When the Cincinnati Reds selected Nick Howard with their 1st round draft pick in 2014 the team envisioned him returning to the starting rotation that he had been in at times while pitching for Virginia in college. While he relieved his junior season, the team saw multiple pitches from an athletic pitcher and felt he could move back into the rotation as a professional.
In 2014 following the draft he was limited in his usage after the Reds sent him to then Low-A Dayton. He started five games and relieved in six more. He posted a 3.74 ERA in 33.2 innings with 11 walks and 23 strikeouts. At that time he was sitting 93-95 MPH with his fastball while starting and showing an above-average slider in the mid-80’s and a solid change up. There was also a curveball in the mid-to-upper 70’s.
The early results were fine and you could see what the Cincinnati brass saw down the road – a starter with four solid or better offerings and good control. But in 2015 everything went south, and it happened quickly. It began in spring training and carried over into the season and it’s the worst thing besides an injury that can happen: The Yips. For no real reason, Nick Howard could no longer throw strikes. He only started five games for Daytona – his first five games of the year – and he walked 23 batters in 18.2 innings. The Reds decided to move him back to the bullpen and see if that helped. It didn’t. He walked 27 batters in 19.1 innings as a reliever before he was shut down in mid-July.
In 2016 it was more of the same in Daytona. Nick Howard made 25 appearances out of the Tortugas bullpen and walked 31 batters in 20.0 innings. His season came to an end in late June. He would then miss all of 2017 after having shoulder surgery. When he returned to the mound in 2018 the control was better as he walked 34 batters in 52.2 innings, but that still wasn’t at all where you want to be. In 2019 he only pitched 3.1 innings before he was released. Howard then signed with the Royals, but didn’t pitch before the season came to an end. In 2020 no one pitched, and after the year he became a free agent. Alec Lewis of The Athletic wrote a long, detailed breakdown of Howard’s career during the offseason that you should really check out if you have a subscription.
The Reds would wind up bringing Nick Howard back on a minor league deal in mid-March of 2021 and assigned the now 28-year-old to Double-A Chattanooga. We’re now five weeks into the season and Nick Howard has not allowed an earned run. He’s pitched in nine games and thrown 10.2 innings with just four walks, he’s allowed four hits, and he’s struck out 16 of the 42 batters he’s faced (38% strikeout rate).
The control is obviously the story here. Nick Howard is walking 9.5% of the hitters he’s seen this year. From 2015-2018 he walked 26.5%, 17.8%, and 14.1% of the hitters he faced. We’re only looking at a month so far in 2021 but the improvement has been massive. It’s not just that he’s walking significantly fewer hitters, though. He’s also been striking them out at a high rate. When guys are putting the ball in play they’ve been hitting it on the ground at a 61% clip. Solid walk rate, high strikeout rate, and a high groundball rate? That combination tends to lead to very good results.
So what does the stuff look like that’s been leading to these results? Well, his fastball is back to working in the 93-95 MPH range and he’s touching a little bit higher than that. For the most part he’s been sticking with the slider as his main secondary offering.
Given his history, you can understand if the organization wants to let Nick Howard have a little more success in Double-A. But if he keeps throwing strikes and getting results, he’s probably not going to be hanging around in Tennessee for all that long.