Was Ken Howell an ace?

Fellow Phils blogger Ricky Jordan Fan Club of Drunk Phils Fans says he was and he wasn’t:

When it comes to starting pitchers in Major League Baseball, the term “ace” can often be used very loosely. We think of a true ace as a horse, a pitcher whose mere presence almost guarantees his team a win every fifth day. On the flip side, an ace can also just happen to be the best pitcher on a very weak staff. For the majority of the 1989 and 1990 seasons, Ken Howell fell into this category for the Philadelphia Phillies.

A former Dodgers reliever (not to be confused with Jay Howell) and current Dodger bullpen coach, Howell was 20-19, 3.85 with the Phillies in 51 games, 50 of them starts, from 1989-1990 with 234 strikeouts and an ERA+ of 94 before shoulder injuries ended his career at 29. Drunk Phils Fans concludes:

So was Ken Howell really an ace? No, not by a longshot. But for a time, he was the best the Phillies had to offer. Which probably tells you all you need to know about life for the Philadelphia Phillies in the late 80s/early 90s.

Ouch. He may not have been Steve Carlton or Curt Schilling, but Howell was by far the best the Phillies had to offer in 1989 (his only full season with the Phils) in terms of traditional stats:

                                    ERA+
Howell                          103
Bruce Ruffin                  80
Dennis Cook                 89
Terry Mulholland           71
Don Carman                68+
Larry McWilliams         89++

+49 games, 20 of them starts
++40 games, 16 of them starts (including the immortal 15-11 comeback)

His 12 wins were tied with reliever Jeff Parrett (98 K’s in 105.2 IP, helping make him trade bait for Dale Murphy and Tommy Greene the following season); Ruffin and Cook were tied for second among starters with 6. More meaningfully, his 204 innings were by far the most on the staff (Carman was second with 149.1, despite the 68 ERA+), his 7.2 K/9 was best among starters, and his 3.44 ERA was .55 better than Cook, the only other starter below 4.

How did Howell rank among the rest of the NL? He was 3rd behind Jose DeLeon and Sid Fernandez in fewest hits/9 at 6.838 and 7th in K/9 behind Mark Langston, Fernandez, Tim Belcher, David Cone, DeLeon, and John Smoltz, all of whom were aces by any definition in 1989 (even Belcher, arguably the least remembered ace among them, had 8 shutouts that season). His 164 total K were 10th in the NL behind the same aces plus Mike Scott and Bruce Hurst. He was 4th in fewest HR/9 at .485, behind Joe Magrane, Orel Hershiser, and Ken Hill.

On the other hand, his 86 total walks were tied with teammate Carman for 5th, behind future ace Hill, former aces Fernando Valenzuela and Kevin Gross, and Langston, and he led the NL with 21 wild pitches, five ahead of runnerup John Wetteland (who had 16 in only 102.2 IP but would only have 24 more the rest of his career).

True, Howell was as lucky as he was good. Behind his opponents’ slash stats of .215/297/.313 was a BABIP of .263, second lowest among Phillies starters to Cook’s .247. (In comparison, Ruffin may have been bad, but he was also unlucky, to the tune of a .334 BABIP against.) Howell’s BABIP was tied with Bob Ojeda and Tom Browning for 24th lowest in the NL (minimum 100 IP). Howell was also only 28th in VORP among NL pitchers at 23.8, tied with reliever Jay Howell and behind non-aces such as Les Lancaster, Mike Morgan, Greg Harris, and Mike Bielecki, and 52nd in Runs Prevented at 5.8 (adjusted for park and league), placing him between Mark Grant and Tim (Not Dead) Leary. (Orel Hershiser led the NL in both pitcher VORP and Runs Prevented.)

Regardless, in his Baseball Book 1990, Bill James was optimistic about the future of Ken Howell:

Threw 21 wild pitches last year, most in the major leagues. Despite that, I think that having finally gotten his career on track, he is a good bet to stay on track, and could get better. He had more strikeouts last season than hits allowed, and there aren’t very many starting pitchers who can say that…Even if he pitches well, the Phillies may stick him with a losing record.

The 1990 Ken Howell wasn’t quite as lucky: his BABIP rose to .288 (the only Phils starters with a higher BABIP were Pat Combs and Ruffin, who continued to be bombed to the tune of .324), his opponents’ slash stats to .260/.343/.422, and the only traditional category where he ranked within the top 10 was wild pitches (tied for 10th with 8). But he was injured, and after a 4 inning, 5 run appearance versus the Pirates on August 5, 1990, Howell would never throw another pitch in the majors.

James was still optimistic about Howell in the Baseball Book 1991:

Can he come back from the injury?
Howell was pitching great, the best ball of his career, through June 17 last year (8-3, 2.48 ERA), when he had a series of poor starts which led to the disabled list, eventually to arthroscopic surgery on the shoulder. I think chances are good that he will come back and have his best year in 1991.

Sadly, he wouldn’t. But if Howell was never a true ace, he came a lot closer than a longshot.

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