JP Howell is my team MVP. Some may find this strange, some may disagree, and some may think I'm crazy. Why is JP Howell the MVP? Why is a middle reliever with 3 saves and 2 blown saves the MVP? Because, in my opinion, he was one of the 2 or 3 players that added the most wins to this team while embodying the biggest part of the team metamorphosis from 67 game winner to 97 game winner.
In 2007, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays had the worst bullpen in baseball. Baseball Prospectus even went as far to say that the bullpen cost the team 10 wins. 10 wins! They claimed it was the worst bullpen in their entire database (since 1959), and no other team came within 15 runs of that abomination (link). A league average bullpen, in theory, would have made the Devil Rays a 77 win team in 2007.
This year, however, was another story. The bullpen, anchored by Howell and Balfour, was probably the best in baseball. The Rays bullpen had the highest WPA of any team (9.30). In ERA and WHIP (granted these are not great measures of a bullpen) they finished 5th and second, respectively. The bullpen had the highest WXRL of any team in baseball. Different statistics give you different results, but I would take the bullpen with the highest WPA any day of the week.
Back to JP. I contend that JP Howell had the biggest effect on the bullpen's growth from worst (ever) to first and, in turn, the team's same turnaround. He had the highest WPA of any pitcher on the team (3.33), he was number one among non-closers in the AL in WPA, he led the bullpen in innings pitched, he led the bullpen in strike-outs, he was second in tRA (3.68), and he was third in appearances.
JP Howell was Maddon's go to guy at out of the bullpen. He could come in to face the tough lefty or to get four or even six outs in high-intensity situations. He embodied the bullpen by committee that worked so well for this team. Why was JP so much more successful than previous years as a starter?
Coming out of the bullpen allowed Howell to leave it all on the mound. His fastball jumped from 82-83 MPH on average to 86-87 on average. His slider, changeup, and cutter added a few ticks on the radar gun as well. He started to throw more curveballs (from 17% of the time last year to 25%) and sliders (from 5.9% to 11.6%) sacrificing his changeup (from 23% to 12%). This change in approach is probably due mainly to his facing more lefties than ever, but also somewhat his "devil may care" approach out of the bullpen.
As a result of his increased velocity and change in approach, JP got more swinging strikes than ever (from around 20% to 26% this year). This increased his K/9 to a career high of 9.27 from 6.69, 7.02, and 8.65 in his previous stints in the bigs. His HR/9 also dipped down to .60, which was a considerable drop from his 1.41 from last year. While his walk rate was right around his career norms, it hurts a lot less to walk people out of the bullpen than it does as a starter.
JP Howell was great this year. He was the second best pitcher in our bullpen. He pitched 89 1/3 innings in what was primarily crunch time. He added more to the effort to win games than anyone on the team, but Carlos Pena. All of these things contributed greatly to the Rays historic turnaround. All of these things exhibited the historic turnaround in the bullpen. In my opinion, all of these things made him the most valuable player to the Rays success this year. Not to mention the fact that he seems like the coolest dude on the team.
JP, this bud's for you!