The Case Against J.A. Happ

Now that we’re about two weeks removed from the end of the World Series, a lot of the anti-Cole Hamels sentiment seems to have died down. The calls for the almost-26-year-old to be traded have been squelched and the Phillies fan base is focused on a potential acquisition of Roy Halladay via trade or a free agent signing of Chone Figgins, Adrian Beltre, or Mark DeRosa.

It was just sour grapes after losing a World Series that the Phillies could have won just as easily as they lost it. With Cliff Lee only guaranteed to be in Philadelphia for one more year, Hamels still is the future of the pitching staff. I have cited the BP article by Matt Swartz ad nauseam, but for the purposes of the article I would like to stress it once again: Cole Hamels was the same pitcher in 2009 that he was in ’08. It’s tough to believe because his ERA and WHIP speak of a contrary position.

When we analyze a pitcher, we must realize what is and what is not within the pitcher’s control. We know that they can’t control BABIP, and that they have no real impact on the defense behind them, and they can’t always pitch in a neutral or pitcher-friendly ballpark. What we do know is that they can control their control (strikeouts and walks) and, to a lesser extent, their batted ball splits between line drives, grounders, and fly balls.

As Swartz aptly illustrates, the difference between Hamels in ’08 and Hamels in ’09 in terms of what he can control is minimal. QERA, FIP, and xFIP (which are different variations of the same metric) have his 2008 between 3.67 and 3.75 and his 2009 between 3.63 and 3.72. He struck out and walked hitters at about the same rate, and even slightly improved. The homer-prone Hamels we all grew to loathe actually allowed a fewer rate of home runs.

I did not go through all of that to discuss Cole Hamels, however; I did it to discuss Rookie of the Year contender J.A. Happ. As with Hamels, Happ’s performance in ’09 has led many to believe that his performance was wholly indicative of talent and not so much of luck. Such is not the case, however. We would be sending Cole Hamels overseas to be knighted if he had enjoyed the same luck that Happ saw.

In ’09, Happ averaged about 6.5 strikeouts and 3 walks per nine innings. Not bad in and of itself. However, Hamels averaged more than a strikeout more and a walk less, and his overall K/BB ratio was nearly twice as good as Happ’s. What that means is that Happ was having his pitches make contact with bats and being put in the field of play, something out of his control.

Considering Happ finished with a sub-3 ERA, it is no surprise to learn that he sported a low .270 BABIP, which compares very favorably to Hamels’ .325 BABIP. Simply put, Happ’s 2.93 ERA does not do us any favors in trying to evaluate his true talent level. According to FanGraphs, Happ had the biggest favorable disparity between his ERA and FIP — a gap of nearly one and a half runs per nine innings (-1.40).

Factoring in all of the luck, Happ pitched like Javier Vazquez but his true talent level is  similar to, say, the Twins’ Scott Baker.

To continue the comparison, here’s a look at what hitters are doing when facing Happ and Hamels:

If I told you that the better pitcher in this graph would be one who…

  • Gets hitters to swing at (O-Swing) and miss (O-Contact) pitches out of the strike zone more often
  • Gets hitters to swing and miss at (Z-Contact) pitches inside the strike zone
  • Overall induces less contact (Swing, Contact)
  • Gets ahead in the count more often

…you probably wouldn’t disagree with me. And that better pitcher would be Cole Hamels, not J.A. Happ.

That leads me into my main point: the potential use of Happ as trade bait. The ideal scenario would have seen Happ winning the NL Rookie of the Year award, as it would drive his trade value up regardless of whether or not we think GM’s actually pay attention to these awards with any vigor. Unfortunately, that didn’t pan out as Florida’s Chris Coghlan won the award over a more-deserving Andrew McCutchen. But that is neither here nor there.

As you are most likely aware, the Phillies are one of a few teams seriously interested in acquiring Roy Halladay in a trade. During the summer, the Blue Jays rejected a package of Carlos Carrasco, Jason Donald, Michael Taylor, and J.A. Happ, thinking they could get more either from another team or from the Phillies out of desperation. Turns out the Jays never could flip Halladay, so now any team that wants to acquire him will only be doing so for one full season and one potential post-season before having to attempt to sign him to a multi-year contract or allowing him to move into free agency (he will no doubt be a Type A, which will result in draft pick compensation for whatever team he ends up with).

So, the Jays’ new GM Alex Anthopoulos has a lot less leverage to work with than his predecessor J.P. Ricciardi did five months ago. However, the Jays still have near-complete control over Halladay aside from his no-trade clause. He is still a box office draw, and there will be competition which will drive up the price as well. Still, a package similar to Carrasco, Donald, Taylor, and Happ will never be offered.

The Phillies have big things in store for Taylor, Domonic Brown, and Kyle Drabek, their three most highly-touted prospects. Even for Halladay, it is unlikely that the organization would part with any of them. The next-best trade lure is Happ.

J.C. Bradbury, of the Sabernomics blog, recently posted a controversial article at The Huffington Post where he debunked several “hot stove myths”, one of which was:

GMs have made mistakes in the past and will make mistakes again, but they’re not dumb enough to act on a meaningless hot/cold streak. You can’t sell high or buy low and profit financially because all GMs understand these things.

While we don’t have the ability to go back in time and pinpoint exactly what information a GM used in deciding to pull the trigger on a trade or signing, we do know that generally, GM’s, like any other human, are prone to acting rashly on perceived patterns. They may wrongfully weight a small sample of innings or plate appearances and assume that the player will perform at the same level over a larger spread of opportunities. Or they will not heed — or be completely unaware of — large luck factors.

As such, the Phillies have a great opportunity with Happ. He pitched way over his true talent level last season and will be unlikely to repeat it without improvement in areas within his control. His value is as high as it will ever be. Hopefully Phillies GM Ruben Amaro is aware of this. If so, he has nothing to lose by picking up the phone, placing a call to Anthopoulos, and seeing exactly how he values Happ in a trade for Halladay. Hang up immediately if he demands Happ and Taylor, Brown, or Drabek. Otherwise, it’s time to sell high on Happ.

Over the past few seasons, the Phillies have struck lightning in a bottle on many occasions. Brad Lidge’s perfect season and an incredibly deep bench were a couple examples from ’08, and Happ is an example from ’09. In roulette, just because the ball lands on black several times in a row does not mean that it will continue to land on black, and nor does it mean that there is an intangible bias towards black. Likewise, the Phillies should realize that they struck gold with Happ last season, and now is as good a time as any to capitalize on it.

Image above courtesy The Fightins.