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Oakland A’s 2018 Community Prospect List #30: Brian Howard is a strike machine

The 6’9 hurler walked one batter in 31 innings in his pro debut.

He’s at least twice as tall as that infielder behind him.
Photo provided by Vermont Lake Monsters

Thank you thank you thank you Athletics Nation, for helping put my new favorite sleeper pitcher on our Community Prospect List. I don’t often speak up to advocate in these rankings, but I really wanted this guy to make the list. Here’s the current list, including their winning margins (the difference between his % of the vote, and the % of the runner-up):

  1. A.J. Puk, LHP (+62%)
  2. Franklin Barreto, SS (+56%)
  3. Jorge Mateo, SS (+22%)
  4. Dustin Fowler, OF (+24%)
  5. Sean Murphy, C (+0%)
  6. Jesus Luzardo, LHP (+37%)
  7. Austin Beck, OF (+14%)
  8. James Kaprielian, RHP (+2%)
  9. Lazaro Armenteros, OF (+41%)
  10. Grant Holmes, RHP (+18%)
  11. Sheldon Neuse, 3B (+68%)
  12. Greg Deichmann, OF (+17%)
  13. Logan Shore, RHP (+2%)
  14. Kevin Merrell, SS (+8%)
  15. Renato Nunez, DH (+7%)
  16. Daulton Jefferies, RHP (+9%)
  17. Nick Allen, SS (+24%)
  18. Ramon Laureano, OF (+44%)
  19. Tyler Ramirez, OF (+33%)
  20. Dakota Chalmers, RHP (+2%)
  21. Nolan Blackwood, RHP (+6%)
  22. Dalton Sawyer, LHP (+1%)
  23. Casey Meisner, RHP (+22%)
  24. B.J. Boyd, OF (+15%)
  25. Lou Trivino, RHP (+23%)
  26. Will Toffey, 3B (+6%)
  27. Skye Bolt, OF (+5%)
  28. Parker Dunshee, RHP (+22%)
  29. Alexander Campos, SS (+10%)
  30. Brian Howard, RHP (+4%)

In the last two posts, we looked at two different types of minor league lotto tickets: the mid-round college draftee whose early stats outweigh his tools (Dunshee), and the raw teenager whose projection is easy to dream on (Campos). This next guy lands in the former category.

While Tyler Ramirez is still my overall favorite sleeper right now, Brian Howard holds that distinction on the pitching side. The case begins with the stats from his pro debut in Low-A Vermont last summer, specifically his 29 Ks and 1 BB. He coupled that with a 1.15 ERA and low hit/HR rates to show that he wasn’t just avoiding walks by laying in meatballs and getting blasted early in the count.

Now, there’s a legitimate counterpoint to be made that Howard was an older draftee beating up on weak competition in a pitcher’s league. That’s true, and he’ll need to come back out and re-prove himself next year at a higher level just like his teammate Dunshee. But for what it’s worth, Vermont isn’t exactly full of teenagers — last year, of 238 batters (min. 50 PAs), 70% of them were 21 or older. Howard was mostly facing other college draftees, and while the competition can still be weak it’s more to do with the chaff picks being weeded out rather than an issue of age difference.

On top of that, Howard’s numbers were truly special, not merely good. His 29.0 K/BB rate is about as high as you’ll ever see a pitcher do at any level, and the last two A’s draftees to even reach 20.0 K/BB in their Vermont debuts were 2nd-rounders Daniel Gossett and Dillon Overton — both of whom reached MLB by age 24, though they haven’t stuck there yet. The A’s have drafted a lot of old mid-round college pitchers with unremarkable stuff, but we never see any of them do what Howard did. Expand the search to all of short-season Low-A ball (NY-Penn and Northwest Leagues), and only about two pitchers per year put up that kind of K/BB in their post-draft debut. No matter what context you put on this, the numbers stand out.

The big question, though, regards that unremarkable stuff. Howard has a four-pitch arsenal (fastball, cutter, curve, change) but tops out at only 91 mph, according to Melissa Lockard of Oakland Clubhouse. At 6’9, though, his extreme height reportedly adds deception to the package — Lockard notes that the “angle at which he releases the ball allows the fastball to get on hitters quickly.” Lockard also speaks well of Howard’s personality and makeup, his clean and repeatable delivery. and a college reputation for rising to the biggest occasions. He showed that clutch side in Vermont’s playoff series, with the following line in his one postseason start: 7⅔ ip, 1 run, 10 Ks, 2 BB, 4 hits, 1 HR.

There’s still a long way to go, but Howard brings so much to like. His debut performance was off the charts, even with all proper context included. He’s the rare super-tall pitcher with excellent control, which might help play up his otherwise questionable stuff. And he flat-out throws quality strikes, which is one of the best head starts you can ask for. He’s no sure thing, which is why he barely made this list (and still only in the early-20s on my personal list), but he’s going to be fascinating to follow this summer.

Honorable Mention

Bonus! Four more players were left over on the ballot, so let’s have a little Honorable Mention section. They’re in order of their final vote totals, but officially they’re all tied for 31st.

  • Richie Martin, SS: The former 1st-round pick hasn’t found his bat yet at all, but he plays good defense in the middle infield. He’ll probably never live up to his lofty draft pedigree, but if he ever does figure out how to get on base then he could at least make MLB.
  • Norge Ruiz, RHP: The int’l signing out of Cuba had a lost year in 2017, but he’ll be back for another go this year. When he signed he was billed as a candidate to fast-track to the back of the rotation, so if he does find his groove then he could get interesting really quickly.
  • Santis Sanchez, C: We included seven members of the 2017 draft class in this year’s CPL, but 5th-rounder Sanchez just missed out. When I read his scouting report on MLB Pipeline, Geovany Soto immediately leaps to mind as a best-case comp.
  • Skylar Szynski, RHP: He was the A’s top high school pick in the 2016 draft, a 4th-rounder who got a $1 million signing bonus (twice his slot value). He missed 2017 with not-quite-TJS, but if he’s back to full health then he has a good ceiling.
  • James Naile, RHP: I’m taking liberty on this one, but Naile had the next-most nods after Szynski the last time we took nominations. He made the MLB Pipeline Top 30 even though they hate older, low-ceiling prospects, and he made Lockard’s Top 30 as well (originally 33rd, minus 6 guys ahead of him who were traded, plus probably Laureano inserted ahead of him). He’s pitched a gem in the clinching game of each of Double-A Midland’s last two championships. He has fringe stuff similar to Howard’s and he doesn’t rack up strikeouts, but he also has a strong 3.2 K/BB for his pro career so far.

On top of them, there’s also a collection of intriguing youngsters that we talked about in the Campos post, led in CPL nomination nods by pitcher Oscar Tovar, outfielder Luis Barrera, and infielder Marcos Brito. Finally, two more older names who did well in the nominations and are worth following: outfielder Brett Siddall (2015 mid-round pick who hit well at High-A Stockton last year) and lefty pitcher Zack Erwin (from the Brett Lawrie trade; got healthy and bounced back last year at Single-A Beloit). And, of course, there’s the rest of the 2017 draft class, which hasn’t yet had a full chance to show who they are.

That’s a wrap! Thank you everyone for following along these last two months and helping put together our Community Prospect List. I’ll be back in the next week or so with a full finale post, full of all kinds of fun tables and charts.