The Pirates are in the midst of a rebuild and a large amount of focus will be given to prospects in the Pirates’ farm system. However, a rebuild also relies heavily on talent at the Big League level. Sam Howard wasn’t on the Pirates opening day roster, but now that he has established himself, how integral is he to the Pirates rebuild?
This series of articles will evaluate the current MLB-level pitching talent within the Pittsburgh Pirates organization with the sole purpose of trying to determine how that talent fits into the organization’s future. The first player we will look at is Sam Howard.
Sam Howard was drafted in the 48th round of the 2011 draft by the Chicago Cubs but decided to play out his college years at Georgia Southern. This ended up being a good decision for Howard as he was drafted in the 3rd round of the 2014 MLB draft by the Colorado Rockies.
Howard would stagnate on his path to the Majors, posting a 3.85 ERA, a 8.0 K/9 and a 2.8 BB/9 over six minor league seasons. Even though Howard’s worst season in the minors was the season he played for the Rockies’ Triple-A club, Howard would be promoted and lose his rookie eligibility in 2019.
Two brief stints with the Rockies led to 23 innings pitched and a 5.87 ERA. This ended up being enough for the Rockies to justify DFA’ing Howard. Enter the Pittsburgh Pirates, who on October 30, 2019 claimed Sam Howard off waivers. Howard would go on to impress the coaches throughout camp and on August 2nd would get promoted to the Big League club.
Howard immediately made an impact, pitching four scoreless innings over his first three outing while most bullpen members were floundering. As of September 14th, Howard has appeared in 16 games, has pitched 16 innings and has only given up four earned runs – leading to a 2.25 ERA. Obviously, these numbers are fantastic, but 16 innings is a small sample size. What else can we glean from Howard’s 2020 season to give us a clearer picture?
To start, while entering play on Monday, Howard’s ERA sits at 2.25, his FIP, xFIP, and SIERA were 4.15, 4.47, and 3.79 respectfully. My favorite metric out of the set is SIERA. SIERA, or Skill Interactive Earned Run Average, takes into account factors that the pitcher can’t control like fielding, and also weighs in the type of contact the pitcher induces when balls are put into play. A 3.79 SIERA is about average among relief pitchers, suggesting that Howard has gotten lucky this season, but has still performed well overall, and considerably better than in 2019.
We can support this by looking at a few other metrics. To start, Howard has done significantly better at limiting home runs this season. His 12.5% HR/fly ball ratio is far better than his 25% in 2019. His limiting of home runs also translates to better average contact strength in 2020. Down from 41.8% in 2019, a hard contact rate of 32.4% is far more bearable.
Driving this success may be Howard’s increased reliance on his slider. Howard’s slider usage was high in 2019 at 55.9%, but now sits even higher at 63.3% this season. If I was Howard, I would be relying on my slider as well in 2020.
On his slider, Howard’s spin rate increased meaningfully from 2339 rpm to 2463 rpm in 2020. Batters are only hitting the pitch to the tune of a .138 batting average compared to .255 in 2019. The increase in spin rate actually brings him slightly above the league average slider at 2434 rpm. Outside of the increased usage and spin rate, Howard’s slider control has been far better in 2020. As shown below, Howard has been keeping his slider out of the middle of the zone in 2020 and has instead been throwing it right off the lower left hand side of the plate. This is exactly what you want when you are a reliever throwing a slider.
Howard has shown significant and meaningful improvement from 2019 to 2020. While Howard may not have the raw stuff to be a closer, he can be a highly effective bullpen arm. Since Howard is on his rookie contract through 2025, this should be an easy decision for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Bring Howard back in 2021 and see if he can repeat his 2020 performance. If Howard pitches well in 2021, the Pittsburgh Pirates can look to trade him at a deadline, or use him to stabilize middle innings for years to come.
Congrats on the great season so far, Sam, and let’s go Bucs!