What a difference a year makes.
The first time we caught up with Sam Howard, the lefty was beginning his first full-season campaign in pro ball when the Colorado Rockies assigned him to their Low-A affiliate, the Asheville Tourists. A Georgia native, Howard was coming off an inconsistent rookie debut and was eager to prove himself in the South Atlantic League.
Speaking to our Charlie Drysdale, Howard admitted he had mental adjustments to make after logging a 5.40 ERA and 1.556 WHIP over 53 rookie ball innings back in 2014:
Last year in Grand Junction, it was the mental side that I changed in the off-season. It was all in my head last year, I've changed that. Been throwing really well. It was all in my head with hitters, and this year I'm not scared of nothin'. I just throw it in there and force them to hit it.
How prophetic those words turned out to be.
The former third-round draft pick made 25 starts in 2015, logging 134 innings for Asheville and going 11-9 with a 3.43 ERA and 1.216 WHIP. He posted solid peripherals, too: 8.8 H/9, 0.5 HR/9, and just 2.1 BB/9 against 8.2 K/9. Add a complete game shutout to his resumé and a strong finish to the summer—Howard allowed just three earned runs in his final four starts (26 innings)—and the lefty let his work do the talking.
We took notice of that this winter, naming Howard the 34th-best prospect in the Rockies' system ahead of the 2016 season. When I asked the Georgia Southern product about his arrival on the prospect scene, though, he respectfully downplayed it, citing his new mental outlook.
"I don’t pay attention to any of the prospect lists for the Rockies," Howard told me this week. "There’s no reason to even look at it because that’s something I can’t control. I can only control my performance on the field. I am not satisfied where I am, and I'm going to keep working until I get to the top. I’ve got something to prove to everybody."
A chip on his shoulder isn't the only thing Howard has in his repertoire, but that trait, coupled with a wrinkle in his pitch offerings, has made the lefty a more complete pitcher now two seasons into his professional career.
"In spring training of 2015, I was working with [Mark Brewer], the Asheville pitching coach, and he showed me the way he used to grip his slider," Howard told me.
"Up until that point in my career I had never thrown a slider. I was a curveball guy in high school. The grip Brew showed me for the slider just took off for me and was my out pitch all year in Asheville. I plan to stick with my three-pitch mix in 2016 and just try to better those three pitches."
"I got two looks at Howard in 2015, and both times he sat 91-93, touching 94, with a low 80s slider and change," Calvagno told me.
"The slider had good sharp downward movement and he controlled it well. The change had similar arm speed to the fastball and some movement down and in on left-handers. He showed pretty good consistency with both of his off speed pitches, he seemed comfortable using all three pitches, and they were all a big part of his repertoire."
★ ★ ★
That three-pitch arsenal may bode well, at least on paper, for Howard's future as a starter in the Rockies' system. But it didn't all just come together magically across the last summer in North Carolina. In fact, just a few starts into the season, Howard was lost on the Tourists' mound.
"I had a few rough starts every now and then in the first half of the season," Howard conceded. "I was trying to take what Brew was teaching me from the bullpen to the game mound. It took me a little while to really understand what he was teaching me and be able to feel my body do it on the game mound."
Howard began the summer 0-3 across his first four starts, giving up 13 earned runs on 22 hits—and three home runs—in just 16 innings pitched.
But his mental approach and stuff would soon self-correct. After a May 8 start against Delmarva, where he allowed just one earned run on two hits and no walks over seven innings, the lefty was phenomenal the rest of the season. In his final 20 starts, Howard allowed three runs or less in 18 of them, and he ripped off nine wins over his final 13 appearances leading into the SAL Playoffs.
"The second half of the season was pretty solid," Howard said. "I had done everything Brew was teaching me. I could take everything in to my starts and feel when I did something wrong, and I could make in-game adjustments."
Doug Maurer, the Tourists' play-by-play broadcaster, jumped at the chance to talk up Howard's strong season, especially the starter's nearly lights-out second half on the mound, as Asheville made their late playoff push.
"Let’s start with the accolades I remember," Maurer told me. "Sam finished first in the SAL in strikeouts, becoming the first Tourists pitcher to hold that distinction since 2007."
"He also compiled a streak of 23⅔ consecutive scoreless innings, which helped him post a 9-1 record after the All-Star Break. His scoreless inning streak was snapped in a game that Asheville won by 20, so trading runs for outs late in the game was more of the team’s mindset, even though it did snap his streak. His lone postseason appearance was a victory in which he tossed six shutout innings to propel the Tourists to the Southern Division pennant."
Howard, whose focus with me seemed to be predominantly on spring training and the coming summer, did grant the good time he had in 2015, despite falling just short of a league championship in the end of September.
"My first full season last year in Asheville was a lot of fun," Howard admitted. "I would say I had a pretty solid first full season. It was a lot of fun chasing a championship in the second half and playoffs."
For the voice of the Tourists, Howard made an impression with personality more than performance last summer.
"Sam is a leader and he does so by example," Maurer said.
"His work ethic and competitive drive not only helped his individual performance, but it rubbed off on his teammates. He carries himself as a professional and his maturity shows in the clubhouse. He is a gamer in every sense of the word."
★ ★ ★
A gamer at one minor league stop may be out-gunned at the next level, of course, but Howard isn't exactly sitting back and relaxing after his coming-out party in 2015.
"The pitching coordinators just told me to work hard this offseason and go into spring training where I left off in Asheville," Howard said of his winter regimen and spring expectations. "I was clicking on all cylinders at the end of the season in Asheville. I had myself a daily routine on the field that was really working for me and I am still using it this offseason into spring training."
Conventional wisdom suggests Howard will be part of High-A Modesto's rotation in 2016, and while the lefty admitted that was his expectation, too, he was quick to note inward focus over outside variables that will inevitably pop up in March.
"Going into spring training this year, I am expecting to move up levels for this upcoming season," Howard said. "I don’t know where I will go, I just want to come into spring training wide open, ready to go, do the best I can in spring training games and see where the cards fall for the full season rosters."
Calvagno was blunt, and impressed, with Howard's offerings and outlook when discussing the pitcher's future with me.
"He's more pitchability over stuff, as I wouldn't rate any of his current offerings as plus," Calvagno admitted, "though the slider is above average for me. He's pretty advanced with his command and control."
As far as projectability, Calvagno sees a future for the 6'3", 170-lb. left-hander, whether in Modesto or anywhere else.
"[Howard] might be five to ten pounds heavier than [where he's listed], but there's still room for him to add some good weight," Calvagno evaluated. "Maybe he's able to add a couple of ticks [of velocity] as a result. He has a three-quarters arm slot and some deception in his windup, too."
Good weight has been a focus for Howard this winter. He's spent the last four months specifically preparing for 2016 after throwing nearly three times as many innings in Asheville as he had the summer before in a short-season environment.
"Everybody was telling me that your first full season will take a toll on your body and you will learn what you need to change in preparation for next season," Howard said.
"I was injury free all year, but the last month of August and beginning of September I could feel my body and arm to wear down and recover slower. I think that’s normal and part of the full season process. I have focused more on eating healthier this offseason in preparation for this coming season."
Just as he did last offseason, Howard has been busy working out with some of the Rockies' big leaguers the last few months in the Atlanta area.
"This offseason I am training at the same facility that I did last year," Howard said. "It’s called Rapid Performance and Charlie Blackmon, DJ LeMahieu, and David Hale with the Rockies also train there with me."
Gleaning knowledge from big leaguers is a valuable way to spend the winter (no, I didn't ask Howard about trade rumors around Blackmon), but there is one major difference in Howard's program this offseason — and it suggests he already has a better understanding of the demands of both spring training and a full season league.
"My workouts for 2016 have been basically the same," Howard revealed, "but I have started my throwing earlier just in case I was to have a minor setback, so I have extra time to get ready for spring training."
★ ★ ★
To this point, though, setbacks aren't on the radar for the 22-year-old.
Even if something pops up, the lefty—who was drafted by the Chicago Cubs out of high school in 2011 before deciding to take his baseball career to Georgia Southern—seems to have made a strength out of his mental approach to the game.
As a throwaway at the end of our interview, I asked the hurler if he regrets not turning pro out of high school, or if Georgia Southern, and the Rockies, have been the right path for him. Howard was certain in his response.
"I think saying no to the Chicago Cubs out of high school and going to pitch at Georgia Southern for three years was the best decision of my career," the lefty told me.
"I needed to go to college and mature. I learned to deal with adversity on and off the field at college."
Lessons learned on campus were followed by more from rookie ball, and the result is apparent: Howard just put himself on Colorado's radar heading into 2016, and an already very deep farm system now has one more bona fide starter on the depth chart.
Just don't ask the lefty about prospect lists this spring. Come March, chances are you'll find Sam Howard on the back fields at Salt River, honing that three-pitch mix and using his improved mental approach to set the tone for another summer of minor league success.