Friday, June 27, 2014

Card #68: Roy Howell

Who Can It Be Now?
Roy Lee Howell was born on December 18, 1953, in Lompoc, California.  He attended Lompoc High School, which must have had a hell of a baseball team around that time -- four guys off the 1972 team ended up playing professional baseball, and three -- Roy Thomas, Howell, and Dave Stegman -- played in the major leagues.  

Howell was highly thought of by scouts coming out of high school, and, as a result, was selected by the Rangers in the first round of the 1972 June Draft with the fourth overall pick. He signed immediately with the Rangers, who assigned him to Double-A Pittsfield in the Eastern League straight out of high school.  He repeated that level in 1973 -- totaling basically a full season at Double-A between 1972 and 1973 -- and he hit for some power with a good OBP:  15 HR, .242/.3776/.462.  He struck out too much, to be fair -- 91 times in 277 at-bats for a contact percentage of just 55% (for an explanation of why contact percentage matters and is a good indicator to use for future batting success, read Ron Shandler's article in USA Today from 2008).

Nonetheless, Texas moved him up to Triple-A Spokane in the Pacific Coast League for the 1974 season.  Once again, Howell hit with power -- 22 HR -- and he did improve on his contact percentage -- moving up to 75%.  He walked at a lesser rate as well, but a 20-year-old handling Triple-A as well as he did was a good sign generally.  To reward Howell, Texas called him up to the major leagues for in September of 1974 for a 13 game stint.  Howell did not play in Triple-A again until he was on the downside of his career.

When 1975 dawned, the now 21-year-old Howell broke spring training with the big league club.  In a later interview, Howell stated his recollection that "the Rangers [were] an old ballclub making a transition, and I was in the right place at the right time . . . [to make] the big leagues at age 20." To an extent, that is true: the 1974 Rangers used 7 players at third base in the 1974 season, including 35-year-old Leo Cardenas, 34-year-old Larry Brown, and 32-year-old Jim Fregosi, but they also had 25-year-old Lenny Randle (a utility player, to be sure) and 23-year-old Mike Cubbage there.  Basically, the opportunity was present because the Rangers needed to use the guy who should have been their third-baseman, Bill Madlock, in a trade with the Cubs after the 1973 season to get Fergie Jenkins.

Howell performed decently in 1975, showing a little pop and a decent OBP.  His rookie year, though, showed that he should not play against left-handed pitching -- hitting just .230/.294/.295 against southpaws versus .254/.328/.394 against righties.  His 1976 was not all that much better, though there was some growth in his numbers.  While his walk rate plummeted -- and his OBP went with it -- his contact rate improved from 70.7% in 1975 to 80.0% in 1976.  

Despite that, the Rangers went another direction for 1977.  After the 1976 season, the Rangers signed Bert Campaneris as a free agent and plugged Campy in as their starting shortstop.  This freed up the Rangers hitting star, Toby Harrah, to play third base instead of the more demanding shortstop position.  With that move, Howell became surplus to requirements in Texas and, on May 9, 1977, he was shipped north of the border to the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for Steve Hargan, Jim Mason, and $200,000.  

The move agreed with Howell.  Given regular playing time, Howell averaged 140 games a season in his three years in Toronto, hitting .262/.323/.397 and making the 1978 All-Star team as the Blue Jays representative.  Coming off this three-year run, Howell was a free agent.  In those days, there was a "free agent re-entry draft" (which is explained here at the Baseball Reference Bullpen), and Howell was selected in that draft by both the Oakland A's and the Milwaukee Brewers.  After negotiations with both teams, he signed with the Brewers on a "multi-year" deal.

The Brewers signed Howell to platoon with the right-handed hitting Don Money at third base.  This move led them to switch Paul Molitor to center field and Gorman Thomas to right field.  Molitor was sidelined in May with knee issues and made it known internally that he would prefer not to play outfield.  As a result, in 1982, Molitor was moved to third base.  

This was bad news for Howell, who did not see a single game at third base in all of 1982. Indeed, at one point during the 1982 season, he asked to be traded.  With a few comments made after the fact, Howell also made it known that he and former manager Buck Rodgers had butted heads a bit, as this August, 30, 1982 Milwaukee Sentinel article noted:
A reporter pointed out that Howell's statistics had improved since [Harvey] Kuenn had replaced Buck Rodgers as manager, and he asked Howell if the managerial change was the reason.  "You just answered your own question," Howell said.  He said Kuenn told him he would DH against right-handers and told Don Money he would DH against lefties.
Howell spent two more years in Milwaukee after the 1982 season.  He stopped being the regular left-handed DH in 1983 when Ted Simmons moved to DH. He played more in 1984, but only because Paul Molitor missed most of the year after elbow surgery.  Otherwise, as this article from spring training in 1984 notes, he probably would have served only as a pinch hitter.  

His four years with the Brewers were not exactly a disaster, but they also weren't what you would call a smashing success either -- 986 plate appearances, 18 HR, .253/.307/.377 slash line.  He requested to be traded both in 1982 and in 1983, and his discontent led to Brewers fans booing him in 1983.  His reaction to it: 
That kind of hurt a little bit.  I'm sorry the fans felt that way.  I love it here.  But I also love to play the game.  I don't cry.  I don't bitch. People think I should be happy just to have a uniform, but that's not where it's at.  I enjoy this team.  I enjoy everything here.  This is the greatest bunch of guys I've ever played with. But everyone wants to play. I'm no different.
Howell's "multi-year" contract was, in fact, a four-year contract which paid him more than $400,000 per year, as that previous link pointed out.  The contract included a team option for one additional year, which the Brewers chose not to exercise.  As a result, after the 1984 season, the Brewers released Howell after he cleared waivers.  

At the age of 31, Roy Howell found himself looking for a job in baseball.  He signed on with the San Francisco Giants before the 1985 season, but the Giants released him during spring training. He hooked on with the Philadelphia Phillies after that and played 68 games for the Phillies Triple-A affiliate in Portland along side Steve Comer.  But 1985 would be the end of his playing career except for a stint in the senior league a few years later.

Mustache Check: somewhere in that mass of red hair on his face is a mustache. Definitely.

Family Ties
Roy's son Daniel played baseball for Oklahoma Baptist University.  After he graduated from OBU, the Seattle Mariners signed him and sent him to their Rookie League team in Arizona in 2013.  He played 6 games there and, in 21 plate appearances, picked up three hits, 1 HR, and walked four times. 

Trivial Pursuit
Roy Howell's struggle to make an impact in Milwaukee may have sworn the Brewers off signing free agents.  Indeed, as it turned out, the Brewers did not sign another free agent between December of 1980 -- Roy Howell -- and December of 1989 -- Dave Parker. 

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
I never really liked Roy Howell. It wasn't so much that he was terrible -- his stats were decent, he filled a role, and generally was okay as a player.  His fielding at third base was never great, but that is not something that sticks out.  

I think Daniel Okrent put it best in his excellent book, Nine Innings: The Anatomy of a Baseball Game:
[To] Milwaukee fans . . . Howell was stone-handed, remote, and simply not the stuff of hero worship.  They loved Gorman Thomas, who played to the crowd and embodied all the Milwaukee virtues: blue-collar, beer-drinking, unfancy, and, despite his South Carolina Tidewater origins, somehow ethnic. They also swooned for the good-looking, boyish Molitor, for Robin Yount, whom they had seen grow up on the County Stadium field; for the elegant Cecil Cooper.  Howell? He was a body.
As Okrent's book pointed out, Howell didn't exactly endear himself to Brewers fans or, at times, to his teammates.  During spring training in 1982, when Molitor was moved to third base, Howell requested a trade immediately.  General Manager Harry Dalton tried to trade Howell -- a little -- but only if it would help the Brewers immensely.  Again, from Nine Innings:
Still, despite [Dalton's] displeasure with Howell's reaction to Molitor's insertion at third, Dalton began to look for a deal -- but only a deal that would otherwise enhance his club's prospects.  Which is to say, he looked halfheartedly, and with the aces in his hand, not Howell's.  Even this strategy was complicated by Howell's very visible displeasure during the exhibition season in Arizona.  Quiet and remote to begin with, Howell fell into a sulk.  He told those who offered their good wishes, "In the dictionary, sympathy comes between shit and syphilis." During pregame practices, he visibly loafed, and Dalton felt impelled to tell Howell that the more he made it clear that his heart was not playing for Milwaukee, the less interested would be the scouts who came to appraise him.
Add to it the news stories that came each year that I cited above about how Howell requested trades every year in 1982, 1983, and 1984 and how he generally was unhappy, and you can see why I would not take much liking or have great memories about him.

After Howell retired, he started a financial service business in San Luis Obispo, California. He did that for 14 years until an early morning call from Ted Simmons -- then a special assistant to the general manager for the San Diego Padres -- led to Howell getting back into baseball as the hitting instructor for Double-A Mobile in 2000.  He coached for six years at various levels in the Padres organization, then went back to San Luis Obispo to manage in the California Collegiate League (a wood-bat summer league partially funded by major league baseball) for three years.  

He spent 2011 as the manager for an Atlantic League team before joining the Seattle Mariners organization as the hitting coach at Single-A High Desert. Finally, in 2014, he was named the manager for Triple-A Tacoma.  That occurred because the Mariners needed Rich Donnelly to move up to coach in the major leagues when former Mets catcher John Stearns had to step down as being the third-base coach due to his health.  As it stands today, the Tacoma Rainiers are in last place in the PCL Pacific Northern Division, but their record is only 4 games under .500.  Howell's staff there includes former Cleveland Indian Cory Snyder and former Milwaukee Brewer pitcher Jaime Navarro.

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