After a rough season in 2019, San Francisco Giants infield prospect Ryan Howard is off to a hot start in spring training and appears ready to turn the page.
Prior to the 2019 season, the infielder’s stock was on the rise, and many within the Giants front office saw him as a future utility player.
As recently as 2018, Howard ranked as the No. 9 prospect in the Giants farm system, according to FanGraphs. Marc Hulet of FanGraphs wrote the following:
"“Howard wasn’t really on the prospect radar but he’s turned himself into a decent prospect. The ceiling is probably fringe second baseman or solid utility infielder. He has some gap pop and does a nice job controlling the strike zone.”"
Despite the fact that the Giants had a relative weak farm system at the time, Howard’s overall skill set was strong enough to project him as a future role player with the ability to play all over the infield.
Since new Giants team president Farhan Zaidi emphasizes versatility, the ability to play multiple infield positions should bode well for Howard. The 25-year-old has spent much of his professional career at shortstop, but he has proven he can handle second base and third base as well.
However, last season proved to be a difficult challenge for Howard.
The right-handed hitter split his time between Double-A Richmond and Triple-A Sacramento to give both teams much-needed infield depth.
It was a minor surprise that Howard began last year at Double-A after he spent all of the 2018 season with Richmond where he posted a stout 104 wRC+ across 475 plate appearances.
However, last season was a different story.
Across the two minor league levels, Howard generated a .227/.277.316 line in 504 plate appearances.
It appears that Howard was tinkering with changes to his swing path. Similar to the changes taking place across baseball, Howard tried to create more loft in his swing by improving his launch angle.
In some ways, he succeeded in that goal. In 2018, he posted a 46.8 percent ground ball rate, and that mark improved to 39.7 percent with Richmond in 2019. However, that did not ultimately benefit Howard’s stat line like it did for many players across baseball.
With that being said, the benefits of swing changes are not always realized right away. For some players, it takes more time to get comfortable. This could have certainly been the case with Howard.
That disappointing 2019 season is now in the rearview mirror, and the versatile infielder seems ready to turn the page as he is off to a strong start in 2020.
So far, Howard is showing more gap-to-gap power with a 1.235 OPS in a very small spring training sample size. However, spring stats should always be evaluated with several grains of salt.
Perhaps, the changes Howard implemented last year are beginning to payoff. When a player struggles at the plate like Howard did in 2019, it is an encouraging sign to see him start the new season on a positive note.
With a full offseason to get comfortable, Howard may be on the right track to realize the potential that once made him a top prospect in the Giants farm system.