Update: Howard was sent back to Triple A on Tuesday afternoon as the Phillies activated Jean Segura.
The Phillies are trying to accomplish two conflicting things at once with Spencer Howard and neither is working.
Every start he makes follows the same formula. His stuff stands out in the first inning and he pitches well the first time through the order.
Then his velocity dips, his command goes, his confidence wanes and he’s incredibly hittable.
Howard pitched 2⅓ innings in the Phillies’ 12-4 loss Monday. He allowed two runs on four hits. It was his first start in two weeks and the plan was to have him face the lineup once.
It’s impossible to ignore the fact that Howard has MLB’s lowest slugging percentage the first time through the order (.128) and the second-highest (.824) the next time through.
He has averaged less than 3⅓ innings per start this season and has totaled 40 innings in 11 career starts with a 5.40 ERA. Only one of the 11 could be classified as decent — a career-best five-inning, two-run outing last August.
Howard turns 25 in July. He is not a finished product. The Phillies justifiably want to develop him as a starter. Plenty of highly-touted pitchers struggle early and figure things out in their late-20s. Howard is an important piece of the organization’s future and has been their top pitching prospect since Sixto Sanchez was traded for J.T. Realmuto.
But right now, he is not developing as a starter and he’s not helping the Phillies win games. If they want him to develop as a starter, it would make more sense at Triple A, and if they want him up here to help win games, then it’s pretty clear he should be pitching in relief.
How is he learning or growing by pitching three innings every start? Wouldn’t there be more room for development if he was starting at Triple A and pitching five or six innings away from scrutiny and knowing that he won’t be pulled in the third if a few things go wrong? Wouldn’t that be the more logical backdrop to test whether his velocity can be maintained?
Or, if the priority is to have him in the majors because he’s one of the 13 best arms on the 40-man roster, then why not use him for an inning or two late in games, especially given the ruinous nature of the Phillies’ bullpen?
The Phils want to give him time to sink or swim but he's sunk frequently enough to wonder if he even believes he can start at this level right now. He has not had a confidence-building start all season.
Bailey Falter, the Phillies’ 24-year-old lefty, pitched four innings in relief of Howard Monday. He allowed one run (inherited by Neftali Feliz) and struck out six. The Phillies have used Falter and Ranger Suarez as piggyback options after Howard and both have pitched well in that role. Manager Joe Girardi hasn’t seen a reason to switch things because of the success those two lefties have had following Howard. He said after Monday's game that he wasn't ready to answer whether Falter has put himself in the running for a start.
But whatever the Phillies are doing right now with Howard isn’t making them better and it sure doesn’t seem to be making him better. He was asked Monday if he thinks he's developing in this irregular role as a starting pitcher.
“I think any pitcher would want to get in games frequently,” said Howard, who seems to be choosing his words more carefully after the reactions to his comments about losing stamina running to first base and just learning the value of a pregame meal. “I think there’s still things I’m going to take and build off of. There’s still room for improvement."