Please Tell Me J.P. Howell Isn’t Really as Bad as He Was in 2011

By Robbie Knopf

It’s hard to find any player in the big leagues who performed worse than Rays lefty reliever J.P. Howell in as many games. In 48 relief appearances (30.2 innings pitched), he posted a 6.16 ERA and an absolutely dreadful 5.41 FIP, striking out just 7.6 per 9 while posting a 5.3 BB/9 and a 1.4 HR/9. Please tell me Howell isn’t really this bad.

J.P. Howell has had an interesting major league career. The 31st overall pick in the 2004 draft by the Kansas City Royals, Howell was rushed through the minor leagues, skipping from Rookie ball to High-A in his first full season as a pro in 2005, and that same season he made it to the major leagues, where he was destroyed, posting a 6.19 ERA and a 5.00 FIP in 15 starts. Then Howell struggled a little bit at Triple-A in 2006 and the Royals panic-traded him to the Rays for Joey Gathright and a prospect. After coming to the Rays, Howell flopped as a starter in ’06 and ’07 before switching to the bullpen in 2008 and taking off, posting a 2.48 ERA and saving 20 games in 133 appearances between 2008 and 2009 before suffering a shoulder injury that required surgery, causing him to miss all of 2010 before returning in late May of 2011 and getting destroyed again, posting an 8.68 ERA in his first 26 appearances before settling down to the tune of a 2.25 ERA in August and September. That’s a pretty crazy turn of events. Let’s try to make sense of everything by looking at some Pitch F/X graphs. First, let’s compare J.P. Howell circa 2008-2009 to J.P. Howell 2011.

You can see a quick explanation of what the graph is saying here (in the paragraph right under a similar graph), but essentially these graphs show the movement on Howell’s pitches if they started directly in the middle of the strike zone. The key gives you information on how often Howell used each pitch and who hard he threw each one. Looking at the key, we see something pretty alarming: in 2011, Howell threw his slider quite a bit more often that his fastball. We can see that his fastball moved so much that Howell couldn’t locate it for strikes, leading to his high walk rate and forcing him to rely on his slider. Looking at his slider and curveball, we see that they’re very similar-looking. In reality, Howell throws more of a slurve, a pitch-type that Pitch F/X (in this case, from Texas Leaguers) does not use. Howell is basically a two-pitch pitcher, throwing his fastball and slurve, with his changeup being him just taking a little off his fastball. Howell’s pitches feature some nice movement, and despite his lack of velocity, for two years the league couldn’t figure him out. But in 2011, they most certainly did, and his 5.41 FIP was no fluke. Based on this data, Howell is in trouble, and the Rays won’t be able to rely on him once again in 2012. But before we panic, let’s take a look at Howell’s movement in August and September when he began pitching like his usual self, at least statistically. We’ll compare it with the 2008-2009 data once again.

Howell was able to get more confidence in his fastball in August in September, and even though he still couldn’t completely control it, his walk rate improved to 3.75 per 9 innings (although this is a 12 inning sample). Nevertheless, his FIP over that period of time was still just 4.95, nowhere near what you want. Howell is in trouble.

Howell is a soft-tossing lefty reliever who has always relied on movement rather than velocity to be successful. But the league has adapted to him, and in 2011 he did not show an ability to adjust right back. That adjustment better happen for J.P. Howell in 2012. Otherwise, Howell and the Rays have a real problem on their hands.