2012 Season Previews: J.P. Howell & The Return Of The Dude

March 25, 2012; Port Charlotte, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays relief pitcher J.P. Howell (39) walks back to the dugout after he pitched during their spring training game against the Miami Marlins at Charlotte Sports Park. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

In 2004 J.P. Howell was the Pitcher of the Year at the University of Texas and had the 4th highest single season strikeout total in UT baseball history with 186 punch outs. A single season total which was higher then fellow alumni Roger Clemens whose highest single season total was 151. Later that summer Howell was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in the 1st round (#31 overall) of the amateur draft. The 2004 UT baseball team can boast of having 11 members drafted - a list which includes current major leaguer players Sam LeCure, Huston Street, Drew Stubbs, and Taylor Teagarden.

After signing with the Royals he reported to their Rookie League affiliate Idaho Falls and made 6 appearances (4 starts) compiling a record of 3-1 with a 2.77 ERA. The Royals quickly pushed him through the minors and made his major league debut in June. With the Royals he made 15 starts (72.2) and went 3-5 with a 6.19 ERA and with the minor league affiliates he made 18 starts (101.2 innings) and went 8-2 with a 2.83 ERA.

On June 20, 2006 the Royals dealt him to the Rays for outfielder Joey Gathright. The Rays assigned him to AAA Durham where he made 10 starts and compiled a record of 5-3 with a 2.62 ERA. He came up to the Rays in August and September and made 8 starts and went 1-3 with a 5.10 ERA.

Howell started the 2007 season with the Bulls and made several trips up to the Rays during the season but was unable to find success. Although he was able to be an effective starter in Durham going 7-8 with a 3.38 ERA he wasn't able to get that success to translate at the big league level. He struggled with the Rays going 1-6 with a 6.59 ERA.

Entering spring training of 2008 the Rays had Scott Kazmir, James Shields, and Matt Garza holding down three rotation spots and Andy Sonnanstine, Edwin Jackson, Jason Hammel, and Howell fighting for the other two spots. Joe Maddon went with Sonnanstine and Jackson to fill the final two rotation spots but rather than send Howell back to the minors he decided to keep him as the second lefty in the bullpen. It marked the first time in his career that he made an opening day roster.

The move paid off for J.P. and the Rays as he worked in 64 games and tied all major league relievers with 89.1 innings pitched, led all relievers in preventing inherited runs from scoring at 11.6%, and led all relief pitchers with strikeouts with 92. He finished the season with a record of 6-1 and an ERA of 2.22.

The good vibes kept coming for him in 2009. After Troy Percival was placed on the disabled list in May he moved into the closers role and saved 17 of 25 games and finished the season with a career best 69 appearances. Overall he went 7-5 with a 2.84 ERA and his 7 wins set a team record for wins by a reliever.

From 2008 through the end of 2009 he led all major league relievers with 13 wins and led all left handed relievers with 171 strikeouts, 156 innings pitched, and a .195 batting average against. Everything was going right or him following the 2009 season. He got married and went on an exciting honeymoon in Bora Bora and signed a 1.8 million dollar contract.

Things began to unravel after he reported to spring training in 2010 and experienced stiffness in his left shoulder and was sent to team orthopedic surgeon Dr. Koco Eaton. The prescription at the time was rest and therapy which meant he'd start the year on the disabled list. The Rays charted the course and he passed each test along the way and both J.P. and the Rays were encouraged that he'd soon return to the bullpen but on May 17th he walked off the mound after 12 pitches of a simulated game and immediately traveled to Birmingham, Alabama. The next day Dr James Andrews performed shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum.

On May 20, 2011, 685 days after his last appearance in the majors he stepped on the mound and worked a scoreless inning against the Florida Marlins. In many respects this would be the high point for his season. The rest of the 2011 season was a mental and physical battle for him.

The frustration could be seen after he lost his cool against the St. Louis Cardinals and was ejected for the first time in his career.

On August 13, 2011 the Rays were trying to chase down the Red Sox and were playing a crucial series against the Orioles. With the scored tied at 2-2 in the 8th inning he surrendered a game winning home run to Orioles catcher Matt Weiters and dropped to one knee in despair.

Howell finished the year with a record of 2-3 with a 6.16 ERA. His K% of 18.8%, his BB% o 13.0%, and his HR/FB% of 19.2% were all career highs. Prior to spring training he was interviewed by Bill Chastain and discussed the trials and tribulations of the 2011 season. In his own words he said:

"It's what I think. If I'm not working hard, that's when I have a problem personally, because I put more pressure on myself than the fans. I expect way more of me than probably the fans expect. So I have to pretty much shut off the positive and the negative."

He also found a way to put a positive spin on his overall body of work in 2011:

"I pretty much look at this way," Howell said. "To start the year, I had about two innings and an 18.00 ERA. By the time my ERA was at the lowest was at the very end. My last outing, my ERA was the lowest it had been all year. So when you look at that, there was a lot of progress, if you compare the beginning to the end.

Now that he has had an offseason of conditioning and spring training is nearing an end he sat down with Joe Smith and discussed the improvements between this spring and the 2011 season. Joe Maddon noted that a key to JP's performance can be tied to confidence. He says Howell had to work on getting his confidence back in the right direction, and when he does that you'll see him pitch effectively."

Howell says he feels much better this year and has a full arsenal of weapons. Again, in his own words:

"Last year was like shooting a gun without a scope," Howell said. "The ball was coming out of my hand, and I had no idea where it was going. It was like, I couldn't set anything up. This year, I feel like an actual pitcher, where I used to be.

"It's a whole new vibe. I have some weapons to fight with. Last year, it was truly unfair. Last year, it was an uneven playing field, like a hitter going up there with half the bat."

A healthy, confident, and effective J.P. Howell gives Joe Maddon an additional weapon in his bullpen. What improvements do we need to see from J.P. Howell in 2012?

  • Increase swinging strike% back above 10.0%. In 2008 it was 10.1% and in 2009 it was 12% but decreased to 7.8% in 2011.
  • Increase in K% back above 20%. In 2008 it was 24.9% and in 2009 it was 28.4% but decreased to 18.8% in 2011.
  • Decrease his BB% back to around 10%. In 2008 it was 10.5% and in 2009 it was 11.9% but increased to 13% in 2011.
  • Keep the ball in the park and get the HR/9 rate back to below 1.0. In 2008 his HR/9 rate was 0.60 and in 2009 it was 0.95 but increased to 1.47 in 2011.
  • Walking batters and surrendering home runs is often a leading indicator of poor LOB%. In 2008 his LOB% was 78.7% and in 2009 it was 83.3% but in 2011 it was 60.5%
  • Another driving force of poor LOB% may be home runs allowed. As shown above Howell's HR/9 rate spiked in 2011 as did his HR/FB%. In 2008 it was 9%, in 2009 it was 12.7% but in 2011 it jumped to 19.2%.
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