Not a Rookie: J.P. Howell
J.P. Howell began his college career at USC in 2002, but after a rough freshman season he transferred to the University of Texas. Brilliant sophomore and junior campaigns made him stand out statistically: he posted a 15-2, 2.13 record with a 166/53 K/BB in 135 innings with just 90 hits allowed in '04.
The Royals drafted him in the supplemental first round, 31st overall, in 2004. Although scouts weren't wild about his 86-89 MPH fastball, he racked up strikeouts with his curveball and splitter-like changeup, and demonstrated a terrific feel for pitching. He posted a 2.77 ERA with a 38/12 K/BB in 26 innings for Idaho Falls in the Pioneer League in his pro debut. I was very impressed with what he'd done in college, and gave him an aggressive Grade B+ in the 2005 book.
2005 was the only prospect book that Howell was in. He began '05 with High Desert in the Cal League, posting a 1.96 ERA with a 48/24 K/BB in 46 innings. Promoted to Double-A Wichita, he posted a 2.50 mark with a 23/5 K/BB in 18 innings. He was fast-tracked to Triple-A (4.06, 29/19 K/BB in 38 innings for Omaha) and then to Kansas City just slightly more than a year after being drafted. He was awful for the Royals, posting a 6.19 ERA with a 54/39 K/BB in 73 innings. This was hardly surprising, given how badly he'd been rushed.
Howell began 2006 in Triple-A, going 3-2, 4.75 with a 33/14 K/BB in 36 innings. He was traded to Tampa Bay for Joey Gathright that summer, as the new regime under Dayton Moore was trying to get more speed and athleticism on the field and considered Howell expendable. He performed well after the trade, with a 2.62 ERA and a 49/15 K/BB in 55 innings for Durham. An eight-start trial with Tampa Bay gave mixed results: 5.10 ERA with a 33/14 K/BB in 42 innings.
Howell split '07 between Triple-A and the majors. He struggled badly for the Devil Rays (7.59 ERA with a 49/21 K/BB in 51 innings, 69 hits allowed), but put up strong numbers in Durham again, 3.38 with a 145/34 K/BB in 128 innings. Note the big boost in his strikeout rate in his second look in Triple-A. . .he was making progress. As you know, Howell converted to the bullpen in '08 and pitched great in the majors, 2.22 ERA with a 92/39 K/BB in 89 innings, just 62 hits allowed, making him one of the best non-closer relievers in the Show last year.
It seems clear that Howell suffered from being rushed by the Royals in '05. Many pitchers have seen their careers collapse after being rushed in that way. But he's overcome adversity, and has found his niche in relief. As long as he remains healthy, I see no reason why he can't be an effective pitcher for a long time to come. He had some good luck on balls in play last year, and I imagine his ERA will rise this year as the H/IP corrects, but I expect he will remain an above average pitcher. He did well against both left-handers and right-handers, and doesn't have to be confined to a LOOGY role.
PECOTA comps include Sparky Lyle, Tug McGraw, Jesse Orosco, Darold Knowles, Joe Sambito, and John Franco. Kenny Rogers also shows up on the list. . .he began his career in the pen. Perhaps Howell could even convert back to the rotation someday