Ryan Howard

Down on the Farm: Giants prospect Ryan Howard embraces being an underdog

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MiLB

Down on the Farm: Giants prospect Ryan Howard embraces being an underdog

Ryan Howard, not the former National League Most Valuable Player or the higher honor of Hottest in The Office at the 2005 Dundies, has plenty of reasons to be motivated. When asked what his biggest goal is this season in Double-A with the Richmond Flying Squirrels, the shortstop gave a glimpse inside of his mindset as a player. 

“Every time I’ve stepped on the field, I’ve always felt like I have a lot to prove,” Howard said before Richmond’s home game on Tuesday. “I wasn’t a first-rounder, didn’t get drafted in high school, didn’t get a whole lot of offers out of high school — so it’s more of just trying to keep a chip on my shoulder every day and get out there and prove to people that I belong here and not get complacent.” Instead of reeling off a stat line, Howard has a message for the rest of the league — he’s attacking every pitch, every play, every game. 

The psyche Howard brings as a player has turned into steady results the past two seasons. Last year in San Jose, Howard improved his stats in every which way. He ended with a .306 batting average, .739 OPS, nine home runs and 161 hits in 127 games played. So far through the Flying Squirrels’ first 28 games, the 23-year-old has raised his game at the next level. Howard has a better batting average (.311), on-base percentage (.359), slugging percentage (.425), and OPS (.784) than what he finished with in 2017. 

What has been most impressive from Howard the past two seasons in his consistency at the plate. Here are his batting averages by month the last two years: April .323, May .315, June .348, July .316, August .234, September .364; April .288, May .385. Only twice has Howard had a month hitting under .300 in that span and August of 2017 was the one disappointing month he has put together, slashing .234/.269/.333. 

Howard attributes his play to the words his father has always pushed upon him before every season, “Don’t get too high, don’t get too low.” More than anything, Howard has found a routine and believes trusting that each day at the yard has slowed the game down for him. 

“I take pride in being consistent,” Howard said. “I don’t wanna be a guy who gets real hot or gets real cool. I want the coaches to know what they get when they put me in there.”

Moving up from Single-A San Jose to Double-A Richmond has looked like an easy transition in the scorebook, but Howard admits this is a much different game. No longer are pitchers rearing back and looking to simply light up the radar guns. Every starter can pinpoint his pitches for strikes and every reliever can jog of out the bullpen and pull an instant out pitch from his pocket. 

“Here it’s more you have to pick a pitch or pick a location. It’s more you have to execute a plan here instead of using your natural ability,” Howard says. “It’s more mental here than last year.” 

Outside of higher competition, another dimension Howard faces is the home park known as The Diamond. In San Jose’s Municipal Park, Howard hit .315 with a .751 OPS compared to .297 with a .727 OPS on the road last season. It hasn’t been home cooking for Howard in Richmond. At The Diamond, Howard is hitting .250 with a .627 OPS in 14 games. 

“I mean, I’m not gonna lie to you, it’s kind of crushing in BP,” Howard said with a half-hearted laugh. “The ball doesn’t go here. But you don’t wanna change what you’re trying to do. I’m trying to see a good pitch and hit a line drive. 

“Obviously some balls here that would be doubles or homers in San Jose are outs, but it’s all about realizing that was a good swing and not beating yourself up about it.” 

The advantage has come from away games. Stepping into enemy territory, Howard is bashing the ball to a .370 batting average and .933 OPS in 14 games. “The good thing is on the road there’s a lot of places that are hitters’ parks too, so you try to take advantage of those.” Mission accomplished. 

Brandon Crawford was never a Top 100 prospect. Neither was Joe Panik. Howard was named the Giants’ No. 17 prospect by Baseball America after the 2017 season and is currently ranked as the team’s No. 24 prospect by MLB Pipeline. While he hasn’t received even close to the recognition as a prospect San Francisco’s middle infield duo did in their time, Howard, looking like pre-injuries Matt Duffy 2.0, could be the next unheralded Giants name to know. 

“For me, the way I’ve always look at it is I don’t care what someone has to say about me, as long as I believe in myself. But yeah, looking at that [prospect rankings], it kind of fires you up a little bit. I feel like I’m getting a little overlooked here. 

“I enjoy it though.”

Down on the Farm: Mac Williamson off to scorching start in Sacramento

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AP

Down on the Farm: Mac Williamson off to scorching start in Sacramento

Spring training is a month of baseball where players put together numbers and 97 percent of them get crumpled into a paper ball before Bruce Bochy yells “World B. Free!” and tosses them into a tiny trash can. The three percent that stay on his decision are bigger than his hat. 

When a player makes a fundamental change to his swing and succeeds mightily, the numbers make it to the three percent. Mac Williamson had almost no chance of making the Giants’ Opening Day roster, but it’s time to start looking at his staggering stats. 

“I’m not getting any younger,” Williamson said to Insider Alex Pavlovic at the end of February. “At some point you’ve got to have some success and figure it all out.”

Williamson said that making massive changes to his swing would take time. His goal was to be the player he wants to be in a month two since those quotes. It has now been six weeks and Williamson is playing like a created player in MLB The Show in his fourth stint with the  Sacramento River Cats. 

Debuting his new approach in spring training he learned from Doug Latta — the same instructor who transformed Justin Turner from a player cut by the Mets to a star for the Dodgers — Williamson adapted a high leg kick and low hand placement. The results couldn’t have been better. He hit .318 with four home runs and a 1.061 OPS in the desert. 

Power has always been there for the 27-year-old Williamson, but his swing path saw him pounding balls into the ground. Now with a re-made swing and launch angle that has swept the souls of baseball, Williamson is unleashing what the Giants have known has always been inside of him. 

Williamson’s batting average is now 270 points higher than what he produced in spring training. In the River Cats’ first six games of the year, he is hitting .588. On top of that, five of his 10 hits are either doubles or home runs — three doubles, two home runs — and he's only struck out twice. His 1.784 OPS looks like a typo from someone handed their first calculator.

“In the past I’ve been really active with my shoulders and hands late in the swing instead of just going and attacking the ball,” Williamson said in the same interview with Pavlovic. “I’m trying to just really calm down a lot of that non-essential movement.”

So far, so beyond good. Is this sustainable? Well, not a .588 batting average. But, this is a different case with the powerful outfielder as he drastically changed his approach and swing. If this was the same Williamson starting the season like this fans could reasonably argue that he’s just an older player in Triple-A who is a AAAA player. Maybe that’s true, but now we can take a longer pause when saying maybe not.

At the early stages of the season, the Giants simply don’t have a spot for Williamson right now. Not even the team knows when that could change. For now though, all he can do is continue to show off his new swing and stop, drop and roll when the Human Torch crosses home. 

Around The Horn 

-- Steven Duggar is off to a slow start for the River Cats, but has picked it up the last two games. The center fielder had back-to-back 2-for-4 games. Through five games, he is batting .250 with seven strikeouts and two stolen bases. 

-- Ryan Howard just keeps hitting. The shortstop won't find himself at the top of prospect rankings, instead he's at the top of hitting leaders. Howard hit his first Double-A home run Tuesday and is now hitting .360 for Richmond. 

-- Heliot Ramos is still getting his feet wet in Class A Augusta. The Giants' No. 1 prospect is hitting just .174 in the first five games with eight strikeouts and no walks. Reminder: Ramos is 18 years old.

Down on the Farm: Standout Giants minor league statistics leaders

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MiLB/San Jose Giants

Down on the Farm: Standout Giants minor league statistics leaders

The Giants' last-place season is winding down in its final month of the season. In the minors, the results weren't much better. 

For all the Giants' minor league affiliates, the season has come to an end except in the Arizona Rookie League as the AZL Giants look to stay alive the championship Wednesday night. 

With the season over, here is who led all Giants minor-league affiliates in several categories. 

Home Runs: Chris Shaw, 24

Shaw finished his outstanding 2017 campaign with two home runs in the River Cats’ final game of the season, a wild walk-off win in 10 innings. The powerful lefty, who is ranked as the Giants’ top hitting prospect along with Christian Arroyo, will finish the season as the franchise's top home run hitter across all affiliates, including the big league club. 

After smacking six home runs at Double-A in 37 games, Shaw upped his slugging percentage from .511 to .530 in Triple-A, hitting 18 home runs in 88 games for the River Cats. While he won’t be seen in San Francisco this year, he’s a name to watch for next season and all eyes will be on him at the Arizona Fall League. 

Batting Average: Bryan Reynolds, .312

Reynolds, the Giants’ top pick in the 2016 MLB Draft, edged his teammate Ryan Howard (.306) in six less games. After being named an All-Star and playing in the Futures Game with a first-half slash line of .295/.340/.418 and three home runs, the switch hitter caught fire in the second half to tune of .328/.386/.506 and seven more long balls. 

A natural center fielder, Reynolds was moved all over the outfield in San Jose. He finished the season playing 50 games in center, 42 in right field and 19 in left field. 

Hits: Ryan Howard, 161

While Howard lost to Reynolds for the batting title, he still bested him in total hits. The 23-year-old’s production fell a bit in the second half after a monster first half (.325/.354/.411, 86 hits in 62 games), but he still shined bright as someone seen as a non-prospect by top ranking systems.

"It reminds me of a Christian Arroyo or a Matt Duffy where he's not hitting a bunch of home runs, but he's finding ways to put balls in play," San Jose broadcaster Joe Ritzo says on Howard. "He's really hard to strikeout this year and he's just a good, hard-nosed player who does everything the right way."

Starting Pitcher ERA: Garrett Williams, 2.32

Williams first made his name as a kid in the Little League World Series where he struck out 17 batters in one game back in 2007. Now at 22 years old, he put together a solid season between the Augusta GreenJackets and San Jose Giants. After 12 games and a 2.25 ERA, Williams spent his final six in San Jose, boasting a 2.45 ERA. 

He is the Giants’ No. 20 prospect according to MLB Pipeline. 

Starting Pitcher Strikeouts: Stephen Woods, 113

Woods started 23 games for the Augusta GreenJackets this season and ended with a 2.95 ERA to go with his 113 strikeouts in 110 innings pitched. It all comes down to command and Woods still struggled with that in 2017, walking 64 batters. 

The 22-year-old has the swing-and-miss stuff and is ranked as the Giants’ No. 29 prospect by MLB Pipeline.