HEIGHT: 6-3 WEIGHT: 215 lbs
The Reds selected Nick Howard with the 19th overall draft pick in the 2014 draft, which continued the organization's recent strategy of trying to reap a competitive advantage by converting college relievers into professional starting pitchers. It seems safe to infer that the Reds believe they can spot undervalued talent in college relievers.
Tony Cingrani was the first significant attempt at this conversion, Michael Lorenzen followed shortly thereafter, Howard most recently. While these picks are all philosophically similar, one difference worth noting is the escalating opportunity cost.
Cingrani was a 3rd round pick. Lorenzen was a Supplemental 1st round pick. Howard was a full blown 1st round pick. As the value of the draft pick increases, so does the opportunity cost. Opportunity cost is the "loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen."
When the Reds selected Cingrani, they viewed him as the 114th best player in the country. Since 113 players were already off the draft board, they never had a shot at those players, which lowers the opportunity cost of selecting Cingrani.
When the Reds selected Lorenzen, they viewed him as the 38th best player in the country. Only 37 players were off the board, so the available alternatives were of higher quality, increasing the opportunity cost of selecting Lorenzen.
Finally, in selecting Nick Howard, the Reds viewed him as the 19th best player in the country, despite the availability of a number of other quality alternatives, giving Howard the highest opportunity cost of the troika.
Given the real inherent risk to converting a college reliever to the starting rotation, driven by the simple fact that he's never proven that he can do what you asking, the lower the opportunity cost the better. The college reliever may have less wear-and-tear on his arm, but he has yet to prove that his mechanics and arm health can hold up under a heavier workload (see: Cingrani, Tony). As a result, rolling the dice in the 3rd round makes more sense than rolling those 1st round dice.
Nick Howard spent three seasons at the University of Virginia. For the Cavaliers, Howard pitched out of the bullpen, pitched out of the rotation, and played first base, third base, and shortstop. Wearing that many hats obviously requires very good athleticism and creates a tremendous amount of value for the the program.
2012 (19-FR): 41.2 IP, 2.79 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 2.57 BB/9, 7.93 K/9, 3.08 K/BB, 19 G/0 GS
2013 (20-SO): 61.1 IP, 3.39 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, 2.21 BB/9, 7.67 K/9, 3.47 K/BB, 13 G/12 GS
2014 (21-JR): 37.2 IP, 1.89 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 3.32 BB/9, 14.21 K/9, 4.29 K/BB, 31 G/0 GS
2012 (19-FR): .346/.426/.404/.830 with 0 HRs and 13/8 K/BB ratio in 52 ABs
2013 (20-SO): .323/.341/.449/.790 with 3 HRs and 31/8 K/BB ratio in 198 ABs
2014 (21-JR): .261/.305/.333/.638 with 1 HR and 25/11 K/BB ratio in 153 ABs
For our purposes, his pitching performance is what's relevant. Howard worked exclusively out of the bullpen as a freshman and junior. He started 12 games and made 1 relief appearance as a sophomore. His performance ticked up notably in his junior season, which is what undoubtedly carried him up the draft board.
He also pitched seven newsworthy innings at the College World Series, including four in a 15-inning battle with TCU. In his final season, he also broke the UVA single-season save record, previously held by former Reds farm hand Kevin Arico.
Despite a long season at the collegiate level, Howard still had time to log some innings and get his feet wet in the professional ranks. The Reds sent him to low-A Dayton, where he pitched 33.2 innings for the Dragons. In those innings, he posted a 3.74 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 23/11 K/BB ratio, and a 1.15 GO/FO ratio. The Reds started off his professional career with 6 relief appearances followed by 5 starts to finish the season.
It's a small sample size and examining his splits just makes it more so, but since Howard's ability to start is at issue, it's worth noting that he was better in relief than he was in the rotation. As a reliever, he posted a 2.70 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, and a 9/3 K/BB ratio in 10.0 innings. As a starter, he posted a 4.18 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, and a 14/8 K/BB ratio in 23.2 innings.
Some observations from the what I saw out of Howard. In shorter stints, he had the ability to get swings-and-misses on the fastball, but in longer stints that was less common. In his starts, he didn't always have the ability to put hitters away when he got ahead in the count, which frequently points to inconsistent or insufficient offspeed pitches, the former in Howard's case.
Overall, Howard uses a fundamentally sound set of mechanics without any glaring red flags. He has good athleticism which aids in repeating his delivery and maintaining consistent balance and tempo in the delivery. He also has good size, which should help him effectively work on a downward plane.
Howard stands tall on the mound with feet shoulder width apart. He uses a very small rocker-step towards first base to begin his motion, shifting his weight to the left foot so he can pivot his right foot down onto the rubber. The step is short, allowing him to maintain balance and rhythm, and aids in transitioning momentum up the delivery.
From there, he brings his lead leg up into the leg kick, which is one of the first components that gives his motion a somewhat stiff/rigid appearance. At the apex of his leg kick, Howard keeps the toe of his foot at a 90-degree angle to his shin (see below photos, interestingly he used a slightly higher leg kick for low-A Dayton than he did later in the Arizona Fall League), which isn't necessarily a negative, but it adds a touch of tension and rigidity to his motion:
|Howard pitching in AFL in 2014.|
|Howard pitching for Dayton in 2014.|
The other component of his motion that creates a more rigid, less fluid, look is his upright posture. His upper body, in particular stays fairly upright throughout the delivery, which causes his shoulder level to remain parallel to the ground throughout.
Typically, as a pitcher nears the apex of his leg kick he "sets the hip." This move involves the back knee and back hip moving forward, causing the front hip to lead the rest of the body in the drive to the plate. This movement, which generates forward lean in the delivery, creates leverage by setting a small uphill angle of the shoulders as the pitcher drives down the slope of the mound. Most pitchers, particularly power pitchers, don't maintain level shoulders throughout the delivery, instead they let the setting of the hips work to set the shoulder level. Not only does this create additional leverage, but it also increases the ability to throw on a downward plane.
Howard does "set" the hip, but he doesn't create the small uphill angle of the shoulders. So, to an extent, he is sacrificing a small degree of leverage and downward plane by maintaining a level shoulder-level throughout the delivery.
On the plus side, Howard has a clean arm action, both maintaining good position relative to the shoulder throughout and getting up into proper throwing position at foot strike. He throws from a high three-quarter arm slot with a quick arm that can generate plus velocity.
In addition, Howard has a strong glove-side action in the delivery, which gives him a firm point to work against as he throws the ball. He pulls the glove down enough to generate a measure of rotational force, but not so much that he pulls the rotation off-line and increases stress on the pitching elbow. His glove also finishes properly in the box between the midline-and-the-armpit from the belly button-to-the-waist. Ideally, a pitcher's throwing-side and glove-side should load the arm for throwing by mirroring and counterbalancing each other. Howard does that well.
The differential created by Howard between hip-rotation and shoulder-rotation (see below photo) is solid-average. Not great, not terrible. By not creating a larger differential, Howard is relying on a kinetic chain with sub-optimal efficiency to generate force. There would be performance and durability benefits to creating a greater differential and improving the efficiency of the chain.
|Howard at maximum differential.|
While Howard does a solid job in generating the force, he is less successful at safely and effectively dissipating that force. The deceleration phase of the delivery is important for durability, as the arm has to be properly decelerated to reduce the risk of serious injury.
One of the key components of the deceleration phase is proper and timely pronation of the pitching arm after releasing the pitch. This rotation (think of the rotation of the arm resulting in the thumb pointing downward) of the arm is necessary because it prevents the elbow joint from consistently banging after the release of each and every pitch. Howard's pronation seems inconsistent at best, insufficient at worst, as he doesn't always fully and complete pronate the arm. Howard's pitching arm finishes low and doesn't involve any recoil, which is good, but the insufficient pronation could foreshadow serious elbow problems down the road. The pitching motion creates a tremendous amount of force, which is borne by the arm and must ultimately be taken off the arm through proper dissipation of that force.
Here's a slow-motion look at Nick Howard on the mound, courtesy of Chance Moore on YouTube:
One interesting thing to note is the final pitch in the above clip is his changeup, as evidenced by the circle-change grip that he employs.
Here's another look at Howard in the AFL, courtesy of The Prospect Pipeline on YouTube:
Overall, Howard has solid, functional mechanics. There a few things I'd like to see improved, including a bit more fluidity in his motion and a greater differential, but the largest concern and the closest thing to a real red flag is the insufficient deceleration phase.
Howard works with a primarily three-pitch mix. He has a power fastball that he can run up to 99 mph as a reliever, but that sits 91-93 mph as a starting pitcher. When he's working as a reliever, he has the ability to get swings-and-misses with the fastball even in fastball counts. He also features a slider that has good depth, bite, and downward break. Whether intentionally or not, the slider can also resemble a slurve, with a slower, bigger break. So, he's either inconsistent with his slider or he can shape it different ways in different situations. Finally, Howard throws a changeup that pundits rate as an average or below average pitch, but from what I've seen it has very real potential. It shows flashes of being a beautiful pitch with good deception and late tumble. It may be an inconsistent, but there's real upside there and it wouldn't surprise me if it turned out to be his very best pitch.
Overall, Howard's repertoire has promise, but if the conversion to the rotation is going to work, then he'll need to find (1) more velocity or command on the fastball, (2) more consistency on the slider, (3) better command of the changeup, or (4) some combination of incremental improvement in more than one of those areas.
Nick Howard is the latest attempt by the Reds to convert a college reliever to the professional rotation. That's a gamble that makes more sense outside the first round, where the opportunity cost is lower and the increased risk from making the conversion is more manageable.
Overall, Howard has blend of positives and negatives that lands him at #5 on the list:
Positives: Solid mechanics, good size, solid velocity, a good slider, and the potential for a very good changeup.
Negatives: No real track record of being able to hold up under a starting pitcher's workload, a questionable deceleration phase that increases the risk of serious elbow injury, velocity that plays better out of the bullpen, and inconsistent offspeed offerings.
As the opportunity cost increases, I'm becoming less and less enamored with the strategy of drafting college relievers and converting them to the rotation. The first round should be a time for drafting prospects who, as much as possible, are ready to hit the ground running without the need for a major change in role or mechanics.
However, Nick Howard, like Cingrani and Lorenzen before him, will get the chance to develop as a starting pitcher. I would argue (1) that the success of this draft pick hinges on his conversion to the rotation and (2) that the success of this conversion hinges on his changeup, which I believe could end up being the best weapon in his arsenal. If the changeup continues to develop, then he could emerge as a solid starting pitcher. If not, then he'll likely be a high-leverage reliever. For now he slots in at #5 on the list.