Larry Lee, the head baseball coach at Cal Poly, asked Spencer Howard after the season to list what he had done to make himself a better pitcher.
Howard filled out an entire sheet – "very detailed," Lee said – but one part stuck out. Howard, whom the Phillies drafted Monday in the second round, had meditated each morning during the season. And his career would never be the same.
The righthander began the season in Cal Poly's bullpen after being told two years earlier that the Mustangs did not even have a spot for him. He finished the year as the 45th pick in the draft and a player the Phillies believe was the draft's top righthanded pitcher.
Howard credits his quick rise to the morning routine he began three weeks into the season, just as he was moving into the starting rotation and pushing his career into a whirlwind. The meditation, Howard said, brought a sense of calmness on the mound and freed his mind from overthinking. Howard saw results "almost immediately."
"For some people, they need to be amped up. They pitch their best when they're really fired up. They almost pitch with anger," Howard said. "But that's not who I am. I like to think that I'm more like middle-of-the-road, best when I'm not tensing up, staying mellow, and just doing what I do."
Lee noticed Howard's newfound presence when he pitched against Cal State-Fullerton, UCLA and Long Beach State on consecutive weekends. Howard held his own and Cal Poly won each of the three games.
"That's when you knew he had figured a lot of things out," Lee said. "He was very confident, very competitive."
Howard had a 1.95 ERA in just his second college season. He struck out 97 and walked 23 in 87 2/3 innings. He combines a mid-90s fastball with a curveball, slider, and change-up. Phillies director of amateur scouting Johnny Almaraz called Howard a power pitcher with the one of the best fastballs in the country.
"I always had a little bit of velocity, but with the whole meditation side of things, I've become able to pitch and think when I'm on the mound. Rather than just trying to throw everything as hard as I could," Howard said. "Being able to realize what guys' swings were like and what I should do in certain situations really helped me a lot. I learned how to pitch."
Howard learned a few yoga exercises before the season, and that inspired his path to meditation. He and a teammate would hold a yoga pose and focus on their breathing. Howard wanted more. He read Tools of Titans, a book by Tim Ferriss that details the habits of successful business people. Howard – who is studying business – noticed that most of the book's subjects began their day with meditation. He downloaded an iPhone app and gave it a try.
"I just throw some headphones on, sit down, and let the app talk me into meditation," Howard said. "You get used to it. It's kind of hard at first. There's a lot going on in the mind. But once you get past that, it quiets you down and it can be really productive."
Howard nearly quit baseball before his senior year of high school, considering playing volleyball instead. He stayed with baseball and then walked on at Cal Poly. Howard redshirted in 2015 and was told after the season that there were no spots left in the fall. The team eventually made room and fit Howard into the bullpen, where he stayed until this past March.
Howard plans to sign with the Phillies once he finishes his college finals. The pitcher who was once an afterthought will find out soon where he will begin his professional career. He plans to continue to meditate as he climbs the minor-league ladder.