In a Los Angeles Dodgers bullpen dominated by big personalities and big fastballs, the shutdown innings of an unassuming pitcher with an unassuming arsenal are what have buoyed the late inning successes of the team once the game is taken out of the hands of their starting rotation. While the spotlight shines brightly upon the likes of Kenley Jansen, Brian Wilson, Brandon League, and Chris Perez and their performances (and contracts), lefthander J.P. Howell quietly and effectively toils away in the middle innings, providing a steady bridge to the later innings for the Dodgers, in a season that has been predicated upon a career bests in ground ball rate (57.6%), holds (18), and a near-career best in strikeout rate (28.2%).
The story of Howell’s finding success in the bullpen is a somewhat familiar one. A former first round draft pick of the Kansas City Royals that started his professional career as a promising starting pitching prospect, the lack of elite velocity combined with problems getting outs a third time through the batting order, as well as a lack of a reliable third pitch beyond his effective sinker-curveball mix prompted the conversion of Howell to a reliever. Here, his two pitches, the most effective and impressive being the knuckle curve, and lack of a significant platoon split—over his career, lefties hit at a .321 wOBA clip, righties at a .281 wOBA—have allowed him to flourish in a more innings-concentrated role.
In 2014, this role has evolved from a LOOGY with the ability to get the occasional righty out into a stopper. Currently sporting a 0.5 WAR and a 1.55 ERA, 2.48 FIP, and 3.20 xFIP pitching slash line, Howell has led the Dodgers bullpen with a career-best .235 BABIP and an 81.3% left on base percentage; Howell has also performed well under duress, allowing only two of the 24 runners he has inherited to score (or eight percent), with the last crossing the plate off of him on May 11th. In a small sample of high leverage situations this year (per FanGraphs), Howell has especially thrived, allowing only two earned runs—good for a 2.10 FIP, a career best— and a .150 wOBA in eight innings pitched.
For Howell, this effectiveness as a reliever has come from the aforementioned reliance upon two pitches—a sinker that averages 86.8 miles per hour and a knuckle curve that generate 59.6 and 50.0 ground balls per ball in play, respectively. This year, he has especially leaned upon the sinker and has all but scrapped his changeup, throwing it roughly one percent of the time:
Despite a slight uptick in his walk rate this season (12.8%, compared to his 10.6% career mark), Howell has fared well with this 1-2 punch, using both pitches to induce a lot of whiffs on the corners and down in the zone against both lefties and righties, underlining Howell’s ability to change speeds and eye levels through the use of a deceptive delivery and a consistent release point with both pitches.
Howell’s whiffs per swing on the sinker:
…and on the knuckle curve:
Despite not having jaw-dropping velocity or even impeccable control, J.P. Howell has found success in a role that traditionally runs counter to his finesse approach to pitching. After many seasons of refining his repertoire and toiling away in relative anonymity with this under-the-radar approach, he is finally becoming recognized for his efforts, which have him in the conversation as being one of the most valuable relievers in the Dodgers bullpen and in the National League.