Note: due to a production error, a portion of this story was omitted in today’s print newspaper; the complete story is here.
By Brad Salmen
At the time, Howell, a 2016 DCHS graduate, was ostensibly at a part of his life that should have brought excitement. After all, he was about to graduate from the University of Minnesota after taking just 2 1⁄2 years to complete a degree in Management Information Systems, and he’d recently completed a successful internship at a life insurance company. The future was wide open, the sky was the limit.
Yet at 3 a.m. of November 5, 2018, dark clouds were pushing him down. The internship had made him absolutely miserable. While his co-workers talked about how lucky they would be to stay on full time, Howell glimpsed a future filled with ennui. Where others saw a good salary, great benefits, and stability, Howell saw mind-numbing monotony.
To make matters worse, the search for post-graduation jobs had gone nowhere. Howell, an avid baseball fan, had applied for a number of different baseball and sports-related internships and entry-level positions, but had struck out. And to top it all off, even the companies with the so-called “boring office jobs” – the insurance, programming, and accounting firms of the world – hadn’t called him back either.
So there he was, at 3 a.m. in the stairwell of his apartment near the U of M, completely lost, rudderless, and defeated.
“I called my mom at three in the morning. I told her, ‘this sucks. I don’t want to do any of these things,’” he said. “It felt pretty hopeless.”
Then, to use a baseball metaphor, life threw him a curveball. And Howell did something he was never able to do when he was a self-described “crappy” baseball player for the DC Chargers – he hit it out of the park.
For, just a little over a year after 3 a.m. on November 5, 2018, 22-year-old David Howell found himself in Dunedin, Florida, working for a major league baseball organization. And, as of today, he is in Rochester, New York, working as a Development Coach at the Toronto Blue Jays’ alternate training site.
It is, as Howell puts it mildly, “a little surreal.”
To understand Howell’s improbable journey, it helps to go back to the beginning, his senior year of high school at DCHS.
Howell, a tall, lanky righthander, had been an average pitcher growing up. The summer before his senior year, he decided to change that. He came across a blog by Kyle Boddy, the founder of Driveline Baseball, a company that uses a sabermetric approach to increase pitching velocity and improve conditioning.
Howell committed 100% to the tactics outlined by Boddy’s blog, and then some. He describes his senior year as “going into school in the morning before class to throw into a net, sleeping through class, lifting after school, going to work as a janitor for Whitey [Mark Forsman] at Forsman Farms, going to bed, and getting up to do it all over again.”
It worked. Or, rather, some of it worked. In six months, Howell put on 50 pounds, going from 150 pounds to 200 pounds on his 6-3 frame.
His pitching velocity, however, improved only slightly. He also injured his back a couple different times, and played the 2016 high school baseball season hurt. Frustrated, he quit midway through the season.
“I just wasn’t very happy with myself, with anything,” he said simply.
While his organized baseball playing career was done, his dedication to self-improvement via sabermetrics was not. Indeed, it had turned from curiosity to an obsession, and even though his playing career was done, Howell wanted to keep training for fun “just to see what happened.”
Enter Casey Jacobson, and the first leg of Howell’s up-and-down journey to “The Show.”
Jacobson, currently the Coordinator of Pitching Development for the Chicago Cubs, has an extensive pitching instruction resume, including stops at Macalester and Augustana, where he played with DC grad and former DC Saint Lucas Larson. In 2016, Jacobson was managing a baseball training facility in Chanhassen named Pitch2Pitch. One day in June, Larson asked Jacobson if he would be fine talking to Howell if he ever stopped by, to which Jacobson said, sure.
“Sure enough, one day this 6-6 pale kid shows up, really shy and unimposing right away,” said Jacobson. “He had been throwing, but wanted to observe the business of improving his mechanics. He just wanted to see progress while he went to school. So I gave him some things to work on, and ultimately he started showing up more and more regularly … and pretty soon, we started seeing velocities we’d never seen before.”
Indeed, in just a few months, Howell went from struggling in the low 80s, to hitting 93 mph on a crow hop.
“Psychologically, he broke through that barrier. He’d done the work, he’d done the research, he just hadn’t seen the progress and was very frustrated,” said Jacobson, who became good friends with Howell. “[After the breakthrough], you could see the wheels turning for him.”
Unfortunately for David, it was one crow hop forward, two steps back.
The intensive training he’d been undertaking while attending school eventually caught up to him. In December, after 14 months of training, he began feeling a tingling in his fingertips that would intensify any time he threw.
“It all kinda caught up with me. I wasn’t sleeping well, and wasn’t taking recovery seriously enough,” he said. “I’d shut it down for a while, and ramp back up, but it kept bothering me. It was really disappointing. Like, it was fun while it lasted, but now I gotta go through the rest of college, graduate, and get some boring office job in the Twin Cities or something.”
And over the next two years, that’s exactly how his trajectory continued. He took the maximum amount of credits each semester, even taking 10 credits while working during the summer of 2017, with the goal of graduating from college as soon as possible. Then came the disastrous internship in the summer of 2018, the fruitless job search that fall, and finally graduation in December of 2018 with his bachelors degree.
What should have been a momentous achievement felt insignificant. He was living at his parents’ house with no job, suffering from restlessness and insomnia, when he came across an online posting that changed his life’s trajectory.
That posting? A graduate assistant position in Louisiana-Shreveport, a small NAIA school, under the tutelage of head coach Brent Lavallee.
“I ended up applying for it,” said Howell, “and I’m glad I did.”
Lavallee, then a second-year head coach at Lousiana-Shreveport, is from the “new school” of baseball – he welcomes, and uses, technology to improve his players and his team in any way he can.
The position called for someone who was familiar with, and most importantly knew how to leverage, that technology, something that David had been studying since high school.
After an initial conversation, Lavallee had Howell fill out a lengthy questionnaire that included, among other things, questions about how he would utilize Rapsodo, a pitch design tool that uses a high-speed camera to measure all kinds of different variables, including velocity, vertical break, horizontal break, spin rate, spin axis and pitch path.
Shortly thereafter, Lavallee called Howell to offer him the position. The two spoke for a long time, and hit it off, said Lavallee.
“What stood out to me was both his knowledge and skill set,” Lavallee said. “I was looking for an analyst, someone who could quantify everything we did. I was looking for someone with a diverse resume, both from a baseball and technology standpoint. David jumped out immediately.”
While Howell wouldn’t be able to join the team until August, seven months away, just knowing he had secured a position in baseball with a mentor he had come to trust lifted the dark cloud from his shoulders. Invigorated, he began spending even more time diving into analytics, uploading his thoughts and findings onto his personal blog.
It was a combination of research and analytical and technical prowess that led to his biggest breakthrough – one that would lift his trajectory towards stratospheric levels.
Anyone who’s listened to major league baseball broadcasts has heard at least some of the above terms: velocity, spin rate, and such. Every pitch is captured on Statcast, for example.
It’s all well and good, and interesting for comparison. But what do you do with that information? How do you use it to improve?
That’s what Howell set out to find out: was there a way to take that pitch data and create a tool that would automatically show a pitcher what he needs to do to become a better pitcher?
The MLB has catalogued this data for the last five years from all its games, meaning there are millions of pitches to work with.
Simply put, what Howell did was utilize this data to create a tool that will show a pitcher what pitches he should utilize, and where to throw them.
Again, that is a very simplified explanation of the tool. Lavallee explained that what Howell’s tool does is analyze the data from a pitcher’s fastball, and, using and comparing against the MLB data, show what pitches and pitch placement would be most effectively paired with the pitcher’s natural fastball motion.
“For example, we had a pitcher who was drafted that had a 4-seam fastball and a slider. We took his metrics and ran it through David’s system, and he came back and said hey, you gotta learn a slurve – if you throw it at this speed at this release height, it’s going to be effective,” said Lavallee. “It took three bullpens to make that a new pitch in his arsenal, and we sent him off to pro ball and he knew 100% it was his best pitch, and he hadn’t even thrown it to a hitter [in a live game].
Jacobson said that while others have created programs that did similar things, Howell’s tool really “connected the dots” for coaches looking to improve their pitchers from a data-driven standpoint.
“It’s one of the biggest missing ingredients. You’ve got all this data, but many coaches don’t know what to do with it, or how to use it to come up with suggestions to make their pitcher better,” he said. “David created something that makes it easily digestible.”
After creating the tool, Howell posted it on his blog (CargoCultSabermetrics.com), and cross posted it on the popular sabermetrics site FanGraphs.com in February.
That’s when things got in Howell’s words, “really crazy.”
Howell received an email from Boddy at Driveline Baseball – the same Boddy whose blogs started Howell on his journey – asking him to come work in their Research & Development department. Rapsodo flew him to their facility in St. Louis.
Then the MLB teams came calling. First, the Cleveland Indians. Then Cincinnati, then the L.A. Dodgers, who flew him out to Dodger Stadium.
“That was really cool, I’d never been to California before,” said Howell. “We got to the clubhouse for lunch, and there were the Dodgers. Like, oh [man], that’s Dave Roberts. There’s Clayton Kershaw.”
To top it all off, the Yankees’ Director of Baseball Operations called him while he was at the airport waiting for his flight home.
In the end, Howell chose to accept an internship in the Driveline R&D department in Kent, Washington. He began in May, and stayed there through the summer.
“It was pretty awesome,” Howell said of his time at Driveline. He did a variety of different jobs and tasks, including operating the biomechanics lab and spending a lot of time on the training floor.
Come fall of 2019, Howell had another decision to make regarding his future. Would he stay with Driveline, or honor his initial commitment to work with Lavallee in Louisiana? In the end, his close friendship with Lavallee won out, and he packed his bags for Shreveport.
While Howell was only with Lavallee for four months in Shreveport, the time was beneficial for both of them, said Lavallee.
For Lavallee, he got an analyst who helped him train and recruit players with data in mind.
“We took information that he could quantify, and completely revamped the way we trained hitters. Pitching was his biggest strength, however,” Lavallee said. “And I think it was good for him to be able to work ‘hands-on’ with the players.”
Even though Howell as nearly the same age as most of the players, they immediately saw someone who had a lot of knowledge to impart.
“He was very much a teacher to them, and they were very interested in what he had to say,” Lavallee said. “I think it was a little bit of a learning adjustment; in our world, most colleges have never had a coach with his skill set.
“Some bigger colleges have analysts and R&D personnel, but there are still a lot of coaches who are old school and anti-sabermetrics … which is why we’re kicking their [butts] all the time,” he quipped.
By the end of 2019, both Lavallee and Howell were being heavily courted by major league organizations. Lavallee ended up taking a job in the Toronto Blue Jays organization as the manager of their short season Rookie ball team in Vancouver.
Howell, meanwhile, was further approached by the Texas Rangers, Baltimore Orioles … and Toronto Blue Jays.
Ironically, though he long wanted nothing more than to be a part of a major league organization, Howell found that most of the teams that contacted him had, in his mind, undervalued his worth, and thus given him underwhelming offers.
So while he didn’t want to stay in Shreveport without Lavallee, he was leaning more towards returning to an R&D company when Blue Jays assistant manager Joe Sheehan called him a second time.
The two had talked for 90 minutes earlier that fall, and got along well. While Howell again made no commitment, he was contacted a short while later by Jays Director of Pitching Matt Buschmann, who offered a development coach role.
This time, Howell accepted.
“After talking it over with [Sheehan and Buschmann], it was a pretty cool opportunity,” Howell said. It was a role designed to blend coaching with application of technology, a role he seemed ready made for.
And so it was that Howell found himself in Dunedin, Florida in the middle of February, working with the big-league club in spring training.
“A lot of it was pretty observational – I was the new guy, and I was just learning as much as I could,” he said.
Then, in mid-March, COVID-19 hit, and everything shut down.
Howell returned home to Minnesota, awaiting baseball’s return to continue his journey. When the season began in the beginning of July, he reported to Buffalo, and was there for a day before the Blue Jays announced they were moving the big league club to Buffalo, and the Depth Squad team to Rochester, NY.
Which is where Howell remains today. Each day is a whirlwind of activity, from meeting with pitchers to review their previous day’s outing, breaking down video and data to measure objective output, watching bullpen sessions, watching simulated games, getting the video data from the day to break down and analyze in the evening in his hotel room, and waking up and doing it all over again the next day.
Finally, less than two years from one of the lowest points in his life, David Howell feels content.
“I’m really just happy to be here. It sure as [heck] beats sitting at home,” he said wryly. “I’m not even thinking about what’s going to happen long term. It’s just really, really fun right now.”
His friends and former mentors say his long term outlook is unlimited.
“David fits really well into the current baseball landscape. He understands things at a very high level, is very intelligent, and isn’t afraid to speak his mind,” said Jacobson. “Some people might not appreciate it, and some veterans might need to put their ego aside to listen to what he says, but his commentary and decision-making is based on good, sound information, and they’d be foolish to ignore it.”
Howell will make an impact anywhere he goes, said Lavallee.
“I’m really hoping we get paired together in the future, because I know David is motivated to help the people he works with succeed. He’s passionate, and expects the best out of himself and the people around him,” Lavallee said. “The things he knows how to do, and the skill set he developed in a year-and-a-half, is amazing.
“This is fully a story about betting on yourself, and taking that shot and going for it. He knew what he wanted the whole time, he didn’t settle for lesser jobs, he had his eyes on the prize and worked for it,” Lavallee said. “The sky truly is the limit for David.”