J. P. Howell is struggling, and while I will never understand the impulse to DFA a likeable, 28 year old former relief ace 17.2 innings into his first season back from an injury that cost him two full seasons, the frustration many Rays fans feel is understandable. Yes, his mechanics have changed a bit, and yes his command is off, and yes, maybe his head isn’t right (would yours be?), but a closer look at Howell’s misfortunes this year reassures me that he’s still a viable major league pitcher. All stats are from Fangraphs.
Howell’s 9.17 ERA (4.58 xFIP) has been the product of a slightly lowered K/9 at 8.15 and a much risen BB/9 at 6.62, as compared to his successful 2008 and 2009 seasons. A look at the pitch type linear weights for Howell, which look at what happens every time a certain type of pitch is thrown, shows that while his breaking ball still checks in as a positive pitch, both his fastball and changeup are providing negative value.
So, has Howell’s stuff changed?
Note: The big jump in horizontal movement on Howell’s changeup from 2008-2009 corresponds with a significant improvement in the value of the pitch.
Yes, Howell’s stuff is different. While the velocity and horizontal movement have remained constant, there is a lot less rise on both the fastball and the changeup. There are of course some pitch classification issues affecting these numbers, but for the fastball, I think they’re making the difference in vertical movement appear smaller than it actually is.
Now, I can’t say if the drop in vertical movement means that the pitches are more hittable, less deceptive, or if Howell just doesn’t have a feel for them yet. I don’t know if Howell will get that rise back, or if he’ll figure out how to use the pitches as they stand (that horizontal movement is still on the top end of the spectrum among MLB pitchers). All I’m confident in saying is that his fastball and changeup are not plus (or even average) pitches right now. And as you might expect from someone with a good breaking ball but a show me fastball and changeup, Howell has struggled with opposite handed batters. His splits are striking
It’s pretty clear that we don’t have the J.P. we knew and loved in 2008 and 2009. He’s not a shutdown reliever capable of getting batters of both handedness out, but amidst his obvious recent failings, he’s posted the numbers of an elite LOOGY. If we DFA Howell, some smart contending team will weigh his past success and his current value has a left handed specialist and pick him up. And really, there’s no need for us to replace him now. Cesar Ramos hasn’t been effective against either handed batter leaving the LOOGY spot in the bullpen quite open. There’s a place for Howell on the Rays both now and in the future, whether or not he regains his old form. Maddon just needs to (quickly) realize and accept what that place currently is and limit Howell to facing high leverage lefties for as long as the Rays remain in contention.