On June 13th, J.P. Howell came in for some late mop-up work in a blowout loss to the Mets and gave up two more runs on three hits in one inning of work. That appearance was the third straight appearance that Howell had allowed a run and was the sixth time he had allowed at least one earned run in his last 10 appearances. The reactionary comments during and after the game were not kind to Howell and one writer even labeled him the opposition's victory cigar.
At that point, he had allowed 28 batters to reach base in 19 innings of work, had surrendered four home runs which inflated his ERA to 6.16 and gave him a cumulative WPA of -.104. Since that outing, it has been rather chilly as Howell has come in and chilled a lot of situations on his way to spinning nearly 23 consecutive scoreless innings. The most impressive thing is Howell has not done that much different before and during this streak he is on.
After that outing on June 13th, Joe Maddon told MLB.com's Greg Zeck that he still had confidence in the lefty, and even said Howell had pitched well in the appearance. Maddon closed his thoughts with:
"There's that good baseball luck, and there's that bad baseball luck. It just happens. Whether somebody wants to agree to that or not, that's fine, I just know it to be true. He experienced bad baseball luck last night, and he's just got to move on with it."
Howell has indeed moved on as he made the runs allowed in that game the last ones he has allowed in the 2012 season. While the starting staff and others in the bullpen garnered more attention, Howell quietly plugged away at redesigning his season and the results over the last six to seven weeks are reminiscent of his work before his injury in late 2009.
Howell has faced 165 batters this season; 83 came before the streak started. Here are how his numbers break down before the streak started as well as during the streak.
Howell's percentage of pitches thrown for called strikes as well as strikes swung at by hitters has remained constant this entire season yet the batted ball outcomes have dramatically changed. He halved his line drive rate while eliminating the home runs. He has walked just as many hitters during the streak as he did before it started, but he has allowed ten fewer balls in play.
These are Howell's pitch outcomes and pitch types for 2012 broken down in the same manner:
Finally, we see a difference for Howell. He is generating a higher groundball rate as he is using more of his two-seam fastball and his curveball compared to the first half when he used his change-up more frequently. Per TexasLeaguers, his average fastball velocity prior to his streak was just 85.1mph but that has jumped a bit to 86.2 during his streak.
His velocity is a tad up, and he has changed his pitch mixture a bit these days, but the frequency in which he throws strikes and the types of strikes he throws remain unchanged. Yet, Howell's pitch outcomes these days are some of the best he has seen in his time with the Tampa Bay Rays. Even his pitch f/x charts are rather tough to discern from pre-streak and streak runs.
Maybe Maddon was right; Howell was experiencing bad luck. What is clear is that Howell has definitely moved on from it and has been an integral part of the bullpen's success this summer.