3-29-22 By Anthony DiFilippo (aka @Cityofbridgesp on Twitter)
When the Pirates took the field against the Chicago Cubs to start 2021, there was just one left-handed pitcher in the bullpen: Sam Howard. Coming into 2022, the Pirates have a few more southpaw options, including Anthony Banda, Aaron Fletcher, Dillon Peters, and José Quintana (although the latter two could be in the rotation). They also have some pitchers in Indy nearing their debuts in the show, making for a spring bullpen battle (for better or worse). Today’s player profile will be all about the Bucs’ longest tenured lefty, Sam Howard, as he finds himself in an interesting spot in Pittsburgh.
Howard was a third-round draft pick of the Colorado Rockies in 2014. Two years later, he jumped into the Rockies’ Top 30 Prospects on MLB Pipeline at number 27, three spots below former Rockie and Pirate Tyler Anderson. In 2017, Howard jumped to 19. He finished at the 17th spot in 2018, which was also the year he made his major league debut.
When Howard’s career first started, he was used as a starter, pitching 506.1 innings in 96 starts, and a 3.68 ERA from 2015-2018. Howard did not start when he was called up for four games in 2018, three of which came in September. He allowed one run over four innings of work, but that sample size obviously isn’t large enough to make any conclusions one way or another.
Now working out of the bullpen, Howard’s 2019 season at Triple-A Albuquerque started really rough, as he gave up 17 earned runs in 26 innings in April and May combined. However, he really turned it around in June and July, where he allowed just two earned runs in 18.1 innings. That performance would give him an opportunity to succeed in Coors Field (you can likely see where this is going).
It went about as well as it has for a ton of other pitchers in Denver, which is not well at all. In 19 big league innings, Howard allowed 16 runs (14 earned) and five home runs. His WHIP was also high at 1.63. His expected ERA (xERA) that year was 4.89, about two runs lower than the 6.63 ERA he posted. That would mark the end of Howard’s Rockies career, as he was placed on waivers in the offseason.
Howard was claimed by the Pirates’ interim GM Kevan Graves on October 30th, and he was going to get a chance to compete in the bullpen for 2020.
Howard did not help himself during 2020 Spring Training, allowing five runs over 5.2 innings. When the team finally started up in July, Howard was not named to the Opening Day roster, and he was sent to the Alternate Training site. He was up within the first week, on August 2nd, when the team decided they had seen enough of another lefty, Robbie Erlin.
A very solid couple of months followed for Howard, as he allowed nine earned runs over 21 innings that year. Howard featured a two pitch mix, throwing his slider about two thirds of the time, and everything else was the four-seam fastball. His underlying numbers were also good that year, as his xERA was 3.79 (vs. a 3.86 ERA) and his xBA (expected batting average) was actually lower on his offspeed (.165) than what the actual results showed (.200 BA).
When it came around to 2021, Howard’s first full season with the team, it became the expectation that he would be the Bucs’ top lefty reliever (take that for what it’s worth). He was honestly a really great pitcher in the month of April, allowing just a pair of runs in ten innings. His next four months were almost night-and-day compared to the first month, and Howard allowed 20 runs in his next 21.2 innings. Howard also walked 19 batters over that stretch. He did have a pair of injuries which held him out a total of two months last season.
When Howard returned in September, he actually pitched a lot better, conceding five runs over 12 innings. The analytics from Howard’s 2021 season gives mixed results. His 4.21 xERA is much lower than his actual 5.60 ERA. The thing that really hurt Howard was the percentage of at-bats where his pitches were barreled up, at 8.7%. That is the highest of his career by far, and the league average is about 5%. It’s also unclear how much of an impact those injuries had on Howard, because when he was bad last year, he was really bad.
This spring has really been concerning for Howard, one which has seen him allow six runs over three outings, and tack on a pair of home runs as well. It’s not like spring training results really mean anything in the grand scheme of things, but one thing I know for sure is that it’s better to have good results than not.
Another thing that I can say with certainty is that Ben Cherington and company have not been shy to rotate bullpen pieces as needed via waiver claim. Like I mentioned, Anthony Banda and Aaron Fletcher, two lefties, could be in line to steal innings. Adonis Medina just got claimed really recently. Heath Hembree just joined the ‘pen. More than likely one or two of the rotation guys will shift to a bullpen role. If it’s anything like last year, Duane Underwood, Jr. will pitch a million times. Don’t forget about Miguel Yajure, Roansy Contreras, Max Kranick, and more who are waiting in the wings to get a crack and already did a bit last season.
Whether or not you believe the Pirates’ options are good is a different story, but there are definitely options. The first month or two will be crucial for Sam Howard, and how it plays out will be largely up to him.