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Thoughts on the Spencer Howard trade

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Ruminating about the deal sending Ian Kennedy, Kyle Gibson and Hans Crouse to Philadelphia

2020 Philadelphia Phillies Photo Day Photo by Tony Firriolo/MLB Photos via Getty Images

After Joey Gallo was traded to the New York Yankees, after a year of rumors and speculation over whether he’d be moved and what his future held, yesterday’s deal with the Philadelphia Phillies seemed anti-climatic.

Ian Kennedy and Kyle Gibson are both in their mid-30s. Unlike Joey Gallo, they weren’t extension candidates. Kennedy is a free agent at season’s end, and it was a given he would be moved. Gibson is under contract through 2022, and once Gallo was traded, it seemed obvious the Rangers would look to move him as well. The question seemed to be the details of where they’d go and what they’d bring back, not whether they’d be shipped out.

To the extent there was any drama about the deal in terms of what the Rangers gave up, it all centered around Hans Crouse, the 2017 second round who shot up prospect boards early on and quickly became a fan favorite. Even then, though, we had talked before about the possibility of the Rangers dealing from a farm system that everyone acknowledges is deep, particularly in righthanded pitchers, in order to get a better return in a deal involving veterans.

While the Rangers got three pitching prospects back in the deal, there’s a clear lead piece here — righthanded pitcher Spencer Howard. Kevin Gowdy and Josh Gessner, the two other pitchers in the deal, aren’t guys who I would put in the category as throw-ins — its not Jake Guenther and Carl Chester being included in the Nate Nathaniel Lowe trade. But there’s also not an A.J. Alexy or a Josh Smith as a strong second piece behind the Willie Calhoun or Ezequiel Duran headlining the deal. Think more Dane Acker or Avery Weems to Jonah Heim and Dane Dunning, if you will.

The 25 year old Howard — he turned 25 three days ago — was a second round pick out of Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo in 2017. He was selected #45 overall, 21 picks before the Rangers took Hans Crouse, 16 picks after the Rangers took Chris Seise that year. Howard was a late bloomer, a guy who was set to play club ball before opting to try out for varsity at Cal Poly. Coming out of college he was a guy with a good delivery, a good fastball, and some projection remaining.

After an up-and-down year in 2018 where he finished strong, Howard had a breakout 2019 that landed him atop the Phillies prospect rankings for Baseball America. BA said going into 2020 he had “a starter’s build and the potential for three above-average or better offspeed pitches”. Howard made six starts in the majors in the COVID season of 2020, putting up a 5.92 ERA and 5.86 FIP in 24 innings, but he still was highly regarded coming into 2021, with BA saying he profiled as a potential #2 or #3 starter.

2021 has been, to put it mildly, a mess for Howard. He started the season in the majors, made three appearances, and was sent down to AAA after a three run, two inning appearance in Colorado. Howard made three starts in AAA, accumulating nine innings, allowing one run on three hits and five walks while striking out thirteen, and Philly brought him back up.

Once again, things didn’t go great for Howard in the big leagues. In six appearances — five starts and a relief outing — he gave up 11 runs in 17.1 IP, striking out 19 and walking 14. He was sent back to AAA at the end of June and, once again, pitched well, allowing two runs in 12.2 IP over three outings, striking out fifteen and walking four.

Summoned back to the majors ten days ago, Howard, threw three scoreless innings against the Yankees, then allowed four runs in 3.2 IP in a start against the Washington Nationals. Four days after that outing, he was traded to Texas.

Matt Gelb, the Phillies’ beat writer at the Athletic, has a good piece worth checking out about Howard and how he went from untouchable to traded in such a short span. There are quotes from Dave Dombrowski about the challenges the team faced in trying to manage Howard’s innings after shoulder issues and the abbreviated COVID season, the inconsistency of his role, and the challenges of trying to break in a pitching prospect in such circumstances while also dealing with the reality of being a contender trying to claim a playoff spot, and not having the luxury of giving a long leash to guy breaking in.

One of the things that struck me about reading Gelb’s piece about Howard is how much it echoes stories about the Rangers in recent years:

“But the Phillies sold low on Howard, who would have fetched more eight months ago.”

“Did the industry’s opinion of Howard fall this far, or did the Phillies bungle it?”

“Howard represents another in a long line of developmental failures for the Phillies.”

“But the Phillies often did not put Howard in the most optimal position.”

Here’s also a Dombrowski quote, from that story:

“We gave him the opportunity, but it seemed like something happened whenever we would give them that opportunity — through really no fault of his own.”

How many of those lines does it feel like you could change the names and apply to a story about the Rangers and a player they moved on from in recent years?

The Gelb piece is really good and offers some insights that I’m not going to try to summarize, but which I think better help paint a picture of what’s gone on with Howard and his struggles in Philadelphia. It remains to be seen whether Howard is someone who hasn’t been handled right, who can be the mid-rotation starter that the Rangers’ organization, per Gelb, think he can be, or if he’s someone who the Phillies correctly determined, if later than they’d have preferred, is not likely a viable big league starter.

Going into 2020, Howard was ranked from #27 to #36 on the big three top 100 prospect lists. Going into 2021, he ranged from#27 to #65. A year ago, getting him from the Phillies would have been unthinkable for a package like this — something that Jon Daniels acknowledged yesterday, saying that this was, in essence, an opportunity to “buy low” on Howard.

There are clearly questions surrounding Howard right now. A couple of months ago he said a mid-inning velocity dip was due to him getting winded running to first base on a comebacker at the end of an inning, which...even if it is true, isn’t going to endear yourself to anyone. His health history isn’t perfect. He may end up as a bust.

Or he may end up as a solid major league starting pitcher. In which case, this deal will be viewed as a home run for the Rangers.

It is worth noting that his advanced metrics this year are better than the surface numbers. Howard has a 5.72 ERA, but a 4.01 FIP and a 4.07 xERA. He’s been bedeviled by a 61.6% LOB rate this year, which could be a result of pitching poorly out of the stretch, or could be random fluctuations. He has allowed a .332 wOBA in 2021 and has a career .353 wOBA allowed, which isn’t real good...but he has an xwOBA in 2021 of .310 and for his career of .316, which isn’t great, but which is fine — it puts him in the middle of the pack in MLB in xwOBA allowed for pitchers.

In terms of repertoire, he throws a four seamer primarily — about two-thirds of the time this year — though Statcast shows less movement, both horizontally and vertically as compared to the league, than in 2020. He throws a curveball of the sharp, 12-6 variety, a slider with a lot of horizontal movement, a changeup, and a cutter. I’ve seen some carping about his velocity being down in 2021, but Statcast has his average fastball velocity at 93.9 mph this year, compared to 94.0 last year.

I’ve seen comments about Howard not being a high spin rate guy, and that is true — Statcast has him in the lower third in fastball spin rate, and near the bottom in curveball spin rate. Both in 2020 and 2021, however, he has registered an extremely high active spin rate on his four seamer, curveball and changeup — 97% on the fastball in 2020, 99% on the fastball in 2021 and on his curve and changeup in both seasons.

What does that mean? Being able to spin the ball is great, and very useful, because higher spin rates mean more movement, but not all spin impacts the movement of the baseball. As MLB.com explains, a ball spinning like a football or a bullet has none of its spin contributing towards its movement — which is good in those cases, because the point of spinning those objects around the horizontal axis is to avoid both movement and tumbling and ensure the object goes straight.

From the link above:

When thrown with pure topspin or backspin, then 100% of the spin contributes to movement. You can also throw a pitch with some side-action so that some of the deflection will go up or down, and some will go side to side. All of this is Active Spin.

In 2019, Rich Hill had 100% Active Spin for his curveball — he was getting the most out of his spin. For four-seam fastballs, Justin Verlander led with 98.5% Active Spin, meaning he was almost entirely optimizing his spin

If we look at the active spin rates for pitchers in 2021 (minimum 250 pitches), we see Howard is in the upper 20% in active spin rate on his four seamer, is 14th out of 346 pitchers in active spin rate on his changeup, and is 4th out of 305 pitchers in active spin rate on his curveball. The upshot is that he gets more movement on his pitches than his raw spin rate would suggest.

Jon Daniels says the Rangers are “going to want to let [Howard] pitch and kind of figure that out.” The Gelb piece talks about Howard being routine-oriented — something you may recall was a Mike Minor hallmark as well — and Howard feeling like staying in a regular starter’s routine works much better than him than the varying ways he was used in Philadelphia. Levi Weaver’s piece on the deal quotes an unnamed source as saying, “(Philadelphia) fucked up Howard over there going all ‘Joba rules’ with him.”

So it sounds like the Rangers are going to use him like they have Dane Dunning — put him in the rotation, keep him in a regular spot, but maybe limit him to 70-80 pitches per outing the rest of the way. That gives Howard the opportunity to try to get things ironed out as part of a more regular routine, see if that helps him get back on track, and allows the Rangers pitching coaches to work with him and see what adjustments might be able to be made to better unlock his potential.

I am almost 2000 words into a post about a six player trade and pretty much all I’ve talked about is Spencer Howard — in fact, I just went back up and changed the title of the post to call this the “Spencer Howard trade” rather than the “Phillies trade.” But really, Spencer Howard is, from the Rangers’ perspective, what this trade is all about. If they hit on him, its a win. If they don’t, well, there are a couple of pieces that could salvage some value, but Howard not panning out would make this deal a disappointment.

How you evaluate this trade largely comes down to how big a delta you see in the value between Hans Crouse and Spencer Howard. Keith Law, for example, doesn’t see much difference, and thus thinks the Rangers made a lousy deal. Keith also seems more bullish on Crouse, though, and his ability to stick in the rotation, than many observers.

Crouse obviously has been beloved by a lot of Rangers fans since joining the organization, and for good reason — he’s fun, he’s colorful, and he came to Texas with loud stuff. After an impressive 2018 campaign, he was on the top 100 list for BA and MLB Pipeline.

Crouse’s 2019 was shaky, however, due in no small part to bone chips in his elbow that ultimately required surgery. The reports on his stuff in 2019 weren’t great, and then, after the lost COVID year, he didn’t look like the same pitcher this spring. The stuff has ticked back up as the summer has gone on, and he’s put up good numbers for Frisco, but as Tepid has said here, and as others have noted, he’s not the same pitcher he was a few years ago. The stuff isn’t as electric. His command has improved, but not enough to give you confidence he’s going to be able to stick in the rotation.

Hans Crouse has always had a lot of reliever risk. At this point in his career, I think its fair to say that the Rangers concluded he profiles as a reliever — and if there’s one thing the Rangers have a lot of in their system, its guys who profile as righthanded relievers. And thus the Rangers did what a lot of folks have speculated would make sense — included some of their prospect depth in a deal to get a higher upside piece in return. Its just I don’t think that we had adjusted to thinking of Hans Effing Crouse as part of their prospect depth, rather than as one of their top, prized prospects.

And that, again, may illustrate the point that many have made about the Rangers having an extremely deep system but one light in impact talent. What the Rangers look at as their “depth” probably starts at a shallower point than we would like to think in their prospect rankings — probably in the single digits.

Before these deals, if we are talking about potential impact players in the system — guys with a pretty decent chance of being above-average regulars or mid-rotation starters — we have Jack Leiter, Josh Jung, Cole Winn, and then...maybe Justin Foscue? Maybe Evan Carter, who is in A ball? Maybe Sam Huff, if he sticks behind the plate and solves his contact issues?

Which isn’t to say that some of the depth couldn’t turn into an above-average regular or a quality mid-rotation or better starter — sometimes guys click exceed their ceilings, which is part of the value of having a lot of depth. But the weakness of the Rangers’ system has been their inability to generate impact talent for the last decade. If you go back and look at the Rangers’ farm system, you see they have been able to crank out a lot of major leaguers. But what they have cranked out is a bunch of up-and-down guys, a bunch of middle relievers, a bunch of 1 win bench players, but not the guys who move the needle in terms of winning championships.

And so we see an inclusion of part of the team’s system depth, in the form of Hans Crouse, in a deal selling veterans to a contender for a guy who the team thinks can be a mid-rotation starter. We see the acquisition of Ezequiel Duran and Justin Hauver, guys who the team thinks could be impact hitters in the middle of an order. We see the acquisition of Josh Smith, who the team sees as a potential quality all around shortstop with a good bat. We see the organization continuing to follow the plan and the philosophy they embraced almost three years ago, in using analytics to identify traits of impact players, and prioritizing players with those traits.

Hans Crouse will probably pitch in the major leagues. Someone said on Twitter there’s a non-zero chance he has a better career than Spencer Howard, which is true. But if you think Crouse profiles as a potential middle reliever, and Howard profiles as a potential mid-rotation starter, you make this trade every day of the week — particularly given the makeup of the Rangers farm system.

As for the other pieces coming back, I don’t have a lot to say. Kevin Gowdy is a righthander who got $3.5 million to sign in 2016 as an above-slot second rounder, had Tommy John surgery, and hasn’t performed well since. The peripheral numbers for him in high-A this year have been solid, but then, he’s a 23 year old in high-A. Gowdy is Rule 5 eligible this offseason, but also doesn’t seem likely to need to be protected, which means the Rangers should have some time to see how he develops before having to make a decision on him after 2022, when he’s a minor league free agent.

Josh Gessner is the wild card in this deal, a guy who got $850,000 as an international free agent in 2019 out of Australia. He was committed to pitch for Tulane that fall if he hadn’t signed a pro deal, and he also was apparently recruited by Harvard, so with those two schools we know he must be smart. Australia has had particularly strict rules about entering and leaving the country during the COVID-19 pandemic so he’s been impacted more than most would. He’s a black box at this point, and he could shoot up the boards next year, or he could disappear, and neither would be all that shocking.

As for Kyle Gibson and Ian Kennedy, best of luck to them in Philly. I think they exceeded expectations here, and they ended up being able to have much more trade value than I think any of us expected.

And its worth noting...the Rangers signed Mike Minor, Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson to free agent deals while trying to stay afloat rather. In retrospect, they probably should have begun the rebuild sooner. However, if they had done so, they probably wouldn’t have signed those guys. And while you can reasonably argue they waited too long to deal Lynn and, in particular, Minor, at the end of the day, those guys resulted in the Rangers adding:

Dane Dunning

Spencer Howard

Dustin Harris

Avery Weems

Marcus Smith

Josh Gessner

Kevin Gowdy

To the farm system. Smith was supposed to be the lead piece of the Minor deal, but he’s barely played this season, while Harris has been a pleasant surprise. Dunning and Howard are guys who could be in the rotation for the next half-decade for Texas.

So while the rebuild should have started sooner, it does look like there are some things the Rangers have to show for the failed attempt to reload instead that will help them down the road.