder if there’s some subtle drop to Howard’s fastball – normally a pitch missing like this would be lofted a far way and to see Swanson slam a mistake pitch into the ground makes me wonder if we’re missing something.
…okay maybe not. The very next pitch was this fastball away to Freddie Freeman:
Yeah, there wasn’t much drop there and showcases the difference between Freeman and Swanson. There are times when I watch pitchers and get upset when they allow a HR while pitching well or they get punished on the sole mistake they made. I don’t feel much for this one – Howard has thrown his fair share of poor pitches and even though it was located away, this was thigh-high and it’s a decently hittable fastball.
The next at-bat was an odd one. Howard earned a strike with a fastball on the outside edge that had a bit of tail to nip the corner for strike one. He tried a curveball under the zone, but Ozuna didn’t bite. At 1-1, he got a fortune call on a slider that fell away, but then a high heater that landed well inside the zone was called a ball. That’s baseball.
At 2-2, I love that Howard elected to go changeup – I’ve been dying to see a righty-on-righty changeup executed well and Ozuna would be a perfect victim if Howard can execute it. He did not:
I’m surprised Ozuna even swung at this after the previous fastball landed lower and was called a ball, but I’m mostly frustrated to see yet another failed changeup thrown by Howard. None of these are supposed to be located in the upper half of the zone and every single one has so far.
It doesn’t get better. The very next pitch came against Travis d’Arnaud and does little to impress:
That’s just 92 mph and a very hittable fastball as Howard continues to stay away from batters. It’s a great piece of hitting from d’Arnaud as he goes with the pitch to right field and I’m not convinced that Howard’s fastball is a whole lot better than the results have shown.
Now at 50 pitches, it’s another left-hander with Nick Markakis at the plate and he saw a first-pitch changeup:
It’s better, but still not where you want as Markakis certainly had the talent to poke this to left-field for another run on the board. This needs to be down!
LIKE THIS ONE!
YES. Finally, I’ve been dying to see what the depth looks like when located low and this is LOVELY. Now I get it. If Howard is dotting corners and then able to keep this changeup low, batters will struggle. A lot. He’s failing to pitch consistently, but if this changeup is on mixed with his slider and curveball, Howard could sneak by with his middling fastball.
After a pair of fastballs and a changeup missed away, Howard finally escaped the third inning:
Yeesh, it’s weird to see him survive off of this, but that’s not a good fastball. It’s as dead center as you could look for and you to feel lucky if you’re Howard.
Alright, so we got more clarity this inning. We saw what the changeup can look like on a good day, which would make the entire package come together nicely. It’s still an underwhelming fastball, but his curveball and changeup are good enough as complements, he just needs to be in a changeup groove on a given day to have success.
Oh, and don’t throw fastballs thigh-high and down the middle.
What would be the best start to the fourth? Why pitching backward with a first-pitch 72 mph curveball for an out, of course!
Yep, I’m all for this. I don’t think Howard has a fantastic fastball and his secondary stuff is a solid three-pitch package. We should see these plenty.
Oh man, we’re getting prime Howard in the fourth inning! Watch the first two pitches of his at-bat against Austin Riley:
THIS IS EVERYTHING. That’s a well spotted low 92 mph fastball down-and-away, followed by a changeup that starts looking like a tastier version of that fastball before diving well below it. It is stupidly difficult to resist swinging at the pitch and Howard earned his second strike with flying colors. This is Howard’s upside in one GIF.
You could hear my squeal as he turned back to that changeup for the strikeout:
Now that he’s getting the pitch down, Howard is getting everything out of its depth and velocity gap relative to his fastball. This. Is. What’s. Up.
Now against Johan Carmargo, he threw a first-pitch slider for a strike, then 90 mph that looked like a sinker as it subtly moved back over the plate:
I love the location, don’t like the 90 mph velocity. It’s hard to tell if there is a ton of horizontal movement with this poor camera angle, let’s hope that’s what he threw and isn’t suddenly falling to 90 mph.
At two strikes, Howard missed up-and-in at 92 mph, then executed a superb 1-2 changeup under the zone that didn’t earn a bite. It may have been slightly too far in to start and Carmargo quickly bailed. Howard tried again at 2-2, missed up-and-away (blegh), but I love that he stuck with it a third time, earning the last out of the inning on a slightly hung changeup on the outside corner:
It was a much needed quick inning from Howard and easily his best yet. He used his curveball for an out. He sequenced his fastball and changeup for a quick 0-2 count. He executed three changeups down in the zone to positive results and was able to get all three outs via secondary pitches.
This feels more like the Howard we’re supposed to see, though it’s still not fully polished yet. We’re making progress.
Back to the top of the order a third time and we’re feeling good…
Man, that’s a good first pitch slider! Baseball isn’t fair and it didn’t look like a longball off the bat. I’m glad that Howard elected to pitch backward here and sometimes you just have to tip your cap.
Howard looked good to start the next at-bat with a fastball nipping the edge for strike one, followed by a curveball that should have fallen in for a strike (it did, but called ball one), but after an inning of some great changeups, this was the pitch that ended Danby Swanson’s at-bat:
Yeah, that’s not great and Swanson appropriately shoved it to center, fortunately for Howard, it landed straight into a glove. Not great.
With one out, Freddie Freeman returns to the plate after previously launching a ball over the fence to left. Howard started him off with a great slider away for strike one:
But the second pitch intended to jam Freeman high-and-tight missed badly down-and-in, and Freeman loves dropping the barrel to do some damage, especially at just 90mph:
It turned into a triple as Harper slipped in the outfield, creating more trouble quickly for Howard. He needs that command if he’s throwing 90 mph heaters.
Howard is clearly a bit gassed as he began the at-bat to Marcell Ozuna, tugging a pair of fastballs intended to be inside and featuring just 91 mph velocity. Remember when it was 94/95? Those were the days.
At 2-0, Howard got away with one.
Ooooooof that’s a terrifying pitch to let out of your hand to a guy like Ozuna. I even let the GIF run long so you can see Ozuna’s frustration for letting that one slide.
At 2-1, Howard turned to his slider and got a solid whiff akin to what we saw in the first. Now at 2-2. there’s a sense this is Howard’s final batter as he throws his 81st pitch:
That’s a fantastic offering to end the day, featuring what may be the most break we saw on his slider all game. Ozuna, you really should have swung at that 2-0 pitch.
Girardi came out after pitch 81 and Spencer Howard’s MLB debut came to a close. It was time.
I’m a little disappointed by what I saw. His heater looked incredibly susceptible and didn’t maintain the mid 90s velocity we’ve heard about, failing to touch upper 90s once the entire start. I understand the reports of an excellent changeup, but it was highly volatile and was not a pitch to be relied upon. His curveball surprised me but wasn’t utilized a whole lot, while his slider was the true hero of this game, save for the Acuna blast that I still can’t wrap my head around.
His command needs to improve if he’s to become a staple for the Phillies. His fastball isn’t overwhelming enough to survive middle-middle against tougher lineups and his changeup has the potential to create uncomfortable at-bats but was rarely executed according to plan. It may have been a product of jitters, but I think it may take some time for us to see a true breakout performance from Howard.
The one major positive is his control, rooted in his arsenal depth. His slider, curveball, and changeup found the zone often, while his fastball was rarely a true waste pitch. It’s backed by a smooth, repeatable windup, and opens the door to refinement of his command. There’s hope his approach can be tweaked once he has confidence with all four of his pitches, paving the way to be a 2nd or 3rd arm in the Phillies rotation in the future.
Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)
Thanks for the review. Would you say his off speed stuff with the quick drop in velocity could make him more of an effective reliever.
I don’t think Howard is made to be a reliever as he doesn’t have that single wipeout pitch, nor the elite velocity normally paired with stud relievers.