Pittsburgh Pirates: Examining What has Led to Sam Howard’s Success


So far this season Sam Howard has been a pleasant surprise out of the bullpen for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Let’s examine what has driven that success.

Through the first 17 games of the 2020 season the bullpen has been an inconsistent roller coaster ride for the Pittsburgh Pirates. As you would expect, the performance of the bullpen has featured pitchers that have unexpectedly struggles, as well as those who have been pleasant surprises.

One of the pitchers whose performance has been a pleasant surprise for the Pittsburgh Pirates is lefty Sam Howard. While Howard was not part of the Opening Day bullpen, injuries created an opportunity for Howard and he has taken this opportunity and run with it.

Howard was a bit of after thought in both spring training and summer camp. Prior to 2020, Howard owned a 5.87 ERA, 6.16 FIP, 11.7% walk rate, 21.6% strikeout rate, and he had allowed five home runs in 23 innings pitched. These 23 innings of work came with the Colorado Rockies in 2018 and 2019.

Thus far in 2020, Howard’s results have done a complete 180. In 6.1 innings of work, Howard has walked just two batters and struck out 10. He’s allowed one home run, and owns a 2.84 ERA and a 2.92 FIP. Even though it’s been just 6.1 innings of work, he also appears to be a pitcher that is earning Derek Shelton’s trust in high leverage situations.

It must be stressed that 6.1 innings of work is a small sample size, but there is evidence that points toward the early season success of Howard being sustainable. Opposing batters are hitting the ball with an average exit velocity of just 86.9 MPH off Howard. MLB average exit velocity is 88.1 MPH, putting his 86.9 MPH exit velocity in the 86th percentile of MLB. So, he is doing a good job of limiting quality contact.

The best sign of all, though, is what he has been able to do with his slider. He has thrown his slider 65.7% of the time, and opposing batters are hitting .083 with a 79.0 MPH exit velocity off of his slider. His slider has a spin rate of 2436 this season and has generated a 48.6% whiff rate.

Another thing Howard has done well this season is get ahead in the count. He has thrown a first pitch strike 60.0% of the time this season. This is a big reason why his walk rate has improved to 8.0% after being 11.7% in his first two MLB seasons. Getting ahead in the count also gives Howard more room to look to get chases on his slider, which has contributed to his 34.9% chase rate this season which is also a career best.

Howard also appears to be a pitcher that is pitching with a lot of confidence. He has been attacking batters, as evident by his first pitch strike rate, and has not been afraid to go to his slider when he needs a strikeout. This has included throwing it out of the strike zone to get chases in three ball counts, as well as putting it in the dirt even with runners on base. For that, credit also needs to be given to Jacob Stallings for the confidence his pitchers have in his ability to keep the ball in front of him.

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While it is a small sample size of 6.1 innings, Howard has been a pleasant surprise out of the Pirate bullpen in 2020. With his ability to limit quality contact and a plus slider, the early season success of Howard is success that appears to be sustainable