In the world of baseball, slumps are as an established part of the game’s DNA as the nine field positions or the 90 feet between bases. Seemingly every pro player—save for Clayton Kershaw, whose strikeout-to-walk ratio (20.1) has now nearly reached legal drinking age—endures at least a few minor spates of regression over a 162-game regular season.
But every now and then, slumps descend into unexplainable collapses. Just ask Rick Ankiel, a former top pitching prospect who threw five wild pitches for the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 1 of the 2000 National League Division Series and was eventually forced to give up pitching. Ask Steve Blass or Mark Wohlers, each of whom suddenly lost the ability to throw strikes.
That gloomy train of thought brings us to Nick Howard.
The Reds selected Howard with the 19th overall pick in the 2014 amateur draft out of the University of Virginia. Howard’s pedigree was impressive. Armed with a mid-90s fastball and a potent slider, the 6’4, 215-pound right-hander was a mound terror for the Cavaliers, fanning 60 batters in 37.2 innings and racking up a conference-record 14 saves in Atlantic Coast Conference play. An All-American reliever, Howard was also named second team All-ACC as a utility infielder, his all-around talents powering Virginia to a 53-16 record and a runner-up finish at the College World Series.
Here’s a closer look at Howard’s pitching numbers at Virginia. (Hat tip to Baseball Cube.) Howard made 12 starts in 2013, but otherwise worked exclusively out of the bullpen.
The Reds picked Howard with the intention of converting him into a starting pitcher.
“We think he can start,” Reds senior director of amateur scouting Chris Buckley said after Cincinnati drafted Howard. “[Howard] is everything I like in a pitcher. He’s very athletic and a very good baseball player.”
The Reds signed Howard on June 30, and less than a month later, he made his debut for the Low-A Dayton Dragons. He pitched well enough out of the bullpen, then made five starts for the Dragons to close the season, tallying a 4.18 ERA in 23.2 frames while striking out 14 and walking eight. He then ventured to the Arizona Fall League, logging 20.1 innings and an ERA of 4.43. He allowed 19 hits, nine walks, and struck out 15. Not earth-shattering numbers, but nothing to seemingly cause concern, either.
Howard began the 2015 campaign as a starter for the High-A Daytona Tortugas, and immediately he was robbed of his control. After walking 23 in 18.2 innings through five starts, Howard was shifted to the bullpen in what was billed as a temporary move.
Since starting against the Lakeland Flying Tigers on May 5, 2015, Howard has made 44 consecutive appearances as a relief pitcher while failing to regain his ability to command the strike zone. In 19 relief outings in 2015, Howard walked 27 batters in 19.1 innings before he was shut down in mid-July with shoulder soreness.
Again throwing for Daytona this season, Howard’s walk numbers have actually increased from his first stint with Dayton and his first year with the Tortugas in 2015.
In 141 innings at Virginia, Howard walked 39 batters; this year, he’s already issued 31 free passes in 20 innings. In 2016, Howard has walked at least one batter in 17 of his 25 appearances while also uncorking 13 wild pitches.
The young pitcher has yet to pinpoint the exact cause of his strike-throwing blues, but when reached by phone on Wednesday, he repeatedly highlighted the mental hurdles he’s striving to overcome.
“I’m probably my biggest critic,” says Howard. “I’m trying to go out there and execute stuff I’ve been working on. Trust me, I’m the one who beats himself up the most. That’s probably my downfall; I critique myself too much.”
The hypothesis that Howard was overworked in 2014 seems to lack merit, at least based on the numbers. Though the big righty accumulated 91.2 innings between his time at Virginia, Daytona, and the Arizona Fall League, he was a coming off an 86-inning season in 2013 while pitching for Virginia and in the Cape Cod League.
Daytona pitching coach Tom Brown and Reds pitching coordinator Tony Fossas (who was the Tortugas’ pitching coach in 2015) are the two mound sages primarily tasked with righting Howard’s ship.
“They know a lot about baseball and they’re trying to give me every opportunity to find something that clicks,” says Howard, who claims that he is physically fine. “I’m really appreciative of them, but at the end of the day, I’m going to have to utilize the information they’re giving me and apply it.”
The good news for Howard is threefold. One, Howard’s pure ‘stuff’ hasn’t gone anywhere; he’s actually increased his strikeout rate over the past three years and is averaging one punch-out per inning in 2016. Two, Howard has done an exemplary job of keeping the ball in the park, as he’s only yielded one home run since the start of the 2015 season, a stretch of 58 innings. Three, the Reds signed Howard for nearly $2 million, so obviously, the franchise—especially those in the organization who pined for Howard’s drafting—have plenty invested in Howard; he will be provided every opportunity to get his groove back.
“Very involved,” was Howard’s response when asked how present the Reds have been in trying to get him back on track. “(The Reds) obviously want the best for me, and they’re just trying to find a way—just like I am—to get the most out of myself.”