It’s not a good idea to have a short leash on other people. Most of the time, though, you never know what would have happened if you were more patients. But other times, you do. The Royals let J.P. Howell go too soon. And the Rays took advantage.
J.P. Howell’s MLB career got off to a dubious start. Howell was the 31st overall pick by the Kansas City Royals in the 2004 MLB Draft out of the University of Texas and signed for a 1 million dollar bonus. That was before the Royals had Howell undergo a physical, and as part of that physical they discovered that Howell had something wrong with his labrum in his left throwing shoulder. But Howell fired his agent and his new agent had him examined by several other doctors who concluded that his shoulder was fine. The Royals begrudgingly agreed to sign Howell for the original bonus.
The Royals had to feel lucky that Howell immediately started pitching well after they signed him.. In 4 starts and 2 relief relief appearances at Rookie ball before the end of 2004, Howell went 3-1 with a 2.77 ERA, a 13.2 K/9, a 4.2 HR/9, and a 0.3 HR/9 in 26 IP. Then in 2005, his first pro season, Howell managed to work his way up from High-A all the way to the major leagues by June. In 18 minor league starts, Howell went 8-2 with an 8.9 K/9, a 4.2 BB/9, and a 0.4 HR/9 in 101.2 IP before the Royals called him up. But in the majors, Howell got hit hard, going 3-5 with just a 6.19 ERA, a 6.7 K/9, a 4.8 BB/9, and a 1.1 HR/9 in 15 starts and 72.2 IP. Howell then began 2006 back in the minors at Triple-A and Howell posted just a 4.75 ERA in 8 starts, although his 8.2 K/9, 3.5 BB/9, and 0.8 HR/9 amounted to a 3.62 FIP. Nevertheless, the Royals had seen enough. In June, they traded Howell to the Devil Rays in exchange for Joey Gathright and Fernando Cortez.
With the Devil Rays, Howell dominated at Triple-A Durham, going 5-3 with a 2.62 ERA, a 8.0 K/9, a 2.5 BB/9, and a 0.3 HR/9 in 10 starts and 55 IP. His FIP was an incredible 2.93. The D-Rays had seen enough to give Howell another chance to start in the big league. In 8 big league starts, Howell went just 1-3 with a 5.10 ERA, but his 7.0 K/9, 3.0 BB/9, and a 0.9 HR/9 amounted to a decent 4.07 FIP. In 2007, Howell started the season back at Durham and pitched well again, going 7-8 with a 3.38 ERA, a 10.2 K/9, a 2.4 BB/9, and 1.1 HR/9 in 21 starts and 128 IP. His FIP was 3.52. But in 10 big league starts he went just 1-6 with a 7.59 ERA, an 8.6 K/9, a 3.7 BB/9, and a 1.4 HR/9, amounting to a 4.72 FIP, in 51 IP.
J.P. Howell has never thrown hard. He was always a soft-tosser. His fastball never hit higher than 90 MPH on the dot and depended on movement to be an effective pitch. But he throws a big, slow, curveball, and a changeup that mirrors his fastball with a nice speed differential and additional sink. Howell came out of Texas as a polished pitcher with a chance to be an innings-eating 4th starter in the big leagues.
The newly-renamed Rays saw that Howell was going nowhere as a starter. So they tried him as a reliever. The results could not have been better. In 2008, he helped the Rays to the World Series with a 2.22 ERA in 64 appearances, with his FIP coming in at 3.42. He followed it up with a 2.84 ERA, a 3.68 FIP, and 17 saves in 69 appearances in 2009, but then his old shoulder injury finally caught up with him, leading to surgery. Howell has only shown us transient glimpses of his former form since them. But the Rays have continued to stick with him.
J.P. Howell is not the fireballing reliever you would have thought he was just based on his numbers from 2008-2009, when he struck out 9.9 batters per 9 innings. We know that he’s not even close to that. The Rays are unconventional. The Rays are unafraid to try out players in unfamiliar and seemingly unbecoming roles. They gave J.P. Howell a shot to relieve even though his arsenal of pitches didn’t excite anybody and that was even less the case out of the bullpen. But for two years he was dynamite, and maybe we’ll see him get back to that before too long.