ST. PETERSBURG — He throws like an old man, and there may not be a nicer thing you can say about J.P. Howell.
Go ahead, check out the Rays left-hander the next time he shows up on the mound. You'll notice the catcher's mitt does not exactly pop. And the radar guns certainly do not hum.
Watch him for an inning or two and you'll see there is nothing extraordinary about Howell's pitching, except for this:
He is retiring batters at a rather impressive rate.
"He has everything you want in a pitcher," pitching coach Jim Hickey. "Except for the 90 mph fastball."
Howell is a 25-year-old reliever pitching with a 45-year-old's repertoire. Officially, he throws a fastball, curveball and changeup. Realistically, he throws slow, slower and slowest.
It's like watching someone play chess with nothing but pawns and guile. He moves the ball in and out, up and down and, on his best days, never across the heart of the plate. His curveball is above average, his changeup is improving and his fastball is a misnomer.
"Deceptive," manager Joe Maddon said. "That's the word I'd use."
At 5-0, he leads the American League in wins by a reliever. He also leads the league in innings pitched for a reliever. Opponents are hitting .194 against him, and the Rays have promoted him from a long reliever to a setup man.
In less than a year's time, Howell has gone from a struggling starter trying to earn a major-league paycheck to having people within the Rays organization endorse him for the All-Star team.
Howell rescued the bullpen early in the season by eating up innings at key moments, and lately he has shown up big in the seventh and eighth innings with Al Reyes on the disabled list.
Maybe he is more effective as a reliever because hitters do not get a chance to face him a second time in the same game. Maybe his numbers are something of a fluke, considering he came into the season with a 5-14 record and a 6.34 ERA in parts of three seasons with the Rays and Royals. Or maybe he's throwing with a little more velocity this season (around 86-88 mph instead of 83-85 mph) because he has built up arm strength throwing more frequently.
No matter the reason, Howell has been an invaluable bridge between the starters and closer Troy Percival.
"He's a bridge, he's a freeway, he's a highway, he's a road, an avenue. The guy does everything," Percival said. "If you need him to get a lefty out, he does that. If you need him to come in and throw two or three innings, he does that. I can't say enough. It doesn't matter if it's a close game, if it's a blowout, somehow or another, he goes out and gets the job done every time. Without him, I don't know where we'd be."
It is hard not to like Howell. He talks with the diction of a slacker and pitches with the nerve of a burglar. He is self-confident while still understanding his own limitations.
One of the most effective college pitchers in the nation at the University of Texas in 2004, Howell already was worried how his lack of velocity might affect his standing as a major-league prospect.
He threw in the mid 80s but would try to hit 90 mph once or twice a game just so scouts could say he had an average major-league fastball along with his gaudy college stats.
"I knew I wasn't going to be a flame thrower. I was going to have to hit my spots and pitch. I accepted it," Howell said. "Some guys aren't like that. Some guys keep trying for velocity. I gave up on that and said there are other ways to get the job done."
For Howell, the best way is to keep hitters confused. His fastball is below average, but it can still be effective if hitters are never sure when he is going to throw it. He throws his curveball in the low 80s, which is a lot closer to the speed of his fastball than most other pitchers.
"The curveball leaves his hand on the exact same plane as his fastball, and guys can't read it. They're having a hard time picking up the difference between his curveball and fastball," Hickey said. "It's absolutely an effective pitch."
So is there really a chance Howell could make the All-Star team as a middle reliever? His chances are probably remote, but not completely out of the question.
Nine setup men have made All-Star teams in the past nine seasons. A handful were fortunate their manager was in charge of the All-Star roster (such as Tom Gordon in 2004 or Brendan Donnelly in 2003) and others just had ridiculous numbers (Jeff Zimmerman was 8-0, one save, 0.86 ERA in 1999) that couldn't be ignored.
Howell may have had a decent shot at the All-Star roster if not for a grand slam he gave up to Josh Hamilton in a blowout last month. Right now, those four runs are the difference between a possible 2.26 ERA and his current 3.02.
The All-Star team would be nice, but it's not a priority. Howell has spent a lifetime trying to reach the big leagues and is content to have found a home in the Rays bullpen.
"I hear guys complaining that they were only throwing 92. Hey, 92 sounds like gas to me," Howell said. "Even in Little League, I was never blowing it by anyone. I've had to hit my spots.
"I've failed every way you can, but I've learned each time I've failed."
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com.