How an unrecruited SLO County ballplayer became one of MLB’s best pitching prospects
Templeton is little more than a blip on the radar for travelers passing by on Highway 101.
Even the railroad, which stops in nearby Paso Robles and used to classify the neighboring town as a flag stop, now just considers Templeton a bypass.
For much of Spencer Howard’s early baseball career, teams viewed him the same way.
No schools offered him a scholarship coming out of Templeton High School. Throughout much of his collegiate career, he wasn’t viewed as a potential major league prospect, let alone a player who could be picked on the first day of the draft.
Now, midway through his second full season in the minor leagues, he’s putting Templeton back on the map, as the 23-year-old is the consensus top pitching prospect in the Philadelphia Phillies’ talent-heavy farm system.
A small-school athlete
The odds were against Howard from the start. Roughly 1,200 players were drafted in the 2019 MLB Draft — the capacity of Templeton’s gym.
Baseball wasn’t everything for Howard. He almost quit after his junior year to focus on volleyball, which is also a spring sport. He played rec soccer on the side. He enjoyed the winter Fridays where the team would play Ultimate Frisbee in the outfield.
“I think it’s important. The culture today is so club oriented, and I’m not necessarily a huge fan of that,” said Brad Macomber, who was the baseball head coach at Templeton from 2009 to 2015. “You can call me old-school, I guess. I played three sports: football, basketball and baseball, and I loved all three. I gained things from all three that made me who I am.
“I think that by not loving (baseball) then, that he appreciates it more now.”
Howard told Macomber that if it wasn’t for he and another Templeton pitching talent in Mac Lardner returning to the program, that he likely would have suited up instead for the Eagles’ volleyball team in his senior season.
Also, unlike many modern players, he didn’t feature on the travel circuit, which can put dramatic wear on arms before they even throw an inning in college. It can also put unfounded expectations and pressure on teenagers.
“I know for a fact from Spencer’s personality, that if someone would have been doing that, putting that pressure on him back then, he would have quit a long time ago,” Macomber said.
Howard was a part of the 2014 Templeton team that won the Los Padres League title his junior season, and he was named League Player of the Year the following season as a senior, the season he almost never played.
Macomber said that’s no coincidence.
“There is a lot to be said for relaxing to a point where, yes, it means a lot to you, but it isn’t everything. It doesn’t define who you are,” Macomber said.
Despite his accolades, playing in a small, mostly rural community with one high school and little visibility, Howard’s options were limited.
He played one summer for the now defunct semi-pro Santa Maria Indians, and caught the eye of the club coaches at Cal Poly. But he had his sights set on playing for the actual college team.
After receiving no college scholarship offers, Howard decided to attend Cal Poly for business.
There, he decided “as one last hurrah” to try out for the baseball team during a prospect camp. Little did he know, the decision would change the course of his life.
Cal Poly’s Larry Lee likes his arm
Cal Poly head coach Larry Lee saw the untapped potential in Howard’s “live arm” but realized that the young pitcher had no real feel for a change-up or breaking ball. Nevertheless, Lee took a shot and offered him a spot.
There was still plenty of work to be done for Howard to become a college starter, much less an MLB prospect.
Lee said Howard needed to “create discipline and structure, in areas outside of baseball, too, to become focused and to understand: ‘Do I want to be a Major League Baseball player?’
“Not all players do that.”
Howard redshirted his freshman year in 2015, putting on weight and strength, before traveling to the Bellingham Bells in Washington for summer ball. He only got a spot on the team because another Cal Poly freshman had thrown too many innings during the season.
As he left for the summer, however, Cal Poly coaches told him there might not be a spot for him when he returned.
Howard said he didn’t know if that was a serious threat or just motivation. Either way, he made the most of his time in Washington.
It was in Bellingham that he developed a breaking ball and a change-up under the tutelage of pitching coach Jim Clem. He also adopted a wind up after working mostly out of the stretch — which was a simplified motion perfect for high school pitchers.
“To be honest with you, when I get them at a young age and they all want to replicate guys they see on TV out of the windup, they have no balance and don’t know where the ball’s going,” Macomber said. “So I simplified it.”
No longer a high school pitcher, Clem jump-started the process of Howard transitioning from simply a hard thrower to a pitcher.
He returned to Cal Poly after the summer and was slotted into a reliever role as a redshirt freshman.
With his fastball steadily gaining velocity, he came out of the bullpen and showed flashes of what was to come, averaging better than 9.5 strikeouts per nine innings in 21 appearances as one of the Mustangs’ best relievers.
After his redshirt freshman collegiate season, he returned to Washington. He worked on the same building blocks with Clem as before, adding to his repertoire.
His redshirt sophomore season would be when it all came together.
An opportunity appears
As a second-year pitcher for the Mustangs in 2017, the righthander began his season in the bullpen, before an injury to one of the team’s starters gave him an opening. He didn’t return to the bullpen again.
Howard upped his strikeouts to 9.96 per nine innings in 12 starts and 17 total appearances, with a 1.95 ERA and an 8-1 record.
“From about week four or five, he was as dialed in as well anyone that I’ve ever had.” Lee said.
By this time, scouts were paying attention.
Midway through the season, Howard was ranked as the top overall draft-eligible pitcher and the top starter available in the Big West Conference by Fangraphs.
Lee said Howard benefited from the structure that being with a college team offered, but the pitcher took it a step further.
“I always felt like I was pretty athletic,” Howard said. “I put on a bunch of weight weightlifting, and that translated into body awareness. Once I had that, it was about correcting my mechanics to repeat pitches.
“It was kind of a sequence of events that unfolded on its own. I never had a set of: ‘OK, this is what I’m gonna do this year.’ It was just do what I’m supposed to do, work hard and get a little bit better every day. Things will take care of themselves. It’s still the mindset that I have today.”
Lee had Howard and several other players who found success during the season write down everything they did to improve outside of the Cal Poly weight room and practices.
“It was extensive, detailed,” Lee said of Howard’s list. “It was yoga. It was the mental side of it. It was extra things.
“In the end, he becomes a self-made guy.”
By this point, Howard had four pitches including a mid-90s fastball, and he threw for strikes. Once a long shot to even make a college roster, Howard had become a can’t-miss prospect.
“He really mastered the mental game,” Lee said. “He never let anything around him effect him, including errors, the score or the situation. And leaving here — barring injury — there was no doubt in my mind he would be a big-leaguer.”
On June 12, 2017, Howard was selected by the Phillies as the 45th pick of the 2017 MLB Draft.
Now a prized prospect
Viewed as a potential top-half rotation starter, Howard now has a fastball that has touched 100 mph and an arsenal consisting of a fastball, change-up, cutter and curve, all of which have stymied minor league hitters. He is widely considered the best pitching prospect in the Phillies’ farm organization.
But his lack of pitching mileage also makes him valuable.
While not playing travel ball initially hurt his visibility and made it hard to get recruited, it’s ultimately viewed as a positive. He threw only 123 2/3 innings in two years of college. He has 205 2/3 innings to date over his entire minor league career. In 2018, Washington’s Max Scherzer lead the majors with 220-2/3 innings pitched.
In his first short draft season in the minors, Howard continued to show his strikeout potential, totaling 47 in 31 1/3 innings and holding batters to a .224 average.
In 2018, his first full minor league season in Single-A ball, Howard recorded 147 strikeouts in 112 innings with a 3.78 ERA. He also threw a no-hitter in the minor league playoffs.
That winter, Howard’s name popped up in trade rumors. Both Seattle and Miami sought a deal, but the Phillies didn’t bite. Now, both he and third-base prospect Alec Bohm are viewed as untouchable in the Phillies’ system.
This season, he started four times for the High Single-A Clearwater Threshers, with a 2.25 ERA with 30 strikeouts in 20 innings before heading to the disabled list for shoulder fatigue at the end of April.
It was the first major setback for Howard, but he was unfazed.
“I think in the long run, it will be beneficial,” he said. “Because it was only two months of High-A ball to where I could figure out where the weakness was in my shoulder and have a plan moving forward on how to — not only prevent that — but, if I start to feel symptoms, know what to do to get it to calm down again.”
The Phillies were cautious in bringing their prized pitcher back, but after two months off and two rehab starts, Howard returned to the Threshers.
He allowed only three hits over 15 innings in three starts.
On July 26, just days before his 23rd birthday, he made his Double-A debut for the first-place Reading Fightin’ Phils, striking out 10, walking two and allowing one hit and one run in 4 2/3 innings.
Since then, he’s made seven starts, including to help Reading clinch a playoff spot Thursday when he scattered three hits, struck out six and walked three while allowing one run in 5.2 innings. The outing lowered his ERA to 2.35 with Reading and 2.03 across 15 starts this season between four minor league levels.
When will the majors call?
Even with his success, the realization that he could be a major league pitcher didn’t happen until recently.
“It didn’t really hit me until Reading,” Howard said. “I always felt like I was pretty good and had a lot of fun working towards it. The more I played, the more I understood the game and the more fun I had.
“But in college, it was more, I did my work, did my workouts and stuff and enjoyed it because that’s where all my buddies were playing. I don’t want to say it was a social thing, because it definitely wasn’t, but it was good to focus on baseball more.”
The Phillies are desperate for starting pitching in the midst of a hunt for a wildcard playoff spot. Talk of Howard being called up in September has grown on social media and news outlets.
Howard hasn’t seen much or any of it.
“I’m not on social media that much,” Howard said.
He added that by removing himself from distractions, it’s easier to focus on what he needs to do.
At the same time, the Phillies don’t want to rush Howard’s development. They also don’t know how his pitching will play with the new baseballs that are sending home runs flying out of AAA and professional stadiums at a record pace.
In his bullpen sessions, Howard said he has been practicing with the new balls, which are different than those at Double and Single A, to get a feel for them.
“The seams are tighter-wound,” Howard said of the balls. “I’ve heard they fly way farther. But I think throwing them is more fun because they make your good pitches better and make your average, fringey pitches way worse. So, if you have good pitches, it shouldn’t be too big of an adjustment.”
So what’s next? Barring a setback, fans who watched Howard at Templeton High School and Cal Poly should look for him to reach the majors by 2020 — at the latest.
“I think everybody is sort of dreaming on what he can be,” Phillies manager Gabe Kapler told NBC last week. “Whether that happens at some point late this season or it happens next year, I think it’s inevitable that Spencer Howard is going to be on a big-league mound and I don’t think it’s going to take very long.”
The opportunity to see how his pitching fares with the new baseballs will come sooner rather than later.
If Howard’s history is any indication, you can expect him to make the most of it.