What Has Happened to J.P. Howell?

By Robbie Knopf

It really was not that long ago. We remember it clearly. J.P. Howell wasn’t just a situational lefty- he was a late inning reliever who the Rays often relied on for even save situations and he did well. From 2008 to 2009, Howell posted a 13-6 record, a 2.48 ERA, 20 saves, and a solid 3.53 FIP in 133 appearances and 156 IP. He was never dominating. His fastball almost never hit 90 MPH (maybe it did once or twice all season) and usually sat between 85 and 87 MPH. But armed with a sharp curveball and an overbearing changeup, Howell  consistently recorded the big outs that helped the Rays win ballgames. But things aren’t the same anymore. Howell missed all of 2010 with shoulder surgery and returned in May 2011. When he was finally ready to come back, we hoped that Howell would be OK because he never was a pitcher who relied much on fastball velocity to begin with. But instead, Howell has completely come apart. He has managed just a 6.04 ERA and a 5.61 FIP in 70 appearances and 50.2 IP even as the Rays have limited him to a situational lefty role. Howell just isn’t the same picture. But other than his performance, what has changed?

We are compare the Pitch F/X data on Howell from 2009, his last great year, and 2012 in an attempt to see whether Howell’s pitches have changed precisely how we thought they would not following shoulder surgery. The data is from Brooks Baseball in my original displays.

For more on interpreting these graphs and the topic of Pitch F/X in general, please see here.

Looking at these two graphs, there are just about as many differences as there are similarities. Howell throws the same pitches in 2012 as he did in 2009, but he has gotten much more movement. The problem is that the additional movement is a side-effect of a possible issue: Howell’s overall downtick in velocity. His average fastball velocity went down just 0.3 MPH and his average changeup velo actually went up .1 MPH, but the big difference was his curveball, which went down 2.8 MPH in average velocity. One of the biggest reasons for Howell’s decline is how ineffective his curveball has been. In 2009, it was an overbearing pitch for him as he threw it for a strike just under two-thirds of the time, forced a whiff rate over 20%, and forced a nearly 3-to-1 groundball to flyball ratio. In 2012, he has thrown it for a strike just 55% of the time, gotten swings and misses just 13.28% of  the time, and managed just a 1.33-to-1 groundball to flyball ratio? Why is that? You could say that the movement on his curveball in 2009 was sharper and every bit of velocity counts and probably be right. But the other factor was actually the additional movement itself. Too much movement isn’t a good thing as it makes it very hard to have consistent control and command. Howell is too often hanging his curveball and at other times he has been trying to locate it down in the zone for a strike but because of the newfound movement, he has missed too low. Another thing is that the movement on Howell’s curveball has changed. In 2009, it was close to 12-to-6 (straight down) with a little 11-to-5 action. Now it’s more 1-to-7. Howell still is trying to use it like he did previously and because of the different movement in addition to all the other factors, he’s missing more than he normally would.

Howell has never been able to get a ton of swings-and-misses on his fastball. It looks like Howell’s fastball may be better than it was in 2009 and in some ways, that appears to be the case. His whiff rate has gone up from 2.6% to a still-low 3.6% and he has thrown it for a strike 69% of the time as opposed to 62%. Howell’s groundball-to-flyball ratio on his fastball has remained about the same, going down to 1.66 to 1 in 2012 compared to 1.76 to 1 in 2009. But the increased overall effectiveness at least partially stems from the fact that Howell has thrown it just 41% of the time in 2012 compared to 47% in 2009. Howell’s fastball is not a great pitch, but you still can’t hang a fastball. The fact that Howell has thrown his fastball less has left his other pitches more exposed.

Howell’s changeup should have increased in effectiveness as its movement has increased noticeably and its velocity has actually gone up a little bit. Instead, the opposite effect has occurred. Howell’s whiff rate on his changeup has shot down from 22% to 11%, his strike percentage has gone down from 72% to 62%, and his groundball-to-flyball ratio has fallen from 1.38 to 1 down to 0.8 to 1. All this has happened for a variety of reasons. First off, Howell is throwing his changeup 5% more of the time in 2012, 21% compared to 16%. Also, there is the fact that his fastball and changeup have grown closer in velocity ever so slightly (.4 MPH), which makes a difference. But the big issues are the effect that the increased movement has had on his command and control and that Howell has lost his release point a little bit on his changeup. If you look carefully, you can see that the (green) line for the changeup in the 2012 graph starts a little bit lower than the (purple) line for the fastball, tipping the pitch slightly, which certainly doesn’t do Howell any favors.

Howell’s overall ineffectiveness on his pitches is the conflux of several small factors at the wrong time. But there’s also another underlying factor that may be the reason for the most concern. Here are a couple videos of Howell from MLB.com, the first from 2009 and the second from 2012.

If you watch the two videos carefully (skip to 0:22 in the first video to see Howell face a lefty like he does in the second video), you see that the way he delivers the ball has changed significantly. His arm slot remains about the same, maybe going down towards sidearms slightly, but the big difference is the angle which he delivers to home plate. In 2009, Howell featured more of a crossfire in his delivery, adding deception, but in 2012 his delivery is straighter to home plate. The crossfire probably contributed to Howell’s shoulder injury, and it seems like he straightened out his delivery in an effort to stay healthy. The problem is that with Howell’s lack of fastball velocity, his deception was a major factor in his success. With the deception gone, Howell lost a major component of success. Combining that with all his other issues with his arsenal, Howell has been in series trouble since he came off the DL.

Can Howell ever be successful again? Yes, but not to the extent of 2008-2009. He gets nice movement on his pitches and we see tons of situational lefties that throw in just the mid-80’s. If he can adjust to the movement he now gets on his pitches and maybe get his old velocity back on his curveball, he has the ability to be a perfectly fine situational lefty. It’s unfortunate what has happened to Howell with the shoulder surgery and his struggles right now. But he still has promise as a middle reliever and we will have to see if he can make the necessary adjustments to get his career back on track.