With the 2021 season having come to a close, we are looking back at the year that was for members of the Texas Rangers.
Today we are looking at pitcher Spencer Howard.
Ah, Spencer Howard.
2021 was not good for him.
We talk about the idea of “buying low” on certain players, or certain prospects, and that’s certainly what the Rangers did with Spencer Howard.
A second round pick in 2017 by the Philadelphia Phillies out of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Howard had a breakout campaign in his second full season as a pro, putting up a 2.03 ERA between high-A and AA, along with a pair of starts in the complex league. He vaulted up the prospect charts, becoming a consensus top 50 prospect in baseball. In the COVID season of 2020, Howard made six starts for the Phillies and didn’t pitch well, but was still seen as a top 50 prospect.
2021 was...I hesitate to say a “lost season.” But it wasn’t good. He was shuffled between the majors and minors by the Phillies. He didn’t pitch well. And when the trade deadline rolled around, he got sent to Texas in the deal that sent Kyle Gibson, Ian Kennedy and Hans Crouse to the Phillies.
The inclusion of Crouse, you may recall, prompted a fair among of angst. We talk about the idea of including a lesser prospect in a deal to get a better return from time to time, which is what the Rangers did in this trade. Crouse had become a fan favorite during his time in the Rangers system, though, and wasn’t someone who was viewed as a lesser prospect type you’d include in a deal — at least, not for someone like Spencer Howard. There are those who have argued that the difference between Crouse and Howard is not material, and if that’s the case, well, this wasn’t a good move by the Rangers.
In any case, Howard came to Texas, talked about being happy to get a fresh start, talked about the importance of routine and how he could never get into a routine for the Phillies this year. He then didn’t pitch well, landed on the COVID injured list, and continued to not pitch well upon his return from the COVID injured list.
He ended up with a 5.72 ERA in 28 innings for the Phillies, and a 9.70 ERA in 21 innings for the Rangers. That’s not the type of performance that would warrant fronting a trade for the package the Rangers gave up.
The Rangers indicated that they were more concerned about process that results with Howard, once he came over to Texas. It was about working with him to straighten out some issues, about side work and adjustments and the like.
Which, again, isn’t the sort of thing that generates a ton of confidence.
It is worth noting that Howard’s expected numbers, per Statcast, have been better, over the past two seasons, than his actual numbers. Since 2020 he’s allowed a .360 wOBA, but a .327 xwOBA. His xERA the past two seasons has been 4.39 and 4.66. To be clear, the expected numbers aren’t great, or even particularly good, but they at least suggest he’s not pitching as poorly as the raw numbers indicate.
Statcast shows Howard has throwing six pitches last year, though he threw his four seamer just over 60% of the time, and his cutter 14% of the time. He used his changeup and his curveball a little under 10% apiece, with the occasional slider and sinker mixed in. His cutter and his changeup both got hammered, so that’s not good.
I don’t know what to think of Howard. There would probably be more enthusiasm if he had been a top 50 prospect in our system who came up and struggled, rather than a guy who we picked up with a couple of months left in the season who got hammered in a Rangers uniform. I would wager he starts the season in AAA, particularly if the Rangers add another starting pitcher, as seems to be their goal. He is someone who, I suspect, the Rangers want to get regular work in a rotation, rather than slot into a bullpen role, and whether he’s in AAA or the majors is less important than whether he’s getting the ball every fifth day.
The concern with Howard, though, is the concern that always exists when you think you are “buying low” on a prospect. I remember, in late 2001, getting into the elevator at work with a colleague. The elevator had one of those video displays that shows news clips and stock prices, and as we entered, it showed Enron stock having dropped below $10 per share. My colleague pointed that out and said, “Can you believe Enron has dropped that far? I bought a bunch of shares this morning...it can’t get much lower than where it is right now.”
We all know how that turned out.