Scottsdale, Ariz. -- This spring wasn't the first time I spoke to Sam Howard (No. 34 PuRP), the Colorado Rockies' promising young left-handed pitcher who spent last summer with the Low-A Asheville Tourists. But this spring was the first time I asked around about him to teammates, and the glowing reviews—well beyond the speak-well-of-your-teammates custom—told me all I needed to know about the tall southpaw.
"It’s still early in camp but one guy that was good last year, and he’s just gotten better, is Sam Howard," minor league pitcher Zach Jemiola (No. 33 PuRP) tells me when I ask him to pick one teammate who has impressed this spring.
"His fastball was electric last year and it continues to be electric, but that command with his slider is unreal, that’s a great one-two punch right there," Jemiola adds. "He can throw it in any count, it’s dirty. I ask him how he throws it, trying to help me out. I could see him pitching in the big leagues."
Jemiola—no slouch on the mound himself— is far from the only minor leaguer I come across who volunteers good things about Howard, who went 11-9 with a 3.43 ERA in 25 starts for the Tourists last summer, fanning 122 batters in 134 innings. Howard's rotation-mate in western North Carolina, Ryan Castellani, takes just as much away from the lefty as Jemiola.
"For me, it’s Sam," Castellani jumps in to say almost before I can even finish the question about which teammate has impressed him. "He was my throwing partner all of spring training last year, and then all of Asheville. And just throwing together every single day, it's been great to see his progression from the first half to the second half, and just how much better he got with the slider, and the change up."
"Now we are throwing partners again, and we each push each other," Castellani adds. "We play a little location game with our gloves, throw it up, see who can hit it. It's fun to compete with him."
Command is a big deal for Howard, who has only walked 42 hitters in 187 professional innings. But while he's always had good command of his fastball, the lefty saw his stock rise last summer in Asheville—and again this spring in camp—when he started to find pinpoint command of his slider, a wipeout pitch that has steadily improved in the last year under the tutelage of Tourists pitching coach Mark Brewer.
"Last year in Asheville when my slider wasn’t good, I found out why it wasn’t good," Howard tells me. "It was just a little tweak, like a centimeter tweak on the grip, and that little bit made it not as effective. Now that I know that, I’ve thrown it enough and I’ve practiced it enough that I can use it in any count. I want it, I trust it, and I just throw it hard."
Howard trusts it enough—and his teammates trust him after seeing him throw it enough—that other pitchers are coming to him for tips on grips, spin, and command help with their own sliders. Jerry Vasto, a starting pitcher in college before being moved to the bullpen last summer with the Tourists, put up very strong numbers as a set-up man, in part thanks to the development of his own wipeout pitch.
"His slider is really good," Vasto says. "He has been helping me with mine, trying to get mine right. We have worked together on it. He actually helped me the other day because I was losing spin on it."
And although others rave about what Howard has to offer on the mound, don't think it's gotten to the left-hander's head at all. In fact, now that he's heading to High-A Modesto coming off a good year perfecting his pitches, his personal to-do list has only gotten longer.
"Now, I want to be as consistent with my changeup as I am my slider and my fastball," Howard admits of his next goal. "In the zone, both sides of the plate, to lefties and righties."
"Then, just trying to be consistent throughout the year, going out and giving up a run, two runs here and there, but preventing that big inning in that outing that can really set me back," he adds. "I'm just trying to be consistent all year, and trying to be a leader out there."
Leadership comes in many ways—Rockies manager Walt Weiss is adamant that his big leaguers are all leaders, regardless of experience level or role—but for Howard, that comes in a quiet form. Howard's presence is as silent as it is strong, and you get the feeling he's more of the proverbial show, less the tell.
"I feel like it needs to be more about leading by example," Howard says when I ask him about being such a focal point for his teammates. "It's just about pitching like a competitor, showing I want it, and getting the job done."
Rookie ball reliever Parker French, who has himself impressed in camp this spring, looks up to Howard as a pitcher to emulate.
"He’s just very business-like, very competitive," French says. "You can tell he cares about it, and he’s just really good at his routine. He’s a guy that leads by example very well."
And while Howard can talk all he wants about only leading by example, he's clearly something of a role model to his teammates, whether explicit or just as a reliable guy they know will be there. Vasto, for one, immediately breaks into a huge grin when I bring up Howard's name during our interview.
"He’s just a bulldog on the mound," Vasto says, smiling ear to ear. "You can tell when he’s out there, he’s locked in, he pounds the zone, he's just out there trying to move up, and he’s doing well. He threw the ball so well last year."
Howard hints at taking his leadership role seriously, too, even showing a very empathetic side when it comes to his teammates from the Dominican Republic and other Latin American countries.
"Carlos Polanco is one of my good teammates from the Dominican, and I’m helping him out with the mental side of the game right now," Howard reveals. "He feels like he’s under some pressure, and I’m just trying to help him out any way I can by telling him what I do here in spring training. I'm here if they want to talk about a slider, the mental part of the game, or anything."
And while he's still focused on putting himself in a position to be successful both now and towards his ultimate goal, Howard shows an understanding that minor league life for him is in some ways much easier than it is for many foreign-born teammates.
"I think they have a different pressure on them just because we see all the bosses out here every day, and they are trying to make a squad just like we are," Howard admits of his Latin American teammates like Polanco. "If they are a starter, they want to stay in a starter role and not go to the bullpen. I know they think about it a lot more instead of coming over here to have fun and just do what you do on the mound."
Having just turned 23, Howard is no veteran, but he seems to take personally the opportunity to help younger guys like French and Polanco as they navigate their own baseball careers.
"I feel like I just understand pitching more, and sequences to hitters, and how to pitch," he says. "I feel more confident out there, I feel real relaxed in spring training, and I’m here to help out some younger guys when they ask me for questions or advice. I’m here to help them out any way I can."
★ ★ ★
Life is good for Sam Howard, then. Well, it's good right now; in a few days, he'll be pitching again in Modesto and pushing himself to succeed in a challenging environment. But things weren't always this rosy; the lefty struggled badly at rookie-level Grand Junction in 2014, leaving some doubts in his head—but the Rockies' player development manager, Chris Forbes, more or less expected that struggle and has been proud of the transition.
"We preach a lot about the co-pilot and the pilot," Forbes says. "These coaches, they are your co-pilot. But you have to pilot. And when guys start getting it, it’s because they’ve taken that step. That’s where Sammy is, he’s in that good transition period right now."
Howard, who kept the same daily routine all the way through the offseason to help his rhythm on the mound, feels that transition, too.
"I feel like I’m starting where I left off in Asheville, just very confident in what I do on the mound, and when I’m going out in my games and scrimmages," he says. "Just confident in fastballs in and out, and sliders and changeups down to put away hitters. I just feel good instead of having a guessing game out there."
Picking up this year where he left off in Asheville ought to be a good thing; Howard allowed just five runs in his final 32 innings for the Tourists last summer, striking out 31 and only allowing 19 hits and four walks in that span. The "getting it" Forbes mentions clearly started to take hold in the second half, and other players can feel when a guy "gets it." Castellani seems to know exactly what Forbes was alluding to regarding Howard's growth.
"I never got to see him in my first season, because he was in Grand Junction and I was in Tri-City, but hearing about how he was then and how he’s gone from Asheville to now, it’s amazing," Castellani says, shaking his head. "It makes you keep going and push harder to compete with him."
For Forbes, the work Howard did in Asheville last summer is only just beginning, though. The California League is a tough place to pitch, and while Modesto tends to skew towards hurlers, there are quite a few road ballparks in that league that are far from forgiving.
"Expect for him to keep staying within the process," Forbes says of Howard's short-term future. "But he recognized that he can’t just be the guy that throws it by everybody. He’s got to be able to move and locate on both sides of the plate, he’s got to be able to rely on his breaking ball, and that’s what he did in Asheville. We brought him into instructs to try to keep refining it, and he had a great instructs, too."
I ask Howard about the elephant in the room—or, on the mound—since he's had such a good calendar year. What happens if he hits a speed bump? What happens if his routine falls out of whack for a few days, and he can't get right in time for a start? What if Modesto is just a tougher place to pitch than Asheville, and all the goodwill he's built up fades in the coming summer?
"You always think ahead a little bit of the what-ifs, like what if I didn’t have the stuff last year to end the season in Asheville," Howard admits, refreshingly open to discussing the mental challenges of minor league baseball. "But when I start thinking about that I just have to remind myself just to be confident in what I do, and trust what [Tourists pitching coach Mark Brewer] had for me last year."
"If I do that, I think I’ll have a lot of success."
Seems pretty simple. In fact, there's only one unresolved question: I've heard several times that Howard and fellow Rockies farmhand Kyle Freeland made up a legendary corn hole team together at rookie level Grand Junction in 2014.
So, early in camp, I asked Freeland about the infamous pairing.
"It was nice to get away from baseball," Freeland admitted of living with Sam and host mom Carma Brown during the summer of 2014. "We'd come home, grill out at their house, play corn hole, just try to get our minds off baseball and kind of relax and wind down, not having to worry about anything but enjoying our time together."
But what, I ask Kyle, would happen if he and Howard faced off head to head in a game of corn hole? Who would win?
"I don’t know," Freeland says, shaking his head. "That was tough. I think we lost one time together out of that whole summer."
He pauses, looking down. It seems like he wants to tell me he'd beat Howard.
"I don’t know," he says, looking back up at me, instead choosing to go the diplomatic route. "But it’d be a good matchup if we went head to head."
Maybe Sam Howard really is just too good a teammate to speak ill of, even when discussing a meaningless game of corn hole.