For two years, J.P. Howell was one of the best relievers the Rays have ever seen. Between 2008 and 2009, J.P. Howell went 13-6 with a 2.48 ERA, a 9.9 K/9, a 4.2 BB/9, a 0.8 HR/9, and 20 saves in 133 appearances spanning 156 IP. But following the season, he suffered a shoulder injury that required surgery, sidelining him for all of 2010 and the first moth of 2011. Once he came back in 2011, Howell was an utter train wreck, posting just a 6.16 ERA, a 7.6 K/9, a 5.3 BB/9, and 1.6 HR/9 in 46 appearances spanning 30.2 IP. But suddenly in 2012, Howell has gotten right back to where he left off. He has gone 1-0 with a 2.68 ERA, an 8.2 K/9, a 3.9 BB/9, and a 0.8 HR/9 in 44 relief appearances spanning 43.2 IP. He has thrown scoreless ball in his last 21 appearances spanning 24.2 IP. The 24.2 scoreless innings are a Rays record. In those 24.2 innings, he has struck out 24 while walking 10- an 8.8 K/9 and a 3.6 BB/9. His 2.4 to 1 strikeout to walk ratio is actually just slightly above his 2.38 strikeout to walk ratio from 2008 to 2009. The stats look eerily similar. But is J.P. Howell the same pitcher he was pre-injury?
In this chart, which features data courtesy of Brooks Baseball, we see some interesting things going on. One of the main reasons for Howell’s collapse in 2011 was that he could never establish his sinker, forcing him to use his curveball as his primary pitch. In 2012, Howell has rectified that problem to an extent, at least throwing his sinker more often that his curveball. But the 43% mark that Howell is throwing his fastball in 2012 is still closer in 2011 than it is 2008 or 2009 and he’s throwing his changeup more than ever. Also, there are some interesting things going on with the velocity of Howell’s pitches among all the years.
Just based on this graph, it seems likely that Howell is going to deteriorate again because it’s extremely hard to survive as a pitcher who throws offspeed pitches 57% of the time. Throwing offspeed pitches so often gives you much less of a margin for error because when you don’t locate them, they are much easier to hit. Most 95 MPH fastballs misplaced right down the middle don’t end up in the outfield seats or even go for extra-base hits. But when you hang a breaking ball, hitters don’t miss them as often. Howell doesn’t throw 95 or anything close to it- he only hits 90 MPH a few times a year. But he needs all the velocity he can get to achieve continued success. And then there’s the other issue- every offspeed pitch is better when set up by a fastball because of the deception created by the differences in velocity and movement. When the fastball is taken out of the equation, deception becomes a lesser factor and as a pitcher you better have some dynamic movement of your offspeed pitches and pinpoint command if you want to succeed. But frankly, no one in baseball has perfect or even near-perfect command of their breaking pitches. But all this is being said without looking at the movement on Howell’s pitches between 2012 and in the past. Has Howell gotten more dynamic action on his secondary pitches, which would allow him to succeed even while throwing his fastball less? Let’s compare the movement on Howell’s pitches between 2009 and this season to see if that is the case.
Glancing at the colored lines which denote the movement on the different pitches, the two graphs look pretty similar at first glance. But looking more closely, we see that all the pitches in the 2012 graph feature more movement than in 2009. That’s especially interesting because for his Howell’s sinker and changeup, he has actually been throwing them harder (only slightly in the case of the sinker) and has still gotten more movement. Even though he is throwing it over 2 MPH below 2009, the most interesting pitch to compare on the two graphs is the curveball. The intriguing part is simply the fact that it finishes in a different direction on the two graphs. In 2009, Howell’s curveball got slurvy and its net movement was basically straight down, and that worked perfectly fine because he was able to command and control it very well and keep it down in the zone. In 2012, Howell’s curveball has shifted from close to 12-to-6 break to 1-to-7. The difference is enormous and in terms of pure velocity and movement, it has become a much more dynamic pitch, which warrants Howell to throw it more often. However, more movement isn’t always a good thing, and in fact Howell hasn’t been able to locate his pitches for strikes in 2012 as much as he did in 2009. But the uptick in movement has made it more difficult for hitters to barrel Howell’s pitches and has allowed him to be less dependent on his fastball and utilize his curveball and changeup more often. Howell’s control has been worse, but his command has been better as he has done an excellent job at keeping the ball down and forcing weak contact. That is how he is succeeding once again.
Is pre-injury J.P. Howell back? No, he is not. The J.P. Howell we are seeing is a very similar pitcher, but a different one. Howell has reinvented himself. He doesn’t strike out as many batters as he used to and he has needed to figure out a way to succeed nevertheless. He has managed to do just that. He consistently locates his pitches down in the zone and keep hitters off-balance, forcing a good if not great amount of swings and pitches to go along with plenty of routine groundballs. J.P. Howell the dominating closer isn’t coming back. But in his stead lies a veteran middle reliever who knows how to maximize his arsenal and how to thrive based on the cards he’s been dealt.