Through the first month of the 2021 season lefty Sam Howard has quietly been one of the most effective pitchers in a rock solid Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen
The Pittsburgh Pirates acquired left-handed reliever Sam Howard from the Colorado Rockies when they claimed him off waivers during the 2019-2020 offseason. Since then, the Pittsburgh Pirates have developed the southpaw into a very effective bullpen piece, one that has been dominating batters in 2021 but has stayed under the radar the entire time.
Howard has pitched 10 innings thus far posting an outstanding 1.80 ERA, 0.90 WHIP and 4.39 FIP. A big reason Howard has been as effective as he’s been is his ability to get batters to look silly at his offerings. Howard has a 36.8% strikeout rate which ranks in the top 92nd percentile of all relievers, and overall 21st.
Howard has gotten batters to whiff at his pitches at a 47.6% rate, which leads all MLB pitchers, even Corbin Burnes who has not walked a single batter yet this season. Howard’s chase rate of 33.3% is also among the league’s best marks, ranking in the top 88th percentile.
Howard’s slider, simply put, has been outstanding. One of the best in all of baseball. Batters have swung and missed at it over 50% of the time with a 51.2% whiff rate. That’s the 24th highest mark among all pitchers who have thrown sliders this year. His 41.2% put away rate is among the league’s best as well at 13th.
In the rare instances when batters have made contact, they only get a hard-hit ball 18.2% of the time. On top of that, he has a sub-.200 xwOBA (.186). Howard’s overall -5.1 RV makes his slider the 9th most effective in all of baseball right now. He also has an RV/100 on his slider better than the likes of Cy Young contenders like Yu Darvish, Clayton Kershaw, Shane Bieber, and Jacob deGrom.
However, it’s his four-seam fastball that has occasionally given him some trouble. Howard’s four-seamer has a +1.2 run value/100. He’s gotten batters to swing and miss at it at a strong 40.9% rate and has a put-away rate of 38.9%. Overall, opponents have only managed a .200 batting average against it. The downside is when opponents do make contact, it’s usually hard to contact. Opponents have a 50% hard hit rate and .600 slugging percentage against the pitch.
But, there is a positive to his four-seam fastball. It’s not a completely useless offering. As I said, he still gets batters to swing and miss on it very often. It has well above average spin as well, averaging 2507 RPM. It also has good movement with 12 inches of vertical drop (12% better than the league average) and 10.2 inches of horizontal break (47% better than league average).
Howard is still in the top 89th percentile of exit velocity with an 85.5 MPH mark and top 82nd percentile in the hard-hit rate at 31.6%. He also has a very healthy ground ball rate of 47.4%. He’s also looked great in the eyes of many ERA estimators. Currently, he holds a 3.01 xFIP, 2.98 SIERA, 3.07 xERA and 3.76 DRA.
Howard has struggled with free passes. His 13.2% walk rate mixes with his 1.8 HR/9 rates like water mixes with oil. However, the only home runs he’s given up so far have been solo long balls. With his strong ground ball rate and good contact rates, it wouldn’t be surprising if he lowers it. This is shown in his expected slugging percentage of just .397, a mark that ranks above average in the top 58th percentile.
Howard has also been extremely impressive when it matters the most. He’s yet to give up a hit in high leverage situations, with runners on base, or with runners in scoring position. He’s also stranded all base runners he’s had so far with a 100% left on base rate.
If Howard wants to continue his success, he needs to lower either his home run rate or walk rate. His ground ball rate, hard-hit rate, exit velocity and expected slugging suggest that he’s gotten unlucky a few times. However, Howard’s extreme dominance early into 2021 could lead to him becoming a long-term member of the bullpen with the Pittsburgh Pirates. After all, he just turned 28 in March and doesn’t reach arbitration until after the 2022 season.