The catching position is so mechanically specific and physically demanding it can be misread that the ideal person for the position would be somewhat ruggedly robotic in his movements. That is, he should be able to repeat his movements so routinely as if to intentionally bore you.
The 6-2, 200-pound Martin Howell is anything but that behind the plate. No one, in fact, has ever called the 16 year-old Gillette resident boring or robotic. Howell, actually, is often the life of the party.
That party we refer to is on a baseball diamond and, given his personality, it is not surprising Howell chose a position that requires the most leadership ability and most athleticism to succeed.
“He’s always on,” says Diamond Nation’s catching coordinator Travis Anderson. “It’s not an act. His energy is contagious. As a coach, that’s what I want in a player. I want a player to drive, to go. Not every player can be like that. Martin Howell can.”
Kevin Cust, who coached Howell this fall with the Diamond Jacks Super 17U team and provides hitting instruction for the Watchung Hills junior, says, “Martin is a free spirit. He keeps it loose.”
Watchung Hills coach Joe Tremarco, who watched Howell blossom right in front of his eyes during an outstanding sophomore season last spring, says, “He’s no real secret. He’s a big time player. He keeps everything light. He doesn’t take things too seriously outside of baseball. We are impressing upon him that he has to be all business at the next level.”
Howell was certainly all business on the field last spring when it came to production. He batted .349 with 29 hits, including six doubles, three HRs and 24 RBI. He slotted into the No. 3 spot in the Warriors’ lineup after jumping out of the gate hot and posted a gaudy .443 on-base percentage for the season.
“I didn’t have a freshman season because of COVID, so coach Tremarco never saw me,” said Howell. “I batted seventh, eighth and ninth in the first few preseason games last spring. But I hit the ball well and slowly moved up in the lineup.”
Howell’s ability at the plate is easy to quantify in raw numbers, but his skills behind the plate, while constantly in the developmental process like all young catchers, have to be seen with the naked eye.
“The first time I saw Martin, he was in the bullpen,” said Anderson. “It was the fall of his 15U year. I saw how big he was and saw how flexible he was in his hips. He was getting so low. He was someone I definitely wanted to work with.”
That impressive 2021 high school season and the exposure he experienced this summer with the Diamond Jacks Super 16U team did let the cat out of the bag in regard to Howell’s two-pronged ability as a hitter and catcher. And Division 1 colleges came calling. As Tremarco said, Howell was no longer a secret.
“I committed to Penn State the day before Halloween,” said Howell. “I asked (Diamond Jacks) coach Walt (Cleary) to send them a video and they responded by inviting me to their camp. I didn’t think I did very well there, but they invited me to come up for a football game.”
Howell was treated to a gem of a homecoming contest on Oct. 23 in which Penn State dropped a wild 9-overtime 20-18 decision to Illinois. More importantly, his experience at Penn State would prove unforgettable for another reason.
“Coach (Josh) Newman, the pitching coach, said to me, ‘You know we are going to offer you today,” said Howell. “ I was a little surprised how fast it happened.”
Howell met the Penn State staff that day, including head coach Rob Cooper and recruiting coordinator Sean Moore. “I loved the whole atmosphere,” he said. “The football game. The legacy of the school. It’s a school you can follow your whole life. The baseball field is unbelievable. I loved the coaches, who are stellar men. The facilities are unreal.”
His recruitment suddenly behind him, Howell focused on putting together a productive fall season while continuing to work on his skills behind the plate with Anderson.
“The fall went so quick,” said Howell, who was elevated to the Diamond Jacks’ prized program, the Super 17U squad, coached by Cust. “It was no big adjustment playing for coach Cust because I’d been taking hitting lessons from him the past two years. He’s given me great hitting advice.”
Meanwhile, Howell works with Anderson on his catching once a week.
“I’m trying to improve my pop time,” he said. “The hardest part of throwing is getting that smooth motion and your footwork right.” Insists Anderson, “Martin has great feet.”
Tremarco says he sees improvement coming quickly in Howell’s mechanics.
“He’s a 1.9 to 2.0 guy now,” says Tremarco. “He’s getting his fundamentals down. There’s room for growth, so his pop time should be 1.7 to 1.8 this year. You have to put it all together. And he has a strong arm.
Howell says his winter regime includes three days in his high school’s weight room, hitting with Cust on Wednesday, winter hitting practice on Thursday with his Diamond Jack teammates, and Saturdays behind the plate with Anderson.
That sounds like a big commitment to get yourself to the head of the class.
“It’s so great,” said Howell. “I can’t wait to get there. I don’t feel like it’s too much at all.”
That’s Martin Howell. He can’t wait to get there, wherever it is; the weight room, the batting cage, the bullpen. Even when Anderson is pushing him, like he has from day one.
“I remember my first 15U practice with coach Travis,” said Howell. “It was a wake up call and a half. Coach got right into it. But that really made me go from zero to 100.”
Anderson disagrees in a sense with that take.
“I don’t have to get him going at all. He was already going,” said Anderson. “I’m biased because I’ve coached him and seen him play a lot. But, behind the plate, I don’t know how many more catchers you’d want instead of him. There are a lot of good catchers out there in New Jersey, but if you tell me Martin Howell is my catcher, as a coach, I’m pretty happy about that.”
Each of the coaches we chatted with used the word “coachable” when referencing Howell.
“Once he steps on the field, Martin is ready to go,” says Tremarco. “He is very coachable.”
Anderson agrees. “HIs first season with us, we clicked pretty quickly. We spent a lot of time together. Martin is a very, very coachable kid. That is an unbelievably big compliment to give someone. He listens and pays attention to details and takes what he is taught to heart.”
What Tremarco saw last spring in Howell’s development at the plate was impressive, as well.
“He makes adjustments in-game, like Lorenzo,” said Tremarco, referring to Watchung Hills’ senior shortstop Lorenzo Meola. “They are similar like that.” Meola, also a Diamond Jack, is committed to Stetson University.
Cust, who was a prodigious hitter himself during his days at Immaculata High School, likes what Howell has shown him at the plate.
“The ball comes off his bat real well,” says Cust. “The jump he’s made from last year to this year, and the one he’ll make next year, are huge. He has a ton of projection, a huge upside. Penn State is a great spot, a great fit for him.”
Anderson makes an interesting point about Howell’s size and how he carries it.
“He is a presence,” says Anderson. “He’s not trying to be small. He’s trying to be big and impose his will. He’s getting more comfortable in that role. Most big kids, when they are young, don’t know what to do with that size. Not Martin. He’s not hesitant. He’s like, ‘I’m big. I’m strong.’ A lot comes with that.
“The scary thing is, he’s still raw. And that’s a great thing. He’s 6-2, 200 and he’s still getting bigger and stronger. Imagine him in three years playing in a big time Division 1 program with a big time weight lifting program? Martin will be a monster on the field.” Martin’s dad, also Martin, is 6′-9″ and played college basketball at Saint Louis University.
FINAL THOUGHT: Watchung Hills returns all 10 of its pitchers from the 2021 season, so Howell will have plenty of familiarity from which to work. “Martin has no new relationships to develop,” says Tremarco. “He knows what he has.”
So does Tremarco.