Pittsburgh Pirates 2021 Outlook: Sam Howard

During the 2020 season the Pittsburgh Pirates saw left-handed relief pitcher Sam Howard have a bit of a breakout season. During the shortened season Howard appeared in a career high 22 games and logged a career high 21.0 innings of work.

In these 21.0 innings of work Howard posted a 3.86 ERA, however, his 4.81 FIP and 5.11 DRA paint a less pretty picture. The main reason Howard’s FIP and DRA were so high was due to his 1.71 HR/9. That said, he allowed just four home runs, but, due to pitching just 21.0 innings due to the shortened season, that number can be inflating.

While Howard’s 10.0% walk rate was higher than you would like to see, it was also the lowest of his career. Meanwhile, his 30.0% strikeout rate was a new career high. This strikeout rate put him in the 80th percentile of baseball in strikeout rate, while he ranked in the 91st percentile of baseball in whiff rate.

Howard’s big swing-and-miss numbers were driven by his slider. Howard’s slider had a healthy 2468 spin rate and generated a 40.6% whiff rate. His fastball was no slouch of a pitch either, averaging a healthy 92.0 MPH from the left side while generating a 27.1% whiff rate.

Entering the 2021 season, Howard seems like a safe bet to crack the Opening Day bullpen for the Pittsburgh Pirates. The only other left-handed reliever on the Pirates’ 40-man roster is Austin Davis, who has not found anywhere near the MLB success that Howard has.

This past Sunday the Pirates signed left-handed reliever Chasen Shreve to a minor league contract. While it was a minor league signing Shreve appears to be a safe bet to make the Opening Day roster. More than likely, Howard and Shreve will be the two left-handed relievers in the Pirate bullpen when the 2021 season begins.

In 2021 Howard could pitch in high leverage situations for Pirates. Last season he struck out 37.5% of left-handed hitters faced and limited them to a .259 batting average against. Howard also found success against right-handed pitchers limiting them to a .200 batting average while striking them out at a 25.9% rate.

Due to Howard’s ability to retire both left and right-handed hitters he can be used as much more than just a left-handed specialist. Look for Howard to start the 2021 season playing an important role out of the bullpen for Derek Shelton. At that point, the ball will be in his court for where his future goes with the Pittsburgh Pirates.