As Spencer Howard prepared for his senior season on the Templeton High School baseball team, he contemplated what it would be like to play volleyball in the spring instead of pitching for the Templeton Eagles. After all, no notable recruiters scouted him for baseball, his best friend was going to be on the volleyball team and his coach, Brad Macomber, was considering leaving the baseball team.
But Macomber decided to stay and, in doing so, changed the course of Howard’s life more than either could have imagined at the time.
“I was naturally pretty good at volleyball so I was going to play that senior year but coach Macomber was the reason I didn’t,” Howard said. “There was some rumors going around that he wasn’t going to coach because of some political stuff, but he ended up staying. That’s what kind of convinced me to stay too.”
During his senior season, Howard performed well as the team’s go-to starting pitcher. He could chuck a 80-plus mile per hour fastball with some sideways movement as well.
Still, nobody came to scout him.
Howard eventually decided to attend Cal Poly, even though his dad and sister both graduated from rival UC Santa Barbara and try his chances as a walk-on. He made the team and, since redshirting his first year of eligibility, has been a magician on the mound.
“It wasn’t life or death for him,” Macomber said of Howard. “He enjoyed playing and once he got to college and he got stronger and velocity kept going up, I think he realized ‘Let’s go for this and see what happens.’”
Now, just a little over a month away from the Major League Baseball draft, the 6-foot-3-inch redshirt sophomore is on the doorstep of reaching every little leaguer’s dream — playing professional baseball.
In a recent article by Fangraphs, one of the leaders in college baseball data analytics, Howard was rated as the pitcher with the best big league potential in the Big West.
As the data shows, Howard has been electrifying on the mound this year for the Mustangs by posting an ERA of 2.12 over 72 1/3 innings pitched. Perhaps his two most impressive statistics are his 26.4 strikeout percentage and 6.4 walk percentage, which show he throws a lot of strikes and not many batters can hit them.
He still has two years of collegiate eligibility after this season, but all signs point to Howard going pro if his name is called at the draft June 12.
“I’m considering it for sure,” Howard said. “It’s more and more of a possibility. Coming into this year, it wasn’t really on my radar at all.”
Though Howard is doing his best to avoid speculating about what his future career might be, Cal Poly baseball manager Larry Lee sees Howard as a “perfect pro,” and thinks he will go somewhere in the top 10 rounds with the potential to go even higher.
“I think he’s cut in the mold of a pro guy because of his mechanics, his arm slot and the looseness of his arm,” Lee said. “If you had seen Spencer as a freshman to where he is now and see the progression, that’s what speaks more to his possible chances of success at the next level.”
This type of praise from someone like Lee is something to be noted. During 14 seasons at Cal Poly, he sent 63 players to the professional level, including three players from last year’s squad: Brett Barbier, John Schuknecht and Justin Calomeni. If Howard is drafted as highly as Lee thinks he will be, he will most likely forgo his last two years of collegiate eligibility and sign with whichever team drafts him.
“Stats say if you’re a top 10 pick you’re signing,” Lee said. “I think each year seven or eight players don’t sign out of the top 10 rounds. I would assume that he would be gone [from Cal Poly].”
As Lee pointed out, Howard’s journey was a rather improbable one. While his numbers seem to show that he has breezed through the competition, he had to work tremendously hard for the opportunity to play for the Mustangs.
In his first year at Cal Poly, Howard’s spot on the roster was anything but certain. After making the team as a walk-on, Howard redshirted his freshman year to give himself an additional year to condition his body for the jump from the Los Padres League in high school to the Big West.
“He wasn’t ready as a freshman but he got a chance to be on the field every day and learn about what it takes to succeed at this level,” Lee said. “He got in the weight room and worked on his nutrition, long toss program, everything that is involved.”
Once Howard finally took the field in a Cal Poly uniform, he was ready. With one electrifying performance after another as a relief pitcher in his first season, he became one of the Mustangs’ most reliable arms out of the bullpen. He earned his first career start against UC Irvine toward the end of the season and only surrendered one run in the victory. By the end of the season, Howard accumulated an ERA of 2.95 and 39 strikeouts over 36 ⅔ innings.
Though he had some success in his first full season, Howard needed to improve his skills to continue playing a starting role. According to Lee, Howard was a “one-pitch guy” and needed to develop some secondary pitches to complement his fastball. Furthermore, Howard needed to work on pitching from the windup, something he had yet to do before his redshirt sophomore season.
He took that next step forward last summer in Bellingham, Washington. He played summer baseball for the Bellingham Bells, a team comprised mostly of college players from divisions like the Big West and the Pac-12. Howard’s main goals during his time with the program were to fix his pitching motion from the windup, throw more pitches for strikes and develop additional secondary pitches to couple with his fastball-slider combination.
“Over the summer I really wanted to try to throw more pitches for strikes, and basically just learn how to pitch rather than just being a thrower,” Howard said. “That was a big thing for me, transitioning from throws and pitcher to thinking about what to throw in what count and analyzing guys’ swings.”
Howard credits most of his development over the summer to Bellingham Bells’ pitching coach Jim Clem, who he described as too overqualified to be a summer pitching coach.
“I think he had head coach offers from [University of Arizona], University of Washington, [Arizona State University], a bunch of big PAC-12 schools,” Howard said. “His wife likes it there so he’s just staying there and coaching over summer.”
In addition to developing his knowledge of the game, Howard came back with a fastball about 95 miles per hour and a mechanically sound pitching motion. He was ready to roll in the starting rotation.
“From a mental standpoint, when we told him he was going to start at the beginning of the season we didn’t know how he would handle it,” Lee said. “He’s been real good and he hasn’t let who he’s pitching against affect his mindset, or his routines or how he goes about competing.”
For those who know Howard well, it comes as no surprise that he was able to handle the pressure that comes along with playing baseball at such a competitive level. Howard’s laid-back demeanor on and off the field has been the key to his success in a game as cerebral as baseball.
“I’ve heard from a lot of people that baseball is incredibly mental, so this year has been trying to focus more on just doing what I can do rather than panicking,” Howard said. “It’s kind of like a chess match, there’s always more going on than what people see from the stands.”
Howard already proved he can win the mental chess match through his determination to push forward, even when nobody expected his baseball career to continue after Templeton High School. He has his work cut out for him, but if he can stay humble and keep his motivation, there is no telling where his talent could take him.