On a Zoom call with the Cubs this spring, Ed Howard IV broke down his defensive routine.
He’d start on his knees to isolate his glove work and work up to taking ground balls at different angles.
“It was really uncanny to hear this from a high school player,” said Dan Kantrovitz, Cubs vice president of scouting. “And even many of the college players we talked to didn’t have the advanced routine that Ed does.”
Howard began developing that routine at seven years old.
His fundamentals have long caught the attention of spectators and scouts alike. During the 2014 Little League World Series, Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin nicknamed a 12-year-old Howard, “Silk.” At 18 years old, Howard was widely considered the best defensive shortstop in the 2020 MLB Draft. On Wednesday, the Cubs drafted the hometown kid No. 16 overall.
“I learned the right way,” Howard told NBC Sports Chicago. “So, when I got older and I was just doing it, just having fun with it, just making plays, I was doing it the right way.”
When Howard was seven years old, he and his father, Ed Howard III, met Lou Collier at an indoor batting cage to try out for Collier’s 10-and-under travel ball team.
In the words of Ed Howard III, it was time to “get this kid with somebody who’s advanced.”
Collier had played eight seasons of Major League Baseball and two more in the Korean Baseball Organization before retiring in 2007. A Chicago native from the South Side, Collier returned home and started the Lou Collier Baseball Association.
By traditional measures, Howard didn’t stand out in his tryout. Collier remembers testing the 7-year-old with soft toss and watching Howard swing and miss about 10 times.
“But what I noticed about him is that each swing, there was the same intensity,” Collier said. “His demeanor didn't change. He didn't get down on himself. He wasn't looking at his dad for some comfort. He just kept going like, ‘I’m going to hit the next one.’”
Howard was ready.
Collier starts his 10U players with cone and ladder drills to develop their footwork and work on their quickness and coordination. Those tools most youth baseball players don’t see until later in their careers. The next step is to isolate their hands. They drop to their knees and focus just on catching the ball. After they have the proper mechanics engrained separately, they put the two parts together.
“A lot of the stuff that I implemented with the youth were things that I worked on at the major-league level and when I was going through the minor leagues,” Collier said. “So, I took everything that I loved, everything that helped me improve as a middle infielder, as a big-league shortstop, and I put it together in a system. And I brought it back to the kids.”
Collier adjusted the pace of those lessons to fit his young players.
Howard caught on quickly. Maybe it was because he came from an athletic family. Or because of the extra work he put in at home. Or because of the determination that Collier witnessed in Howard the first time they met.
Whatever the reason, by the time Howard was 10 years old, Collier and his coaching staff were putting Howard in drills with the teenagers.
They’d often wrap up a day of training with a game called, “Last man standing.” All 15 to 20 kids, ranging in age from 8 to 16, would line up on one side of the gym to take ground balls. If the ball got past them, or they bobbled it, or they threw it away, they were out. The last man standing won the game.
When Howard was about 10 years old, Collier remembers, he started placing in the top three and even winning the game.
“We weren’t babying him,” Collier said. “Just the same as we would hit it to a 16-year-old, we were hitting it to him like that. He would just make plays, and we knew there was something special about him.”
Howard continued to feel comfortable competing with older ball players throughout his career. Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said on 670 The Score Friday that Howard joined a Cubs pre-draft workout as a sophomore in high school.
“Taking ground balls with high school seniors and college juniors, and he stood out,” Epstein said on The Score. “He was the best shortstop that day.”
Before Howard’s senior season was scheduled to begin – instead, it was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic – he met up with Collier in Atlanta, where the coach now lives.
“He’s a guy that’s been around me for my whole baseball career,” Howard said. “That’s basically my main guy as far as learning the fundamentals of the game.”
Howard had grown several inches and put on 13 pounds during the offseason, which also caught Kantrovitz’s attention in January. But Howard had to adjust to his new stature.
Over four or five days of outdoor training – something hard to come by in Chicago that time of year – they fine-tuned Howard’s mechanics, and he worked on staying down in his legs.
Howard’s fundamentals had taken him that far, and he wasn’t going to let them slide with a professional baseball career waiting for him.