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Howell Out, Wheeler In?

J.P. Howell is out for the rest of the year, Tampa Bay beat writer Marc Lancaster announced on Twitter late Friday night. The rationale he cited was that Howell has been pushed, innings-wise, the last couple of years and there’s no reason to push him now that the Rays are officially out of the hunt.

Of course, it’s probably not the 66+ innings he’s put up this year that would have anyone worried, it’s the 89+ innings he put up last year that would be troublesome for a reliever. But it would make sense to take a look at Howell’s year to reflect on the creation of a closer.

Coming into the year, he had shown that he could strike people out (9.27 K/9 in 2008) and that he sometimes had trouble corralling his stuff (4+ BB/9 career). He’s not your typical closer, as his fastball tops out at 86 MPH, and he only uses it around half the time. No, he makes his bread and butter with his curveball, which he throws the second-most in baseball among relievers (36.6%). Throwing a curveball around a third of the time is very Jeremy Affeldt-like, but hey, it’s worked for both of them.

Because of Howell’s unconventional arsenal, the Rays may have been forgiven for thinking that it would instead be fireballing Grant Balfour that would step to the fore to take the job this year. Yes, Troy Percival was the closer in name, but it didn’t seem likely that the forty-year-old would make it through the year. Despite his mid-90s gas, Balfour was already out of the question by the time Percival proved unable to contribute. After a 2008 that saw him pair huge strikeouts (12.65 K/9) with a passable walk total (3.7 BB/9), Balfour dropped off on both accounts this year (9.19 K/9 and 4.59 BB/9) and has had an ERA over five all year.

There was Howell, lying in the weeds. Though his control has been a problem all year (4.46 BB/9), as well as more recently, as David pointed out in the closer report this week, Howell’s performance was the steadiest at the time of Percival’s demise, and he was awarded the title of Closer.

It seems that opportunity and timing are the most important ingredients to creating a closer. Earlier in the season, Dan Wheeler didn’t seem like a good candidate because he was being knocked around the park a little (8.59 ERA in April), but the Rays’ steadiest reliever smoothed out the wrinkles and put in another classic season so far (though perhaps again benefiting from the luck of the bounce with his .203 BABIP over the past two years). He’s whittled his walk rate to the lowest in his career (1.47 BB/9) and is getting people out again despite the ugly FIP. Considering how steady he’s been in Tampa, you might argue that he should have been the closer all along, but with a K/9 under seven over the past two years, you can forgive management for looking for better strikeout totals from their closer.

At least now it seems that Wheeler is the nominal closer for the final two weeks. Whether he’ll ever get the title officially in his career is debatable. But put him on the right team at the right time and he could, as we’ve learned from Howell.