J P Howell and Lance Carter….Odd Rays Closers
The more I see Rays reliever J P Howell pitching and finding success in the late innings, the more I am reminded of another young Rays closer that once threw just like Howell without blinding speed to the plate, but used his pitch selection and deception in pitch speed to make his pitches dance around the plate. And maybe Rays Manager Joe Maddon has taken a page out of the Rays not so distant past and is using past reasonings to again thinking of applying an off-speed pitcher into the closer role.
It has worked before, and with great results. If you have been a Rays fan for some time you might remember Rays reliever Lance Carter and his off-speed arsenal that propelled him to his only All-Star appearance in 2003 when he had 15 saves at the All-Star Break. He did not get to play in that All-Star game at US Cellular Field in the south side of Chicago, but you can bet that experience changed him. Maybe Maddon in all his cerebral wisdom is again coming to the understanding that control and not a 95+ fastball might be the answer right now for the Rays.
It is not like the Rays have a reliever right now thrusting himself to the forefront to take the 9th inning reins and lead the club to wins. When Carter was the Rays closer in 2003, he went 7-5, with a 4.33 ERA. The ERA is kind of high, but the results spoke for themselves. He was involved in 51.6 percent of the Rays wins (62) that season. Even more incredible is his year end total of 25 saves in his rookie season put him in the top 5 rookie performances of all time at that moment. He made over 61 appearances in 2003, which is incredible in its own right. He converted 25 out of 32 save opportunities for the Rays that year. All by a pitcher who used his off-speed stuff to accent his high 80’s fastball.
Carter’s 25 saves shattered the Rays rookie save mark of 5 that was held by Travis Phelps set in 2001. At the time he represented the Rays in the All-Star game, he was the oldest rookies at 28 years, 6 months and 29 days to be selected to play in the classic. Carter ended up back setting up closer Danys Baez in 2004 when the Rays signed the former Cleveland Indians closer. Carter did spend another two years with the club until he was dealt along with Danys Baez to the Los Angeles Dodgers for a young pitcher Edwin Jackson and Chuck Tiffany on January 14, 2006.
In comparison, J P Howell’s climb to the Bullpen came out more of a change of direction for the young pitcher after some trouble starting games for the Rays in 2006 and 2007 hen he made 18 starts for the Rays and went a combined 2-9, but did show promise in getting 82 strikeouts in 93.1 innings of work. So when the Rays came to Spring Training in 2008, his main concern was to learn th fine art of successful relieving to try and save his career. His ERA in 2007 was a high 7.59, but who would have ever thought that the young pitcher would take to relieving with such zeal and success.
In 2008, he appeared in 64 games and finished the year with a 6-1 record and a 2.22 ERA. He also almost threw more innings (89.1) in one season as a reliever than he had in the last two ( 93.1) for the Rays. He also began to set a consistent mark of striking out opponents with his fastball that sinks and tails and sometimes even cuts away from hitters. His fastball, just like Carter’s comes in a lot slower (84-88 mph) than his body makes it look coming out of his left hand.
Combine that with a change-up he often overthrows that is only about 5 mph slower than his fastball, but it dives quickly as it approaches the plate. And his curve ball, also like Carter’s can be the perfect out pitch because if its great last minute break. All three of his fundamental pitches tend to stay below the 90 mph range, and usually sit within the low to mid 80’s at any time. Combine that with a hard breaking and reliable 12-6 breaking curveball and both pitchers tend to look like photo negatives of each other on the mound. It is classic deception pitching at its best.
And who knows maybe Maddon has also asked Howell to view some of Carter’s old game videos to get some confidence and show the young reliever he too can have success with moderate stuff on the mound. Howell has his age as the best advantage here on Carter because he is still the youngest member of the Bullpen and is still learning the art of late inning heroics. But both men have a calm and cool exterior that tends to deflect attention and brings a calming effect on team mate when they throw, which lends itself to great success in the late innings.
But most people remember Howell as the eventual loser in the World Series Game 5 who was actually sick as a dog on the mound, but wanted the ball. And there is that second characteristic that tends to bond both of them as mirror image relievers. With the game on the line, both pitchers want the ball to give their team a chance at a win, and secure the victory. That kind of confidence or cockiness can not be taught, or even duplicated. Either you have that inside you or you do not…period.
Howell might have had a 2008 that defies most logical answers. At the time he was the only Rays reliever on the staff under 30 years old. But he quickly did not let his young age keep him off the mound for the Rays. He only got 3 saves in 2008, but in his last save of the year, he went 2.1 innings to preserve the win for the Rays. His 89.1 innings lead all MLB relievers, and his 92 strikeouts was also a MLB high for relievers in 2008. Even as he was learning the craft of relieving, he lead all MLB reliever also in only letting 11.8 percent of his inherited runners to score in the game.
And he only turned it on more for September as he owned a 0.00 ERA for the month spanning 15 innings. Howell also broke the Rays club record with his 89.1 innings previously held by Doug Creek ( 62.2 innings). Both left-handers (.188) and right-handers (.197) hit under .200 against him in 2008. Howell was developing into a severe late inning weapon for the Rays as they headed to the 2008 playoffs.
But Howell’s solid start to this year also shows that the things he learned las
t season and during the playoffs has made him better equipped for the 2009 season. Howell has become more secure and ready to take on all comers for the Rays. Sure the ex-starter might just be in his second year in the Bullpen, but Carter also found his success in his second stint in the Rays Bullpen.
Maddon might be drawing great comparisons to the two relievers and giving Howell the opportunity to show he can handle the ninth inning stress and responsibilities. So far this season Howell has been up to the test. Howell entered the 2008 season with only two prior relief appearances at Rookie-level ball at Idaho Falls in 2004. But he is turning into a polished gem for the Rays this season, posting in even better numbers than in his remarkable 2008 season.
This year Howell has appeared in 35 games, which ties him for the American League lead. He currently has a 2-2 record with 4 saves. He has thrown for 34.2 innings and has 42 strikeouts so far. His last 13 appearances have been scoreless, and he is second in the AL in strikeouts.
But the biggest confidence to his year might be the time he spent in the Team USA Bullpen during the World Baseball Classic this spring. In the WBC, he appeared 3 times for Team USA and held opponents scoreless. He did not figure into the last innings for any of those appearances, but got great advice and training playing along side some of the best closers in the game.
One downside to Howell is his five blown saves so far in 2009. But that is some of the learning curve that he will have to endure if he wants to make the transition into the late inning guy for the Rays. But just like Carter, Howell is still throwing his style of game and not adjusting or tinkering with his pitches so far this year. His 4 saves already this year is only second only to Troy Percival.
Maybe this “blast from the past” is exactly what the Rays need right now to again gain their 2008 edge. Reverting to a time where the closer threw slower and with control compared to the starting pitchers might be a godsend to Howell in his quest to gain the spot. But you know he has a great believer in his corner in his manager. Maddon is probably one of the biggest Howell supporters, an it just might get him another honor in the next few weeks.
Even if Howell is not determined to be the answer as a Rays closer, the job he has done in the past ans so far this season puts him in a small group of relievers in Rays history. In the end, the guy who could have his pitches timed by a hourglass might be the best solution to the Rays closing problem this season. And who knows, maybe he just might evolve into the perfect guy for the job with his “on-the-job” training this season.