I remember watching the Rays on national TV in 2011 when J.P. Howell came to the mound and threw a fastball at 86 MPH. The broadcaster scoffed and said that it was so sad how such a pitcher who had once been so dominant had become a shell of his former self after shoulder surgery, going all the way down from blowing by hitters with an electric fastball in the mid-90’s to not even coming close to touching 90 MPH. The broadcaster could not have been more wrong- even when Howell was at his best, his fastball wasn’t missing any bats at 85-88 MPH. But he refused to let that stop him. He developed a sharp breaking ball and a dynamic changeup and went out onto the mound and made hitters look silly. He wasn’t your lefty specialist with the bizarre submarine delivery who found a way to befuddle left-handed hitters in a way fans couldn’t begin to imagine. When he was at his peak in 2008 and 2009, it didn’t matter who was up against him- he attacked with his fastball to get ahead in the count and then sent them back to the dugout wondering what happened as they struck out on one of his secondary pitches again. He entered games with no fear despite everyone knowing his weaknesses and refused to let his limitations hold him back. You’d look at his numbers and see his high strikeout totals, and if you hadn’t seen much of the Rays, you’d assume- like the announcer in question must have- that he was another fireballing late-inning reliever. He was the exact opposite- instead of a pitcher rearing back to deliver his best fastball and seeing what happens, he would deliver pitches knowing somewhere deep inside that he wasn’t good enough but doing everything he could to defy the odds again.
The prototypical reliever comes into a game amped up knowing that it’s his opportunity to overpower hitters, earn his paycheck, and do everything in his power to lead his team to victory. J.P. Howell was not your prototypical reliever. He almost seemed to enter every game scared, wondering if this was the game where his bubble would burst and his career would finally come apart again. He couldn’t simply relax and let his potential come out because he knew he was running on fumes. When he allowed a home run, you saw him put his head down sulking, wondering “why here, why now.” It was as depressing of a site as you’ll see in baseball during that 2011 season when Howell managed just a 6.16 ERA in 46 relief appearances and his frustration only continued to build. And even when Howell was successful and got a huge strikeout to escape a jam, he pumped his fist but always had this look on his face that made it seem like he couldn’t believe what he had just done.
The emotions that play a huge part in Howell’s game were what made him fail so badly as a starter, managing just a 6.34 ERA in 33 starts and 166 innings pitched with the Kansas City Royals and the Devil Rays from 2005 to 2007, as he got too down on himself after a tough inning and could never recover. But out of the bullpen, Howell’s grasp of the fact that any game could be his last was what drove him to all the success he achieved. It made him push himself to the limits and fight through his fear to give hitters everything he had. It made him do everything in his power to make something out of nothing and pull a rabbit out of the hat one more time. For two years in 2008 and 2009 and then in his finale performance in a Rays uniform in the second half of 2012, J.P. Howell left the crowds mystified as he pulled off his act again and again and gave Rays fans a show they will never forget. Best of luck to Howell as a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers.