Modesto, Calif. -- If you want to know about a pitcher, go to his catcher. Nobody knows the ins and outs of a starting pitcher better than his battery mate, and there's the added benefit that catchers don't tend to sugar coat anything when it comes to evaluating their pitching staff.
So a few hours before the Modesto Nuts' Wednesday game against the Bakersfield Blaze, I took a new angle on Rockies minor league starting pitcher Sam Howard. We've heard from Howard quite a bit before, but I had a feeling Dom Nunez (No. 13 PuRP), the Nuts' catcher, might shed light on Howard's hot start to the season and contextualize it in the lefty's successful minor league career to date. Nunez didn't disappoint.
"Look, the guy goes glove-side, extension side fastball better than anybody I’ve ever caught," Nunez said of Howard, no small compliment considering the young catcher spent March at big league spring training in Scottsdale.
"When he comes in, he comes in hard, and he doesn’t miss over the plate, and that’s huge," Nunez added. "When you miss to opposite hand hitters, and you miss in for a ball, it’s just a ball. When he misses in, that’s brushing guys back a little bit, that’s getting them off the plate, and then his backfoot slider is just a wipeout pitch. It’s one of the best pitches we have in this clubhouse. Righties don’t see it. I think they see heater out of the hand, and it just disappears."
That clubhouse the catcher mentions currently includes prospects like Ryan Castellani (No. 19 PuRP) and Jesus Tinoco (No. 14 PuRP), and big arms in other hurlers like Yency Almonte (video), Carlos Polanco, and Jerry Vasto (video), so it ought not be understated exactly how strongly Nunez feels about Howard's stuff. It's been like this for a while for the lefty, though; a monster summer last year in Asheville rolled right into his first few starts in Modesto this April.
"He led the [South Atlantic] League in strikeouts, and that’s not easy to do," Nunez argued about Howard, the catcher clearly in his pitcher's corner. "You have to give him credit for the first half, the numbers that he put up. And then the second half, he was just lights out."
We've explored previously just how lights out Howard was in that second half last summer in Asheville, but the lefty learned some hard lessons to get to that point, and it wasn't just about his much-ballyhooed slider. After all, Howard isn't knocking on the door of prospect lists by virtue of his age (a college draftee, he's already 23), or unhittable stuff (wipeout slider aside, he works relatively conventionally at 90-93 mph), so he must continue to pitch to succeed at higher levels. Fortunately, he's thoughtful enough to realize that.
"When I wasn’t getting the results I wanted last year, I sat down and thought about a few things about myself," Howard revealed, noting he's changed his routine between starts to better prepare. "I was expecting and wanting results, but all I was doing was going to batting practice, doing my throwing program, and then coming back in. I realized that wasn't going to get me to where I want to be."
What a difference a year makes; now, he has his daily routine nearly down to the minute.
"Every day, I come out thirty minutes before pitcher’s stretch and do the towel drill, draw some lines on the mound and work on my glove-side direction," Howard explained. "I do lots of things like that where I don’t have to throw a baseball, but it’s still working on muscle memory."
On Wednesday night, Howard came as advertised in his third start of the year, a night game at Modesto's John Thurman Field against the Blaze. In 5.2 innings, he didn't allow a run, and gave up just three hits and two walks while striking out seven hitters on 90 pitches (58 strikes). Working between 90 and 93 mph with a slider that sat 83-86 mph and an 82-84 mph changeup, the lefty worked around baserunners and put up zeroes despite the Nuts' inability to score (Modesto won the game 1-0 on a late home run from Roberto Ramos).
Though he didn't earn a decision on Wednesday, the outing brought Howard's ERA down to 1.76 on the young season; opponents, too, are batting just .145 against him (8 hits in 15.1 innings). Watch a portion of Howard's Wednesday start here:
Catching up with the lefty after the game, I asked Howard why he didn't start throwing his slider until the fourth inning, and whether that was a conscious decision based on Bakersfield's scouting report. His answer revealed a baseball IQ that ought to bode well for his development this year and beyond.
"It was actually a scouting report on me," Howard conceded about going to his changeup early rather than the slider. "Other teams know I’m a fastball-slider guy, so I need to develop my changeup, and go as deep into the game as I can without having to show my slider. Once I start bringing out my slider, I know I can get outs with it, but I just tried to keep my balance fastball-changeup as long as possible."
Obviously, that worked for Howard—and for Nunez, maybe there was never any doubt that it would.
"The changeup’s come a long way, and it's now a swing and miss pitch," Nunez said. "And when we want to get soft contact, we usually get soft contact with it, too."
"I’m trying to make my changeup just as strong as my slider," Howard said about his decision to avoid the breaking ball early. "And it’s getting there. It’s getting better. Overall today, the changeup was pretty good. I kept them off balance, had some swing and misses, had some rollovers, and threw some pretty good sliders."
Of course, it must be nice to be able to work on a change-up when you have a putaway pitch in your back pocket, ready to be pulled out and dropped in on any hitter at any point. On Wednesday, at least, I got the sense that Howard was almost toying with hitters a bit as he attacked them, not handing out his full repertoire while knowing he can miss a bat whenever he needs to do so.
"Earlier in the game, we’ll have hitters 0-2 or 1-2, and [Nunez] will go fastball in," Howard explained. "It’s always hard to hit an inside pitch, so I’ll go with it. But later in the game, I want to go to the slider. I know it’s harder to hit, and I have a better chance of not letting them put it in play."
And while Howard knows what he wants, he clearly trusts Nunez. Then again, not many pitchers shake off Nunez, anyways; Castellani has raved about him to me several times before, and the catcher knows his pitching staff perhaps better than anybody, as I initially suspected. But Howard deserves some credit for his own good outing and hot start to the summer, and Nunez, clearly very proud about the lefty's development, was there to give it.
"He knows the pitcher that he is, and he’s just going to keep getting better at what he does," Nunez said. "He’s just really good. He’s one of the most polished guys we have on the staff. And he executes, that’s the thing. He goes out and executes pitches when he wants to."
Nunez isn't the only one speaking highly of Howard, either; Brock Hebert, an infielder in the Seattle Mariners' organization playing this summer for the Blaze, spoke to me about going up against Howard on Wednesday night.
"With lefties like him, it can be a tougher approach than righties," Hebert reasoned before the game. "He's going to throw changeups more to right-handed hitters, then he can back door you with a slider, so you have to be ready to pull your hands in on that pitch. But mainly you’ve just got to stay on the fastball, and adjust. You have to trust your hands, and stick with your approach, and see what happens."
Hebert didn't walk away with a memorable game against Howard by any means, but the Blaze's leadoff hitter did get on base twice, on a walk and a hit by pitch. With Howard as stingy as he was that night, Hebert acquitted himself better than most of his teammates, at least. But I get the feeling the Nuts' starting pitcher is a bit of a perfectionist—not that it's necessarily a bad trait to have.
"I usually feel really good glove-side but today was not one of my best," Howard admitted to me after getting 17 outs without allowing a run. "Instead of just thinking inside to a righty and getting it there, I was trying to pull it over there and doing too much. But I figured out in the fourth. I figured out what I was doing wrong, and I started commanding the zone a lot better and going glove-side a lot better."
Above all, that might be the key in Howard's outing this week, and really, his career thus far; as players continue to progress through the minor leagues, they must make adjustments faster and faster. Whereas in lower levels it might take players days or weeks to iron out an on-field adjustment, already here Howard is committed to speeding up that process when something goes wrong.
"Last year and during my first short-season, I would just keep getting more frustrated," Howard acknowledged about dealing with adversity during a start. "I would have let things get out of control and I wouldn’t have been able to make an in-game adjustment. But now I can do that and stay out of trouble, and just slow the game down."
"And from there," he added, "now it has to be batter to batter. If I miss once on a hitter and he gets a hit, I have to be able to know what I did, adjust it for the next hitter, not let things get out of control out, and prevent the big inning."
Howard did more than prevent the big inning on Wednesday. And even though he was his usual unassuming, business-like self after the game as we talked, Nunez couldn't help but show a little emotion in support of his pitcher.
"I told you," the catcher said in the clubhouse after the game, covered in dirt and sweat with a smile wide across his face. "I told you he was gonna shove."