In the frenzied weeks before the 2017 Major League Baseball draft, Johnny Almaraz traveled to Southern California to watch a player he was considering selecting in the first round.
Almaraz arrived a day early and, at the urging of area scout Shane Bowers, drove over to UCLA to check out a kid from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo who was pitching against the Bruins that day.
The Phillies scouting director loved what he saw.
"He ate those UCLA hitters up," Almaraz recalled. "After that, I knew that was the guy we were going to focus on for the second round."
A few weeks later, the Phillies selected University of Virginia outfielder Adam Haseley (not Cal Irvine infielder Keston Hiura, the kid Almaraz had initially gone to California to watch) in the first round of the draft and the pitcher from Cal Poly in the second.
That's how Spencer Howard became a member of the Phillies organization.
The club is sure happy to have him.
In fact, he might be the organization's top pitching prospect, a strong-bodied right-hander with stuff, smarts and toughness.
"Quiet gamer," said Pat Borders, who managed Howard during his first summer of pro ball at Williamsport in 2017. "He'd fight you in an alley."
Howard, 6-foot-3 and 212 pounds, emerged as a top prospect at Single A Lakewood last season. He survived some growing pains in his first full season of pro ball and recorded a 3.78 ERA in 23 starts. He struck out 11.8 batters per nine innings. Howard showed some moxie and impressed Phillies officials by getting stronger as the season went on. In his final two starts — both in the South Atlantic League playoffs — he allowed just three hits, one walk and one run in 14 innings while striking out 15. One of those starts was a nine-inning no-hitter. He walked one and struck out nine while throwing 103 pitches in that gem.
Oh, yeah, and a couple of those pitches registered 100 mph on the gun.
"It was unbelievable. It was impeccable," recalled Brad Bergeson, Howard's pitching coach at Lakewood last season. "We'd seen 94 to 97 during the season and he'd flash 98. But it was on a whole other gear that night."
Almaraz calls Howard "a fresh arm." Unlike many other American-born prospects, Howard was not a product of the travel-ball and showcase craze that can eat up a young pitcher's bullets. He was a soccer player. He was so interested in volleyball that he thought about giving up baseball to play that sport as a junior in high school.
"Baseball really wasn't the biggest thing for me," Howard said a few weeks ago in spring training. "I enjoyed it, but not year round. I enjoyed doing other things, too."
He stuck with baseball through high school, went to Cal Poly, just a few minutes from his hometown, as a business major and decided to attend a tryout for walk-ons as a freshman. He threw 88 mph and earned a spot on the fall roster. He ended up redshirting as a freshman, gained some valuable physical strength, and pitched out of the bullpen as a sophomore. It took an injury in the rotation for him to get a chance to start as a junior and he quickly impressed.
Throughout college and his first two seasons of pro ball, Howard's appreciation for baseball grew. Knowledge has ignited a passion.
"I learned how to do baseball full-time," he said. "I've learned the ins and outs of the game. Looking back, I was a thrower and not a pitcher. I'd try to throw it as hard as I could and maybe they'd swing and miss."
Bergeson saw Howard's growth as a pitcher last season.
"The first time I saw him in spring training last year, you could tell the game was a little fast for him, you could see it in his eyes and his delivery," Bergeson said. "So to see where he started from and where he finished was unbelievable. The work that he put in — he's one of the hardest workers I've ever seen. His preparation was second to none.
"He's a power guy with four plus pitches and at times they're all wipeout. All of them. Fastball, curveball, slider, changeup. He's got an unbelievable arsenal. The sky is the limit. It's a special arm."
Howard's arm is so special that the Seattle Mariners requested him when the Phillies tried to get closer Edwin Diaz included in the Jean Segura deal this offseason. The Phils wouldn't do it. Ditto for J.T. Realmuto.
"When the Realmuto trade was made, one of my teammates sent me a screenshot of a tweet that said I was in the deal," Howard said. "He said, 'Well, see you later.' I thought I was gone until it was officially announced."
Howard has opened the new season at advanced Single A Clearwater. He pitched six shutout innings Wednesday night against Lakeland. In his first two starts, he has given up three runs, eight hits and two walks over 10⅓ innings. He has 12 strikeouts. Those who've seen Howard pitch believe he could rise quickly in the system and that would be ideal because he turns 23 on July 28. On his current track, he will get tested in Double A at some point this season and that will give the Phillies an even better idea of what they have.
"Top-of-the-rotation starter," one longtime talent evaluator said of Howard's ceiling.
The hype surrounding Howard has come quickly, but he seems to be a kid who can handle it.
"I ignore it," he said. "If you listen to it, you end up thinking you've already made it when there's still a lot of work to do. Just keep pitching, keep grinding."
And if staying grounded ever becomes a challenge, Howard only needs to look back at that game he pitched against UCLA in 2017, the one that led the Phillies to lock in on him.
"I remember that game," he said with a laugh. "I gave up a home run that probably still hasn't landed yet."
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