2013 in brief: Solid reliever out of the pen. Death on lefties and reasonably effective against righties.
2014 status: Signed for two years and $11.25 million with a 2016 vesting option for $6.25 million.
Everyone thank Lobo for pitching in with a great job on reviewing Howell. Thanks, Lobo!
Unlike most of the relievers signed by Ned Colletti last offseason, the general reaction to J.P. Howell‘s signing was not so much “Why did Colletti overpay another reliever?” as it was “Well damn, guess that means Paco’s going to Albuquerque.”
The reason? Well mainly because in a market where Randy Choate got a three year deal from St. Louis, Howell’s one year contract at just $2.85 million seemed totally reasonable. But more than that, Howell was a guy who filled a serious need in the Dodger bullpen. With Scott Elbert exhibiting reverse splits (and not throwing a single pitch for the 2013 Dodgers) and Paco Rodriguez being effective but unproven, the team was in dire need of an effective LOOGY. And given that lefties hit just .200/.306/.306 against Howell in 2012, he seemed like a good fit.
Howell ended up getting into 67 games for the Dodgers and was, well, quite good. I know that 0.7 WAR doesn’t seem like much, but only 60 relievers in baseball put up more (and only one Dodger, the otherworldly Kenley Jansen). Oh, he also got a two game suspension for throwing Arizona coach Turner Ward over the dugout railing, but no biggie. In the playoffs he was also effective, with his lone blemish being a solo home run given up to Shane Robinson in Game 4 of the NLCS.
What was great about Howell’s season was that he was that he didn’t pitch like a true LOOGY. In roughly the same number of plate appearances, Howell held lefties to a .161/.225/.227 TSL and righties to a line of .218/.312/.296. For a guy we expected to simply be a straight LOOGY that was a pleasant surprise, and a welcome turnaround from his 2012 when righties hit .242/.340/.456 with 5 homers against him.
Which brings me to the main reason for Howell’s improved performance in 2013, his drastic decrease in HR rate. In 2011 and 2012 combined, J.P. gave up 12 home runs in 81.0 innings, 9 of those coming against right handed hitters, good for a 19.2% HR/FB rate in 2011 and a 17.1% rate in 2012. Meanwhile, in 2013 Howell gave up just 2 longballs in 62 innings, one apiece to righties and lefties, bringing his HR/FB % all the way down to 4.3. So what caused this dramatic decrease in HR rate? Let’s take a look.
The first thing to note here is a slight drop in Howell’s overall FB%, from 31.3% in 2012 to 27.7% in 2013. But that 2013 rate was only slightly less than his 2011 rate of 28.6%, despite giving less than half as many homers in 2013 in double the innings pitched. So his FB rate doesn’t seem to be the likely cause.
So what about the parks? Well Dodger Stadium and Tropicana Field appear roughly equal in their affect on home runs, so I doubt that was the culprit either.
Level of competition? The AL East is known as an offensive juggernaut after all. I’m going to learn towards “no” on this one, as most of Howell’s home runs given up in 2011 and 2012 were to lesser players. Of the 12 home runs he gave up in 2011 and 2012, just 4 were given up to guys who could be considered true home run threats (Matt Wieters, Chris Davis, Jose Bautista, and Edwin Encarnacion), with the rest given up to players with middling or non-existent power.
Was he just giving up longer fly balls? Well it’s kind of hard to tell for sure, but looking at the Fangraphs Interactive Spray Chart Tool, it appears that there was no appreciable difference in fly ball distance between Howell’s 2012 and 2013 seasons (there is no data available for the 2011 season). So that’s another possible cause eliminated.
This leaves just one possible explanation, Howell’s sinker. According to Brooks Baseball, Howell used his sinker 42.94% of the time in 2011 and 2012, compared to 58.55% in 2013. On top of that, he increased the velocity on his sinker from 86.82 to 88.05 MPH; in fact, 2013 saw Howell increase the velocity on all of his pitches.
Coupled with the slight decrease in his walk rate, it appears Howell managed to both up his velocity AND improve his control this year, a surefire recipe for success. Furthermore, the sinker is, of course, known as a groundball pitch, so his increased usage of the pitch is a great sign that 2013 results were a result of more than just luck.
So now the question is, can he keep this up? Well, in my opinion at least, the answer is most certainly yes. I was surprised to find out that Howell will only be 31 in April, so there’s a good reason to believe that he can keep up that velocity in 2014 and 2015. And at just about 5.5 million for the next two years, Howell looks to be a solid bullpen arm for at least the length of his new contract.
There’s certainly more evidence that he’ll be effective than there was with League last offseason. And with Rodriguez fading badly down the stretch (to the point of being left off the NLCS roster entirely), a quality lefty arm like Howell is sure to be a valuable addition to the 2014 club. Looks like there’s at least one Amish man who’s keeping up with the times.