J.P. Howell may have been relatively forgotten around the league after sitting out the 2010 season due to labrum surgery. The Rays, however, haven’t forgotten Howell’s recent contributions to their organization. The lefty threw nearly 90 innings for the AL East champion 2008 team while posting a 2.22 ERA and 3.39 FIP, becoming an elite relief ace for a team making the jump from worst to first. He took a slight step back in 2009, although his 2.84 ERA and 3.71 FIP are still top-flight for any bullpen. The Rays and Howell agreed to a $1.1 million dollar contract on Monday. As Howell only has 4 years and 7 days of service time, he will be under team control for the 2012 season as well.
Howell is not the typical left handed reliever at all. Despite lacking velocity – his fastball only averages 85-86 MPH – Howell still racks up the strikeouts, averaging 8.6 K/9 for his career and nearly 10 K/9 since the Rays exorcised the Devil from their name. He also racks up the grounders, keeping the ball out of the air on 50.5% of contact in his career.
Those numbers are solid, but more often than not, stellar lefty relief numbers are the product of massive platoon splits and proper leveraging by the manager. That is not the case for Howell, who faced nearly twice as many righties as lefties from 2008-2009. Against lefties, Howell has career triple slashes of .245/.336/.391 and .255/.336/.372 against righties and lefties respectively. As we would expect given his career path, these numbers have been largely better over the last two seasons.
The difference with Howell is that, unlike many lefty relievers, Howell releases the ball nearly straight over the top, instead of at a three-quarters, sidearm, or submarine arm slot. Check out Howell’s release points from his most recent game:
Compare this to Howell’s former teammate and recent retiree, Brian Shouse, one of the most successful LOOGYs of recent times:
This versatility only adds to Howell’s usefulness. Since he is equally useful against batters of both hands, this allows Joe Maddon more flexibility with playing matchups. He doesn’t have to worry about his bullpen becoming unreasonably thin when he comes across a left-right-left stretch of batters, and, because Howell doesn’t have to be pulled when facing a righty, more innings can be given to a good reliever.
There will, of course, be some uncertainty around Howell given the amount of time he missed and the severity of his injury. However, given his ability, $1.1 million isn’t much of a premium to pay for both Howell’s 2011 and the right to keep him around for 2012. Although he won’t completely replace the production of Rafael Soriano, one of last year’s elite closer, the re-addition of Howell to the Rays bullpen at least softens the blow.