Catcher Jeff Howell talks pitching with RC

Burlington catcher Jeff Howell has been on fire, going 11-for-21 (.524) during the first week of August. Drafted in the 10th round of the 2005 draft, the 23-year-old backstop is hitting .262 and holding his own in his first full season of professional baseball. RC sat down with Howell in late July to discuss his season, and to get his take on Burlington's excellent pitching staff.


Royals Corner: Jeff, how do you feel the season's going so far, both for yourself and for the Bees?

Jeff Howell: Great. We're trying to play .500 ball, and we're getting close. We did the first half, and I think everyone's getting more comfortable with each other, playing every day and just learning how everyone reacts day-to-day. We're getting better at that, and as for myself, I'm learning and getting better, slowly but surely I hope. So it's going ok.

RC: How are you feeling at the plate, and can you describe the approach you take to the plate every day?

JH: I wish I could, because some days it's different, but it shouldn't be. To start the season, I felt a little shaky, trying to get settled into a routine to help my approach. My approach is to go up and try to get a good pitch to hit, depending on the situation – if I'm trying to do something for the team, whether it be a hit-and-run or a bunt – but if I'm swinging away, I'm looking for a good pitch to drive into the gaps and stay in the middle of the field. That will hopefully help me stay on top and through the ball. That's my approach. I feel ok, and I'm getting better. Sometimes I feel like I take a step back, and that happens, but I try to keep my forward progress.

Howell has raised his batting average 20 points (to .262) since July 31.

RC: How are you progressing defensively? We know you've thrown out about 36 percent of baserunners this year, and we saw you in spring training working with John Mizerock on your throws. How's everything coming along?

JH: It's getting better too. My transfer's getting better, a little bit cleaner, I hope…I think – it feels like it. My arm strength is still there. I don't know if I'm an average-arm guy or not. Throwing out runners was tough for awhile, but now the pitchers are doing a really good job of holding runners. They're making sure the runners are staying closer to the bags and mixing up their timing of when they come to the plate, and that's been helping me out a lot throwing runners out. It's an everyday work in progress, with the transfer, which has really been helping me lately.

Howell worked with John Mizerock during spring training

RC: What are your goals for the rest of the season?

JH: That's a tough question. The number one goal is to get better defensively as well as offensively. I know that's very broad. I want to get my batting average up and hit balls solid more consistently. That's a big goal. To keep throwing runners out and get better defensively, receiving the ball and catching the staff. And of course to be part of a winning team here. Helping everyday to get a win.

RC: One of the best-kept secrets about the organization is the pitching staff you've got here in Burlington, which has just been outstanding. What's it like catching such a talented group?

JH: We have one lefty right now, and the rest are righties. Some of them are sinkerball pitchers – Kraig Schambough, he's one of our closers. And then we've got Chris Hayes. He's a submarine guy, coming from down under, but he's got real effective stuff, like another sinkerball type of pitcher. It comes at you coming up, and then the bottom just drops out. Same with Kraig's sinker. Those two guys late in the game are really effective for us. That's one of the reasons we stay in close ballgames, because those two guys come in and do a real good job. Our staff, they work really hard, and pitching coach Steve Luebber does a great job with them. He's out there working everyday with someone, just on simple mechanics, or maybe another grip change here or there, to really hone their skills. They're really good, and it seems like they receive the information they're given like a sponge, and they see a lot of success with it. And our starting rotation is doing great. Carlos Rosa's electric, as well as Chris Nicoll. They've got different stuff, but they're very confident about where and how to throw it. It's been really nice, because the other catchers and I are a part of the staff doing so well.

RC: Could you give a little quick rundown on some of the starting pitchers, specifically Nicoll, Cordier, and Kniginyzky? What do they throw, and what are they working on?

JH: Let's start with Chris Nicoll. He throws a good fastball and keeps it down at the knees for the most part, which is when he's really effective. His ball seems to really move in a little bit differently than some of the other pitchers. His ball really gets in there quickly. He throws a curveball as well as a slider. He throws his curveball for a strike a lot of the time, and he throws a slider for a strike most of the time. Either one of those can be an out pitch. He can throw it to righties and lefties, and then his change-up is great. It's gotten better from last year when I caught him in Idaho, and all of his pitches keep improving. It even seems that as the season goes on, he gets more comfortable. He's been doing great. That's Chris Nicoll though; he's a hard worker.

Matt Kniginyzky has the same attitude, a real "go-go" attitude. He throws a fastball, curve, and change-up. He keeps the ball down in the zone and throws his curveball for a strike. Same thing with his change-up. He gets people off-balance, and he changes his speeds from fast to slow really effectively. I haven't caught Matt a lot, but I caught him last year and a few times this year, and it's great. He makes it easy, the way he changes speeds so well.

Erik Cordier has a dominant, overpowering fastball. He throws it hard and keeps it down in the zone. He's got a good, hard curveball, and he throws a change-up as well. His curve is usually in the zone for strikes, and even if he wants it as an out pitch, he can throw it off the plate a little bit, down in the zone. If it's not in the dirt, it's basically on my shoelaces anyway. His thing is that when he keeps the ball down, he's effective. When he gets his ball up a little bit, sometimes it's a little more hittable, but his ball has so much life and movement to it, when he's down he's really effective. He's got a great change-up too. That's another reason why he's pitched so well for us recently. He can pitch into the third or fourth inning with just his fastball and change-up, and then when he starts using his curveball, he can move into the sixth and seventh innings with ease when he's on.

RC: Looking at it from a hitter's perspective, who has the nastiest pitch among all the pitchers on the Burlington staff? Who would you least want to face?

JH: Well, that's too hard for me to answer. You say "nastiest pitch," and I think about six different guys that we have. I'll tell you…Chris Hayes – I haven't faced him – but he throws a fastball and a pretty good curveball that come out at the same direction, but move in opposite directions. I imagine that would be pretty tough to hit, a guy like that moving you in and out with different speeds. [Eliezer] Garcia's curveball, it's fantastic – hard and real sharp. [Rayner] Oliveros, his fastball is dirty, and [Carlos] Rosa's fastball has so much life. I couldn't tell you just one pitch.

According to Howell, Oliveros has a "dirty" fastball

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