J.P. Howell and the Great Soft-Tossing Reliever

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there was a great man named… OK, this may not be story hour, but at once upon a time, being called a soft-tosser in the MLB was a lot like being Cinderella, minus the happy ending. Every once in a while a low-velocity pitcher would rise through the minor league ranks like the Little Engine That Could, chugging their way through the minors with guile, accuracy, and a lot of hard work. Few completed the journey.


But that was then. A lot has changed in the MLB in recent years. Groundball specialists have become quite the growing fad in baseball. Where Chad Bradford once stood alone, now every team seems to want their own double-play specialist. With so much downward break on the baseball, batters consistently swing over the top of the pitch and bury it into the ground. Who imagine a better situational reliever than one who can induce a doubleplay? Even if they cannot accrue Ks, two outs is always better than one. Who wouldn’t want to see Cla Meredith or Brad Ziegler enter from the bullpen with a runner on first? At least you know they won’t give up a homerun.


The relief pitcher is a curious animal. They come in all shapes and sizes: Jon Broxton at 800 lbs, Juan Cruz weighing slightly more than Calista Flockhart. They can have great command or walk the ballpark. They can make a career throwing one pitch, as long as its a cutter. They seem to be the only pitchers that can defy the Laws of Voros McCracken and post substantially low BABIPs. Just check out Troy Percival if you need an example.


Further making relievers the strangest players in the clubhouse (aside from their rituals) is that low velocities don’t doom them to failure. In fact, the bullpen is a prime destination for a soft-tossing pitcher who can’t cut it as a starter. Since deception is be among the most important aspects of the hitter-pitcher interaction, a soft-tosser could have a slight deceptive advantage, especially when following a starter who brings the heat. When a reliever enters the game, the opposing batters have usually seen the starter for about three plate appearances. Therefore, they have adjusted their approach and internal timing to a pitcher who throws harder than our subject. Therefore, if a pitcher like J.P. Howell comes in, the velocity of his fastball could be different enough from the previous starter that he can take advantage of a slight timing difference.


Howell has been among the best relievers in the majors for the past two seasons, after looking dead in the water as a starter for Kansas City. The problem was never his breaking stuff, which is excellent. Instead, it was his fastball, which was tattooed while he was a starter. In three seasons  as a starter from 2005-2007, Howell showed consistently poor fastball effectiveness (wFB/C: 2005: -0.91, 2006: -0.25, 2007: -1.96). This trend was immediately bucked in his 2008 transition to the bullpen, when he posted his first positive wFB/C values, of 0.60 in 2008 and 1.00 in 2009. Howell’s fastball all of a sudden became a good pitch – all 86 mph of it.


While sample size may be an issue, Rich Hill comes to mind as a player who may be having a problem similar to Howell’s, and could benefit from a switch to the bullpen. Hill’s 2009 has been marked by some polarizing performances. Hill’s fastball has been hammered this season, but so have all his pitches. More interesting, however, is Hill’s splits based on the number of times he’s seen a batter in a game. In his first time through the order, he has been great, ostensibly because the hitters don’t see stuff like his often; having trouble timing such a slow fastball and an onslaught of breaking pitches. In this first turn, opponents have hit .204/.347/.316.  However, he has been annihilated in his second time through the order (.384/.460/.674), and continues to get pounded in the rare outings when he sees a third rotation (.333/.400/.511). While some of this is due to a BABIP mirage, not all pitches are created equal. Is it possible that batters have adjusted to his low velocity and have reset their timing? 


Howell may have suffered a similar fate as a starter for Kansas City and for a while with Tampa. Lending evidence to this theory is a similar progression during Howell’s first stint in the majors in 2005. In his first time through the order, batters hit .234/.358/.324. In the second turn, they hit .245/.344/.462, followed by a .350/.409/.567 line. But, again, there are sample size and BABIP issues here, but recent research has shown that BABIP has limits, and this could be one of them. However, it must be noted that these extreme splits were not seen in Howell’s 2007 season, and it is certainly possible that these are the exceptions. Either way, these are logical conclusions that will add to our understanding of soft-tossers and, perhaps more importantly, the idea of a selection bias in sabermetric analysis. For those readers who need some perspective, the league average of slash stats through the order are as follows: 1st time: .254/.329/.405, .293 BABIP; 2nd time: .271/.333/.431, .302 BABIP; 3rd time: .282/.345/.459, .306 BABIP.


But back to Rich Hill for a moment. If Baltimore is to make a run at a playoff spot in the next couple of years, they need to put together a bullpen. It looks like they could have a nice reliever in their back pocket right now. I mean, he used to be good. Maybe a transition to the bullpen could help him recapture his old form.


While the idea of velocity contrast demands more investigation before a definitive conclusion can be made, if one lesson can be pulled from this analysis, it is that low-velocity pitchers can be incredibly valuable in relief roles. Further, any team can draft any number of soft-tossing pitchers in the draft at minimal cost. Teams with this approach, assuming the player has the right combination of secondary stuff and command can make a killing drafting relievers at below market value and having a stockpile of relievers in their minor leagues. You can never have too many relievers, and there will never be a shortage of soft-tossers. That seems like a match made in Heaven to me. 


Thanks to Fangraphs.com  and Baseball-Reference.com for their contributions to this article.

Mike Silver recently completed his requirements for the Sport Management Major at THE University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where he is a brother of Theta Chapter of Theta Chi Fraternity, the best house in the country. He is a huge Red Sox and Bruins fan, and longs for the days of the REAL Boston Garden, Cam Neely, and the ultimate Dirt Dog Trot Nixon. If you have any questions, you can reach him at mjasilver@gmail.com. Have a good night readers, and know that Mike hopes to hear from you soon. If you quote Mike in an article, please let him know. He’d love to hear it.



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