Lancaster, California —— I’d been sitting on video of more than two dozen Ryan Howard at-bats from the San Francisco Giants shortstop prospect’s April and May road trips down to Lancaster when San Jose Giants broadcaster Joe Ritzo‘s insightful recent guest spot on a Giants podcast jarred me to upload them to the Baseball Census YouTube channel. (You can see those at-bats below, in full.)
Ritzo raves about Ryan Howard in that podcast, and for good reason: the 22-year-old is second in the California League in batting as of July 7, slashing an exceptional .328/.360/.415/.774 over his first 74 games and 311 at-bats with nine doubles and six home runs. Originally acquired by the Giants in the 2016 MLB Draft (sixth round) out of the University of Missouri, Howard has spent time at third base (24 games) and shortstop (50 games) this summer, splitting some middle infield duties with fellow Giants infield prospect Jalen Miller.
The Cal League is a hitter’s haven without question, but Howard has some tools that’ll suggest he will hit for average well beyond his time here in High-A this summer. He’s got an incredibly compact swing, with little by way of frills: no real leg kick, only a slightly open stance to start, and a very quick, efficient bat path that gets him from stance to stride to swing quickly. His bat speed is pretty good, to boot, and so he does pretty well to adjust to pitches in on his hands. Furthermore, because he’s so well-balanced through his swing with no excess weight transfer—unlike some notable Cal Leaguers who are using it to the extreme—he’s not liable to be fooled by off-speed pitches low and away.
Good strike zone discipline and even better spatial awareness of what he can and can’t hit do well to put barrel to ball, too; Howard has whiffed just 49 times in 331 plate appearances this season entering Friday, a respectable 14.8% rate. There’s a down side here, though, too. The San Francisco Giants shortstop is extremely aggressive at the plate, and while he knows the strike zone pretty well and can go the other way with ease, he’s also not working deep counts, having walked in just 3.9% of plate appearances this season. While low walk rates in a High-A hitter’s league may be a sign to some that a prospect is too advanced for the pitching, I wonder if Howard’s overaggressiveness will betray him in the upper minors as he adjusts to pitchers that have more nuanced command of their off-speed stuff.
Howard shows little by way of power and remains predominantly a singles hitter, though considering he’s playing shortstop right now that’s not necessarily an issue. Going forward, though, I like him a lot more as a third baseman or a super sub that can play across the infield; even though he has arm strength for the six-hole, he’s not as athletic in the middle infield as Miller, for one, and I’m skeptical he’ll have the range to play shortstop on an everyday basis. Because of that, if he’s moved to third base down the line, he’ll need to show greater consistency in going gap-to-gap as a doubles hitter with minimal over-the-fence pop. We’ll see how much of that can come out in the next few years, but he does have a decently strong frame upon which to build out some more muscle, so perhaps there will be a little physical projection still to come.
Going forward, it’s been hypothesized by some that Howard could turn into a Matt Duffy-type ballplayer, and maybe that’s apt. Above all, while I think Ryan Howard’s shortcomings are going to limit his ceiling far more than what some may hope based on this summer, he does have a good skill set upon which to build. His hand-eye coordination is above-average, he’ll prove versatile on defense after he inevitably gets moved off shortstop, and his strike zone awareness will be a boon to him even as he comes back to earth against better pitching. If he can improve plate discipline to work deeper counts and see better hitters’ pitches rather than hacking at the first strike he gets, that’ll only benefit him further.
Ryan Howard, SS, San Francisco Giants — 2017 Video
Below, Baseball Census has two dozen Ryan Howard at-bats on video, taken from the first two months of the season with the San Jose Giants during road games against the Lancaster JetHawks and the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes:
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