Home Run Howry
I'm a relatively patient person - a dog, twin 3-year old daughters, the Angel-fan wife and being a Cubs fan do that to a person. But the antics of Bob Howry have grown tiresome. And yeah, I'm probably the last on that bandwagon (see above about being patient).I mean, he was good for us in 2006 and 2007. Not great, but good; as he posted ERA's of 3.17 and 3.32, along with respectable win probabilty added scores of 0.93 and 1.73. So I think some of that patience was warranted - unfortunately so does manager Lou Piniella.
Lou's consistent reliance on Howry out there in crucial situations, even with a depleted bullpen of late, is near Dusty-level stupid. The decision to let Bob Howry pitch to notorious Cub-killer Carlos Lee with first base open yesterday, is Andy McPhail-stupid.
Let's take a look at what could be troubling Howry...
A few points of reference for some of the less numbers-inclined, average is considered around .300 for BABIP (Batting Average in Balls in Play). When you see something in the .222 range like Howry's 2005 season, expect it go up the next season (in most cases) and the ERA to follow, as did Howry in 2005. Most pitchers give up homers on around 10% of the flyballs they give up (HR/FB%) and the same corollary applies. Now, it's in my opinion that the peripheral stats of a reliever tend to look better than the norm in most cases. For example, take a look at the leaderboard on ESPN for strikeout rates with at least 40 innings pitched and you'll find 10 relievers with at least a 10 or more strikeouts per nine innings and just one starter. So the 8.3% and 7.0% of home runs that flew out of the park the last two years are pretty much right in line with Howry's career mark and didn't call for too much of a correction.
Back to the chart o' numbers and there's a few things that stick out about Howry's 2008 season to date. His strikeout rate has been declining steadily now for a few years and is down to 6.96 for 2008. He thrived in 2005 with an even lower strikeout rate, but that seems due to a healthy dose of luck. Now his walk rate has also gone down as well this year, so it might be a bit of gaining control while sacrificing velocity (spoiler: he hasn't). Of course, it appears he's sacrificing getting batters out as well, as evidenced by the skyrocketing ERA, BABIP and home run rates. It's a bit of a chicken and the egg theory going on here, is Howry just being unlucky at times as evidenced by his BABIP and HR/FB% rates this year, or is he losing some of "stuff' and getting pounded accordingly, hence the reason for the rise in his ERA and peripheral numbers.
I took a dip into the Pitch F/x waters to see if I could spot anything that might indicate Howry has lost something on his pitches (and I profess I'm a newbie at analyzing the Pitch f/x data). As Transmission pointed out earlier this year, Howry averaged 92.3 mph on his fastball last season, but that was only measured for games played at Wrigley. I believe the Pitch F/x system has been installed in all parks for 2008 and Howry's average fastball velocity has taken a very small dip to 91.2 mph on average (according to Fangraphs). The 2008 player card by Josh Kalk shows an average of 92.14 on his fastball, so I think it's safe to say his velocity is about the same. I did notice on the Fangraphs info that he's throwing quite a quite a few more sliders this year, up from 9.7% of his pitches(that were actually tracked) to 22.7% this year. You then combine that with the info at Inside Edge scouting report that shows his slider is getting whacked for a .353 batting average(out of games scouted) and you start to piece together that Howry may be getting away from his bread and butter of pounding the outside of the plate with his fastball.
The numbers also indicate why Lou seems to keep giving him a chance. His "stuff" still seems to be there for the most part. And we know Lou's preference for pitchers, particularly relievers, that don't walk batters. And for all the troubles of Howry, he's making the other team earn it for the most part. But at some point, Lou's going to give up on faith and take a look that Howry just can't get anyone out right now. Of course, it's going to help that Kerry Wood is back and Carlos Marmol can go back to being the main set-up man. The shutdown bullpen of Howry in the 7th, Marmol in the 8th and Wood in the 9th, never really materialized this season and I do hope that Howry is pushed way back on the depth chart and Chad Gaudin and Jeff Samardzija are given his late-inning opportunities.