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Dude, Where's Your Control? What's Up with J.P. Howell

Cheetos for Strikesouts?(Photo By Dennis Adair)
Cheetos for Strikesouts?(Photo By Dennis Adair)

Stop me if you've heard this one before. There is a left-handed pitcher on the Rays staff struggling who has been struggling with his control lately. He's lost a tick of velocity and he's basically all but scrapped his slider. Sound familiar? Of course it does, but in this case we are not talking about Scott Kazmir. "The Dude" has lost his control and his slider as well. Coming into 2009, J.P. Howell has averaged about 11% sliders per appearance. That percentage is down to 0.6% in 2009. Is it a precursor to injury? Is it a loss of "feel"? Mechanics? We just don't know, but lately we do know the dude has been less duderific.

After his first nine appearances, Howell had allowed just two earned runs in 8.1 innings. He had 11 strikeouts and just one walk. He was throwing 65% of his pitches for strikes and 12% of them were swinging strikes. Opponents were hitting just .233/.273/.333 against him He had allowed just seven hits and no home runs. Things were cool. Then came April 28th and things became uncool.

After Ben Zobrist tied the game in the top of the ninth off Joe Nathan, the Rays replaced Troy Percival with J.P. Howell. Normally this would be a good thing, but not so much this night. Howell would allow a single, sac-bunt, single, wild pitch, walk and a walk off fielder's choice to end the game. He struggled with his control as only 55% of his pitches were strikes. Most notably he threw no sliders in 20 pitches.

Howell's next appearance would come against the Red Sox and while he didn't allow a run in his inning of work, he walked two batters and allowed a hit while striking out one. 23 pitches, but only eight for strikes; a very undude like 35% strikes. Just two days later he would appear against the Sox again and allow two hits including a two run home run to Kevin Youkilis which shrunk the Rays lead from 4-1 to 4-3. Just to show you how some stats are meaning less, Howell "earned" a hold for that.

Last night we all saw what happen; another walk and another big hit off of Howell, however the elements didn't help his cause. So what's wrong with J.P?  Over those four appearances Howell has thrown 62 pitches. Only 50% of them have dropped for strikes and only two of them have been sliders. After an 11:1 K/BB ratio in his first nine games, he has four walks and just one punch-out in his last four. He is also struggling with the lefty/lefty match-up. Please remember we are dealing with small sample sizes all around here, but Howell has an OPS against of .776 against righties and a whopping OPS against of 1.283 against lefties. Not quite what you would expect from the duder.

Looking at the difference over seasons, Howell has lost about a mile and a half of velocity on his already soft fastball from 2008 to 2009. Instead of living around 86-87 mph, he was been in the 84-85 range. The decrease in velocity is across the board for Howell as his disappearing slider has dropped from 81 mph down to 79.

Overall, it seems more of a rough patch for J.P. than something to be overly concerned with. He has ridiculously high BABIP of .412 which his nearly 100 points above his career mark yet he's getting 55% ground balls. We haven't seen that sort of bad luck since Shawn Camp was on the mound and Josh Wilson was his short stop. While his K's have slowed down recently, he is still over 10 K's per nine innings and his K/BB rate is still 2.40. I am a little concerned about the lack of velocity, and his slider usage does bring up some Kazmir-like red flags, but so far we have not heard of any soreness or pain in his elbow. Really, I think we are just seeing a case of regression mixed with a bit of bad luck.

Everyone needs to chill out with the Dude.