Niemann, Howell linked by shoulder surgeries
Former Rays pitchers on road back, looking to regain their form in 2014
ST. PETERSBURG -- One is John Wayne, the other is Spicoli. Nevertheless, Jeff Niemann and J.P. Howell are amigos.
Niemann is a cowboy at heart, sitting tall in the saddle at 6-foot-9. He throws right-handed, delivering angry fastballs that travel at an angle seemingly from the top of a mountain. Howell is generously listed at 6-feet in the media guide, and he is a southpaw whose pitches arrive under the speed limit but move like Mexican jumping beans.
Niemann is a Texan and Howell hails from California, each fitting their respective stereotypes. Niemann is reserved and understated to outsiders, prone to saying "we" instead of "I" when discussing his accolades. If not on a pitcher's mound, the happy-go-lucky Howell might be on a skateboard, dude! He's hilarious and acts like everybody's kid brother.
Though two guys could not be more different, the former Rays pitchers hit it off.
"Right away," Howell said. "I'd always heard about him. He went to Rice, I went to Texas -- there's another kind of opposite thing we are. I'd always heard about him weekly [in college]. When we got to the Rays, we had a lot of information on each other and we hit it off.
"He's a big Texas country boy and I'm from California, but I got a taste of that when I was at UT. I like guys like that. He's pretty hard-nosed. He's a nice guy, but he's tough, and I kind of look up to him for that."
After all their years together, the pair finally has something in common: shoulder surgery.
Howell, 30, pitched for the Dodgers in 2013, and after the season, he re-signed with Los Angeles on a two-year, $11.25 million contract. Niemann, 30, elected to become a free agent after Tampa Bay outrighted him in December. Unlike Tommy John surgery, which has seemingly become routine, shoulder surgery is a far different animal.
"Shoulder surgery is not routine," Howell said.
Howell's shoulder surgery came early in the 2010 season, and though he pitched the following season, he wasn't fully recovered until 2012.
"When you got your diagnosis, you can't lie to yourself," Howell said. "You know the odds of coming back are not good. In my case, they told me about 20 percent. And the surgery, even if it goes well, the anchors that hold your labrum and shoulder together, they have to stay intact during rehab. So it's a stressful 12 months for someone who uses his arm to make a living.
"For a hitter, they seem to be able to bounce back. But for a pitcher, it's your moneymaker and it all comes down to your rehab. When I was told that information, I definitely had that moment of doubt. But I brushed that off as quickly as I could."
Howell found a role model for his recovery in New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who returned from a torn right labrum after 2005 surgery.
"I had a gradual tear; he had an impact tear, which is worse. It's the biggest tear you can have," Howell said. "He was diving for a football and blew his shoulder out. And that's worse, because other things around it get messed up, like your rotator cuff can get slight tears. And usually when you have a labrum tear, and that's the heaviest tear, you might have a slight rotator cuff issue. But not as big as Drew Brees had to face, so I figured if he could make it back, so could I."
Niemann watched Howell's rehab efforts, lending support to his friend when he could. And like every pitcher, he wondered when the day would come that he had to face shoulder or elbow issues. The answer to the question came last spring, when Niemann competed against Roberto Hernandez for the fifth spot in the Rays' rotation. Hernandez won the job, prompting Niemann's exodus to the bullpen.
Niemann's 2012 season had ended with shoulder pain, but such thoughts were on the back burner as he competed for a job last spring.
"Last year, we were fighting through it," Niemann said. "I've overcome so much, so I'm going to fight through this, take that turn. We got to a point where I was feeling really good and throwing the ball well. Everything was working for me. I was throwing really well last spring."
Niemann felt ready as he headed for bullpen duty in 2013.
"I had a lot of confidence going into the season," Niemann said. "Then those first two days in the bullpen, trying to maintain the ability to be ready at any moment, that's a lot tougher than people can truly grasp, especially somebody who has never done that before. Going down there and trying to stay loose. And stay ready and keep the arm going. I'm telling you, I couldn't even lift my arm up after those first two days of the season."
Less than a week later, Niemann had surgery to repair his right shoulder, which did not surprise Howell, who suspected the worst for his friend.
"I remember him asking me, 'How did your shoulder feel before the surgery?'" Howell said. "And I told him your strength goes away. It's still flexible, but there's no strength."
Howell knew that Niemann was talking about his labrum when he had asked Howell about where he had hurt prior to his surgery.
"I knew what was going on when he asked me that question, because that's what I did," Howell said. "I would ask guys who had injuries, 'Where did you hurt?' That means you're not doing so well. You don't ask anybody when you're feeling good, obviously. And when he asked me that, I knew. His velocity wasn't there, man. I just knew it was time for him in my heart."
Once Niemann's surgery was scheduled, he texted Howell the news. Howell remembered the tone of text as less than somber and he understood the feeling.
"He seemed excited, because whenever you have a problem, and you finally realize you're going to have surgery, you feel relieved," Howell said. "Because you always think that people around you think you're faking it, or you're making it up.
"You're thinking, 'I'm not being soft, I'm really hurt. I'm not being lazy.' And you want to move forward. So the day that you have surgery, you're taking your first step forward to recovery. And that's what I tried to pass on to him. And it's really not a big deal if you do the rehab. If you do the rehab -- full bore, four to six hours a day, whatever it is, everybody's different -- you can come back."
In future conversations, Niemann picked Howell's brain about his experience so he could best navigate the minefield of rehabbing his shoulder.
"Just trying to understand what hurdles to expect during this whole process," Niemann said. "Tommy John surgery -- anything with an elbow -- it's a one-way joint, it goes up and down. You fix that one thing and you're back in business.
"But the shoulder, being a 360-degree joint -- it moves in, out, up, down, all the way around. So it's tougher for things to be protocol. There are certain things and everybody reacts differently to different things. Seeing J.P. go through it has definitely given me the confidence that he went through it, so I can go through it."
Howell noted that he learned more about the journey and his shoulder than he ever cared to know.
"But it's one of those things where I wish I would have had the knowledge I had after my surgery, because I probably could have prevented it," Howell said. "It was just one of those things where you learn as you go, and for me, that was the case."
While Niemann doesn't have a team yet, he feels confident he will make a return at some point during the 2014 season.
"There's still nothing locked into place," Niemann said. "Everybody I've talked to has pretty much said I'm a second-half guy. Obviously that can be definitely sooner."
One thing is certain: Niemann won't soon forget how his little buddy has served as a sounding board and a fountain of knowledge for his comeback.
"If I didn't have a guy like that, who I saw coming out from the other side and having success, and sustain success, it would be a little different ballgame, you know, mentally," Niemann said. "Talking to him, getting the small pointers -- simple things like how to sleep. Or certain shirts you wear to make your shoulder feel better. Small things make a difference when you're trying to build and get stronger when you're coming off surgery. So having that input has been priceless."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.