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Thoughts on J.P. Howell, Fatigue and Closer's Mentality

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We all know J.P. Howell had a rough ending to the season. After freezing batters for the better part of four months, Howell's mastery of opposing hitters went by the wayside over the final two frames of the season. Using Erik's conventional wisdom, most of us are willing to chalk up the blip to fatigue after throwing the most relief innings of any non-starter over the past two seasons.

Thanks to the multiple public pitch f/x databases available, it's pretty easy to check if fatigue played a role in Howell's rapid summer swoon. After allowing just two home runs over the first ~50 innings of the 2009 campaign, Howell surrendered five big flys in just 12 innings during the month of August. The overall 0.95 HR/9 for the season is exactly in line with his career total, but the long ball picked an awful time to regress it's ugly head. Most of Howell's home runs during the month were in crutial situations adding propane to the "this guy doesn't have a closer mentality" fire. However, after consulting the data, fatigue and pitch selection seem more likely than anything else.

From 5/24-7/28/09, J.P. Howell made 28 appearances for the Rays. Howell had just one save at this point and his average pLI was just 1.29. However, during the next 28 appearances he would register 10 of his 17 saves (closer!) and average a closer-esque pLI of 1.88. He allowed exactly three earned runs during the two month period. Oddly enough, he allowed all three in one game (7/12) that did not result in a blown save. His pitch f/x/selection for time time period looks like this...

Pitch Usage% Velocity Whiff%
FF 25.4 86.4 1.9
CU 34.6 81.1 21.2
CH 14.5 79.9 18
FA 14.5 85.5 3.3
SI 5.9 85.2 12
SL 5.2 82.4 27.3
 

Outside of some classification issues, Howell's main three pitches: fastball, curveball, change-up comprise the bulk of his arsenal. His curve-ball is fantastic and his change-up is pretty nifty as well. His fastball is a necessity to set up the other two, but barely fools anybody.

Flash-forward to August and September and you'll see some slight changes. From August through then end of his season (September 22nd), Howell made 20 appearances with a pLI of 1.90. Slightly less appearances than the first set of data, but very similar pLI. During those final 20 outings, he allowed 11 earned run with quite a few of them coming on those back breaking home runs. Here is the pitch fx/selection for this time frame...

Pitch

Usage%

Velocity

Whiff%

FF

30.4

84.9

2.1

CU

26.2

80.5

17.3

CH

25.9

79.7

20

FA

10

85.8

6.5

SI

3.9

83.8

0

SL

3.6

81.2

9.1

Of course note the small sample sizes, but Howell became more reliant on his fastball and change-up while sacrificing some curveballs. It's no secret that J.P. isn't exactly bringing the heat out there so deception is paramount. When things were going good, Howell had 6.5 miles of separation from fastball to change-up and 5.3 miles fastball to curveball. During the bad period, the fastball was just 5.2 miles above the change-up and 4.4 away from the curve. It may not seem like a lot, but to a "crafty lefty" it could make a big difference. His command also got away from his which is another sign of fatigue.

The good news is the Rays were able to shut Howell down on 9/22 instead of 10/27 like 2008. He will also be in camp all spring with the Rays which is something he missed out on last year traveling with Team USA in the WBC. A fully rested Howell along with Rafael Soriano, Grant Balfour and others presents numerous match up problems for the opposing managers.

No, J.P. Howell will not carry the closer's tag in 2010, but it won't be because he can't handle the heat. Fellow first year arbitration eligible reliever, Leo Nunez had a -0.8 WAR last year, and has been exactly replacement level in his career (0.0 WAR), yet he received $2 million dollars yesterday. Howell signed for a base of $1.8 million. Why did Nunez get a bigger pay check? Most likely the 26 saves next to his name.

Maybe we really are better off saying J.P. Howell isn't closer material.