Under the Radar Prospects: Ryan Howard

A long hoped-for bounce back could be important to the organization

Photo Credit: Daniel Sangjib Min | Richmond Times-Dispatch

Let’s continue on our tour of lesser-known prospects in the system with a guy whose name I’ve barely mentioned over the last year, and yet who occupies his own rather unique niche within the Giants organization — Ryan Howard.

No, not the guy whose pained dismay at Tom Hallion’s called strike three sent us all into delirium in the 2010 NLCS. But this guy, Ryan Howard, the Giant:

And to answer the question of why Howard is so unique among Giants prospects in 2021, we need to leave the minor league system altogether, and instead take a look at the Giants’ major league roster. While the Zaidi regime has generally done a terrific job at reshaping the big league roster with talent, one area where they’ve continued a confounding trend in recent Giants’ history is their seeming inability to find a competent backup shortstop.

For years we’ve watched Brandon Crawford wear down in the second half of seasons from overuse because the team really had no reliable option to provide him rest. In 2020, Crawford started in something of a platoon situation, but was quickly forced back into everyday action as the infield defense frequently melted down without him. Given a short run of a 60-game season, Crawford also responded with the best offensive year of his career. But with 2021 getting (we hope) closer to becoming a reality, the Giants once again appear to be short a competent backup to give Crawford rest over the 6-month haul. The only player currently on the roster who can even pretend to play the position is Mauricio Dubon, who, sadly, is also likely to be the only player on the 26 man who can play a capable CF. Of course, there will, no doubt, be a plethora of Non-Roster Invitees and late signings as the baseball free agent market still contains untold legion of unsigned major leaguers. But it is a tad disconcerting to side-eye the Giants current SS Depth Chart with spring training fast approaching.

For Giants fans of a certain era, this situation is what’s known as “The Bocock Dilemma,” and it raises an ominous threat that a serious Bococking could be in the offing should anything wildly amiss happen to Our Dear Brandon.

Amazingly, things get even worse if you take a peek under the minor league hood! The leader at games played at SS for Sacramento in 2019 was Abiatal Avelino, who’s no longer in the organization. Others who manned the position for the River Cats included Levi Michael, Breyvic Valera, Cristian Adames, Brandon Van Horn. Gone. Gone. Gone. GONE!

In fact, setting aside major league starters Dubon (17 games at Sacramento) and Donovan Solano (1 game), of all the players who saw time at SS in 2019 at either AA Richmond or AAA Sacramento, the only one likely to report to camp with a middle infielder’s glove next month is our subject, Ryan Howard. He is literally, for the moment anyway, the entirety of the SS contingency plan in the upper minors. That’s a little scary! (Get to offering those NRIs, Farhan!)

None of this makes it necessarily more likely that you’ll see Howard in vanilla and orange this year — but you should know that it’s certainly a possibility. So, to prepare your own contingency plans, it’s time we all got to know Ryan Howard a little better so you’re ready to cheer him on should he come up.

The first thing you should probably know about Howard is that he’s one of several members of the organization that the club drafted twice. The Giants selected Howard as a draft-eligible sophomore out of the University of Missouri in the 31st round of the 2015 draft, and then a year later nabbed him as a 5th round pick following his Junior year. Clearly, the Giants’ long-time scouting corps identified Howard as the type of player the organization could develop successfully. It’s not too hard to see why — Howard’s steady defense and contact oriented bat put him squarely in that “Matt Duffy” mold of middle infielders whom the Giants made their own little cottage industry of the draft during the 2010s.

Howard was the starting SS for the Team USA Collegiate group in 2015, though that was, in part, due to a rather thin crop of collegiate shortstops in the 2016 draft class (there would be no college shortstops drafted in the 1st round of that class).

He was the type of player who gets called “steady” a lot. He didn’t show tremendous range at shortstop, but he made the plays he got to thanks to consistent hands and a strong and accurate arm. He was an excellent contact hitter, striking out in barely 11% of his college Plate Appearances, and walking just as often, but the high contact rates in college didn’t translate into particularly good batting average or on base skills. Nor did he showed much ability to drive the ball in college. After three years in the SEC, he left Missouri with a career .285/.366/.399 line, which is exactly the kind of line that inspires 5th round pick selections — there are things to work with, he has solid baseball IQ and athleticism, you could potentially get some kind of modest major league outcome here. (For what it’s worth, that college line towers over Duffy’s astoundingly awful-looking .255/.317/.289 career at Long Beach State).

But once in the Giants’ development system, Howard began a steady rise. A solid pro debut in Salem-Keizer (.272/.313/.371) was followed by a leap up to the High-A California League and an excellent full season debut in San Jose. His 161 hits were third highest in the league — and the top mark posted outside of the hitting machine known as Lancaster. He topped a .300 batting average, knocked in 50 runs, and even managed 9 HRs (though the .397 SLG was still somewhat wanting).

The defense was, of course, “steady.”

The lack of power pushed him into a “utility” profile, but there was a “whole is greater than the sum of his parts” vibe to Howard’s game. He climbed into the mid-teens on the Giants Top 30 entering the 2018 season. Things were trending upwards.

In Richmond Howard delivered more of the same. He doubled his walk rate (8%) and cut his K rate (11.6%). The home runs plunged from 9 to 4, but he kept his SLG consistent from San Jose to Richmond and overall showed a tiny bit more power with an Iso (Slugging - batting average) of .123. It was a perfectly steady season. You could — and many observers did — look at Howard’s 2018 season and think “if they could just find a tiny bit more power in there, he could be a major leaguer.”

With a possible ticket to Sacramento in 2019, there were reasons to think he could be on the verge of a step up in his development and, even, a big league debut sometime that summer.

That…..REALLY didn’t happen. What happened instead was an extraordinary faceplant of a year. Howard didn’t make Sacramento out of spring training (Abiatal Avelino, acquired in August of 2018 in the second Andrew McCutchen trade, took the Sacramento SS job), and, returning to Richmond for a second year, he suffered what might have been the worst month of his baseball playing life. After 28 games, he was hitting under the Mendoza Line, having gone just 19 for 117. He’d managed to get on base via walks a decent amount, but the overall .194/.304/.265 line was every manner of ugly. Instead of taking a step up, he’d stepped on his glove and tumbled painfully back to the bottom of the stairs.

Despite the rough beginning, a roster need in Sacramento got him promoted to AAA anyway. But the opportunity wouldn’t give Howard a fresh start to the year — it was more of the same. While the rest of the PCL was treating the combination of the major league baseball and high-altitude stadiums as some kind of “Moon Ball” game, Howard spent two months pounding out a desultory .230/.280/.331 line. By Fangraphs’ calculation of the league’s offensive environment it all added up to an unacceptable 51 wRC+.

It wasn’t all bad. He got to round the bases a time or two:

And there was an awesome week in June in which Howard delivered walk off hits twice in three days.

Still, the overall shape of his 2019 had been set. It was, from any perspective, a biting disappointment. In late June he returned to AA where he’d spend the rest of the year barely hitting, reaching base just 25% of the time, and showing no power. It was the worst possible type of year for a rising prospect to have — the kind that gets you shoved to the back of the line and forgotten about.

Worse — much, much worse — the chance to start afresh in 2020 never came. The desire to wash a bad game/week/month/season off is a primary part of the appeal of baseball. You’ll get ‘em tomorrow, kid. There’s always another game coming soon. Except, this time there wasn’t. And Howard has had to sit on what is almost certainly the worst year of his baseball life for nearly 18 months now. For 18 months he’s had to wrestle with the mental demons that come from his first, real professional campaign of failure. And, given the pace at which the organization has cleared out holdover talent in the upper minors during that time, that’s got to feel a little unsettling.

But, at least for the moment, perhaps the best way to view Howard’s potential is to apply the approach the Giants have adopted so successfully in identifying free agent or waiver wire targets — pretend the awful last season didn’t exist and go back to the previous one. Entering 2019 there were reasons to be optimistic about Howard’s future on this team. His arm played at any infield position and he’d always shown outstanding contact skills. The power had always been lower than you’d like to see, but his statistical history isn’t terribly out of line with, say, Daniel Robertson’s minor league history, not to mention the long minor league history of Donovan Solano (pay the man!). Perhaps the best idea is just to turn the page, and remember what we could see in Howard in March of 2019 if you tilted your head at the right angle — a perfectly respectable future utility infielder.

With a little luck, he’ll get back on that track when 2021 starts. That would be good for everyone, because, at least for the present moment, he’s probably the third best major league shortstop in the organization.

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