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.

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18 comments

  1. BS

    November 16, 2009 05:51 PM

    We can only hope Anthopoulos would consider Happ as a centerpiece in a Halladay trade, and hasn’t come to the same conclusion as you have. And all this is without accounting for the AL/NL difficulty factor into Happ’s numbers too.

  2. Shooter-B

    November 16, 2009 10:20 PM

    Interesting way to go, but probably a good idea. If they can’t use Happ to pull a blockbuster, they may want to use him to go after a young replacement arm. Sell ‘em while you can I guess…

  3. Harley

    November 17, 2009 10:46 AM

    I was praying that Amaro would deal Happ at least year’s deadline for this very reason…he did not pitch anywhere near his true talent level. His upside is a #3/4 pitcher at best, and in the AL I’m not even sure that high.

    If we can get any type of valuable piece for him we need to trade him this offseason, i.e. Halladay, Vazquez, Valverde, draft picks even…

    Unfortunately, I read somewhere that the Phillies are the only team in the MLB to not employ a sabermetric analyst in their front office, and therefore I don’t think Amaro realizes that Happ’s value is at an all-time high right now and sure to drop next season.

  4. Brian

    November 17, 2009 04:41 PM

    You can say Happ is not a great pitcher by looking at stats all you want. What matters most is what happens on the field and not on paper. He may not have had the strikeouts that Hamels got but what about the balls put in play? Hamels allowed more fly outs then Happ. This means that even though people make contact more often on Happ, they aren’t getting solid swings. You can not look at stats for info. Otherwise guys who are not power pitchers would look terrible(Maddux, Glavin, ect)

  5. Bill

    November 18, 2009 10:47 AM

    Just because Amaro and the Phils front office don’t employ a sabermetric analyst doesn’t mean they are dumb. Anybody can read fangraphs and look at the stats, and I’m sure smart guys like Amaro understand advanced stats, you pretty much have to nowadays in baseball.

  6. sj44

    November 18, 2009 11:16 AM

    fat chance in hell=trading happ for halladay

  7. Mike

    November 18, 2009 05:45 PM

    The important question isn’t whether Happ and any collection of minor league / non-arbitration eligible players (i.e. Drabek, Taylor, Brown) is more or less valuable than Halladay. The question is what other combination of players could the Phillies sign / retain using the $20M per year they would give Halladay.

    And if Happ isn’t around to be the #3 or #4 in 2011, who is exactly? Is there someone in the farm system aside from Drabek who will be ready to fill out the back end of the rotation? Because looking ahead, the Phillies will have all of Cole Hamels and possibly Blanton under contract. They are 50/50 on Lee and Moyer is retiring. Continuing that scenario, the Phillies will just end up giving $6M to a journeyman to deliver the same 4.50 ERA as we could get from Happ for 10% of the cost.

    In all, let’s not be so hasty to deal a proven starter who the Phillies can essentially pay nothing to until he is 30.

  8. H

    November 18, 2009 10:11 PM

    I agree with Mike. The sabremetric analysis of Happ has gone too far. So what if Happ’s 12-4 record with a sub-3.00 ERA was a mirage? Bill James’s 2010 projection for Happ is a 4.31 ERA and a 4.43 FIP over 188 IP in 31 starts. With the Phillies offense and defense, that is the kind of production the Phillies need out of their #4 starter and there’s a lot of value getting that production at Happ’s salary.

  9. adam

    November 19, 2009 03:07 AM

    This measurement of pitchers is shit. What about ground-ball pitchers? They will almost always have a lower BABIP because they get a majority of outs on ground-balls, not strike outs. strikeout pitchers generally allow more fly balls and line drives than ground-ball pitchers, which causes a higher BABIP because the baseballs are hit harder and to larger areas of the baseball field.

    If you watch the Phillies, Happ’s fastball/changeup/curveball all dip hard at the plate, causing ground-balls. Hamel’s fastball and curveball don’t dip nearly as hard as Happ’s, therefore causing more flyballs.

  10. Bill Baer

    November 19, 2009 03:29 AM

    Adam,

    BABIP on ground balls: .237
    BABIP on fly balls: .138

    Source: BBref

    strikeout pitchers generally allow more fly balls and line drives than ground-ball pitchers

    I ran a quick correlation using 2009’s data. The r-square, which shows how much of X is caused by Y, is a very low .077. Basically, that means that ~8% of a pitcher’s strikeout rate can be explained by their line drive rate. It’s meaningless.

    There’s a similar correlation (.079) between K/9 rate and ground ball rate.

    If you watch the Phillies, Happ’s fastball/changeup/curveball all dip hard at the plate, causing ground-balls. Hamel’s fastball and curveball don’t dip nearly as hard as Happ’s, therefore causing more flyballs.

    Happ’s FB% in 2009: 43%
    Hamels’ FB% in 2009: 39%

    Using Pitch F/X data from FanGraphs, here’s the pitchers’ average vertical movement on each of their pitches (the lower the number, the lower in the zone the pitch is)…

    Happ FB: 12.2
    Hamels FB: 12.5

    Happ CH: 10.5
    Hamels CH: 8.2

    Happ CV: -2.0
    Hamels CV: -3.8

  11. Bill Baer

    November 19, 2009 03:35 AM

    Bill James’s 2010 projection for Happ is a 4.31 ERA and a 4.43 FIP over 188 IP in 31 starts.

    H,

    If I told you that Livan Hernandez would be in the Phillies’ rotation in 2010, you would probably be disgusted, and rightfully so.

    He had a 4.44 FIP in 2009, just one one-hundredth of a point higher than Happ’s projected 4.43 FIP in 2010.

    You’re right, even a 1.5 WAR player — as Happ is projected to be — has value. And you’re right again that Happ will come cheap.

    But if you have the means (and the Phillies do) to upgrade from a 1.5 WAR pitcher to a 7.5 WAR pitcher, then you do it. Roy Halladay will be paid about $16 million in 2010. He was paid $14.25 in ’09 and was worth $33 million in free agent dollars. Halladay is a very, very solid investment, especially for a team that is looking for immediate upgrades as opposed to longer-term solutions.

  12. H

    November 19, 2009 07:59 AM

    Bill,

    If Happ could be the headliner in a deal for Halladay, I’ll drive him to Toronto. For that matter, I’d have no problem including Happ in a deal with Taylor or Brown and Drabek, especially if you can lock Doc up with an extension. However, I think Alex Anthopolous would sooner keep Doc all year and net two first round picks than trade him for a deal headlined by Happ. He, too, probably has enough of a grasp of sabremetrics to expect Happ to regress, especially in the AL East. Therefore, if the premise is trade Happ for Halladay, I agree. If the premise is just a general “use Happ as trade bait”, let’s not go too far and under-value him.

  13. Boethius

    November 19, 2009 08:18 AM

    I agree that Hamels is better than his basic 2009 stats and Happ not as good as his 2009 stats, and maybe Hamels is a better pitcher than Happ.

    But using a comparison of Hamels to Happ to argue Happ should be traded because he is currently overvalued is a specious and flawed polemic.

    1. Even if you devalue Happ by emphasizing certain Sabremetrics, his stats are still too good (and superior to others) unless you choose to exclusively focus on a couple of select stats.
    2. Happ is exactly what every team wants, a very cheap SP who projects as a 3 or 4 at minimum with a decent shot at a #2.
    3. We are not the Yankees, so filling the roster is a zero sum game. If you trade a cheap valued player to acquire someone expensive, you’ve lost the ability to upgrade elsewhere.
    4. Lastly, and I don’t I know why I don’t hear this more often, I would not trade Happ straight up for Holladay. In part because of #3 above, and because Holladay would be with us for 1 year and $20 million. I will predict in 2010 he will be worth 2-3 wins more than Happ. There is no way Holladay signs on with the Phils after 2010. Phils need to (try to) pay Howard, Victorino, Werth, Hamels, Ruiz when their current contracts are up. I prefer to pay and keep our homegrown guys as opposed to paying FA whores. After this year, I would feel dirty spending my way into being more competitive.

  14. Bill Baer

    November 19, 2009 12:03 PM

    Boethius,

    4.50 FIP guys are a dime a dozen. The Phillies can call someone up from the Minors, trade a fringe Minor Leaguer, or simply sign a free agent as they did with Pedro Martinez.

    I don’t mean to throw Happ to the curb, as there is the chance he improves. I’m not advocating that Happ needs to be off the team; I’m simply saying that if we can make a significant upgrade as with Roy Halladay, it needs to be made.

    If you trade a cheap valued player to acquire someone expensive, you’ve lost the ability to upgrade elsewhere.

    The Phillies don’t have a lot of pressing needs. Spending half or 60% of their remaining payroll space on Roy Halladay isn’t going to severely hamstring them, especially considering the upgrade from 1.5 WAR to 7.5. Halladay, by the way, will make $15.75 in 2010 and was worth $33 million free agent dollars. He is a hell of a bargain theoretically.

    I will predict in 2010 he will be worth 2-3 wins more than Happ.

    What went into your prediction? No offense, but I think you just completely made that up.

    Happ, even with his great season in ’09, was only worth 1.8 WAR. Roy Halladay, in a tougher league and certainly a much tougher division, was worth 7.3 WAR in ’09 and 7.4 in ’08, and has averaged about 6 WAR per season since ’02.

    Phils need to (try to) pay Howard, Victorino, Werth, Hamels, Ruiz when their current contracts are up.

    A) Acquiring Halladay doesn’t hamstring them from doing this.

    B) They don’t need to pay all five players. Howard, Victorino, and Ruiz are all expendable.

    Werth is a free agent after next season.
    Howard and Victorino are gone after the 2011 season.
    Ruiz and Hamels are free agents in 2013.

    That’s a long time from now and Werth is the only player tangentially related to an acquisition of Roy Halladay.

  15. Bill Baer

    November 19, 2009 12:11 PM

    By the way, I’d like to highlight this comment that pointed out that the chances of the Phillies acquiring Halladay are slim.

    Let’s not go overboard on hypotheticals that are unlikely to be realized. :)

  16. Boethius

    November 19, 2009 03:41 PM

    Bill:

    I was a member of SABR in its early days and very much see the value of SABRmetrics. And I laugh at people like Conlin who disparage the quantitave arguments because “Sabremetricians never played and don’t understand the true game.” I just don’t think Happ’s valuation and whether we should trade for Halladay should be argued primarily on 2009 FIP or WAR, and I have a philosphical issue with trading away a lot of young talent, whether you feel it is proven or not, for short term solutions. One, in this instance I don’t see the some of the SABRmetrics as good predictors, especially for Happ. Two, trading away very young players who have already performed well in the bigs in addition to top prospects for a one year player is not the way to run a franchise and have long term success. Three, I said predict not calculate. If I value other more traditional statistics then I could calculate Happ would perform better than Halladay or Hamels, but I am not doing that. In Happ I see a good pitcher who is developing into a better pitcher, and in Halladay I see a great pitcher who is likely to put up similar #s in ’10 as he did in ’09, but is beginning to show susceptibility to injury. Four, I feel that although paying Halladay for 2010 is not too difficult, paying him beyond that is, and there is no way the Phillies will pay whatever the Dodgers, Mets, Angels, Boston, or whoever will pay for him. And if you were to pay him that money you can say goodbye to half of those FAs eligible by 2013.

    Finally, I would reiterate that unless you are the Yankees, you must give enough young talent a chance to succeed (and be cheap labor) as you cannot sustain a team on free agency. In this respect, I admire the Braves’ braintrust and pity the Mets’.

  17. Bill Baer

    November 19, 2009 03:59 PM

    Boethius,

    – Which metrics don’t you feel are good predictors? And do you specifically think they are poor predictors of Happ, or of pitchers in general?

    – The Phillies are in win-now mode. They were two wins away from a World Series last year and are primed to make yet another run at it in a weak National League. Passing up golden opportunities in favor of long-term goals is, in my opinion, not the way to go.

    – Halladay has not shown susceptibility to injury. He has had four straight seasons with 31+ starts and 220+ innings.

    – There’s no need to sign Halladay long-term beyond that. He’ll be a Type A free agent and can sign with the Yankees or Red Sox, or whoever else wants him. Frankly, I don’t want the Phillies to sign him to a long-term deal.

    – There’s a balance between young, cheap talent and proven, expensive talent. The Yankees are a great example. A lot of their talent is home grown (see: Jeter, Cano, Rivera, etc.) and, like the Phillies, have shown recent resistance to trading away that young talent (see: Hughes, Chamberlain). But when they have seen an opportunity to make a significant upgrade, they’ve done so (see: the Marte/Nady trade).

    The Phillies, at this point, want to minimize risk. Happ, like it or not, is a risk because what he did in 2009 is likely a mirage and it is unclear what he will provide for the team going forward.

    The upgrade from Happ to Halladay is, on average, a 5-WAR improvement with a conservative estimate. In the 2010 playoffs, 11 to 19 games, the duo of Lee and Halladay would give the Phillies as close to an automatic ~6 wins as you can get.

  18. Boethius

    November 20, 2009 01:25 PM

    Well, FIP for one, with respect to Happ. There is no arguing the general predictive ability of certain stats when the correlations are established with enough observations. The problem with weighting a given stat to build a case is that although you can always look at bulk data to say there is a strong correlation between this stat and wins (or some other form of success), or this one stat is a better predictor than is this other stat, is that you can’t dismiss the other stats you argue are not-as-good predictors. They also have some predictive value, and in fact one can always build a better predictive algorithm that considers multiple factors/stats. I can point to more traditional stats and their predicitive value and say this makes Happ this good. Better yet, I could (if I were once again a freshman math major and not someone who lost almost all passion for math when I hit Ring theory) probably build an algorithm that would suggest Happ is a better pitcher than suggested by his 2009 FIP, and it could be proven to be a better overall predictor than FIP. I won’t because there’s a line I draw for quantitative analysis, to protect me from losing appreciation of non-quantitative aspects of the game (a minor concession that guys like Charlie Manual actually know some things I don’t). I certainly appreciate what BABIP menas in general, but it does not hold true for certain pitchers with whom making contact is not so hard but smoking the ball is (Maddux types.)

    Instead I will say my feel for the statistical gestalt and the stuff Happ exhibits have makes his value more than what his FIP labels him. This is essentially what all the other contrarians are saying on this blog. Not saying you don’t have a point (and it certainly stimulates good discussion/analysis), just there is considerable room for debate.

    Ironically, I was thinking exactly along your lines before the trade deadline, but once trading Happ no longer gave us Halladay for the rest of 2009 plus 2010, I thought giving up Happ would be too much. 2 improved shots at being WS champs yes, one- no. Like the Lee trade much better, doubt anyone we gave up, excepting Marson, will ever amount to much.

    I thought Halladay missed some starts last half of 2009, I might be wrong. He seems to be a freak capable of a tremendous workload, not sure if all those miles on him mean anything.

    I do not agree the Yankees have a good mix of homegrown plus FA. Jeter and Rivera are their only great homegrown players, they came up 15+ years ago, and even a blind squirrel… After that Posada is good, Cano is good for one year. No one else of note. They are a sub-.500 team without CC, A-Rod, and Tex. Even worse without Burnett, Damon and Matsui. Phils- they won in 2008 with no FA of consequence.

    Lastly, because so many things can still happen that will blow up your season even if you make all the sacrificing, short term moves to win (see 2007-2009 Mets) PLUS it is often that the best team doesnt win away, I actually think the math is on the side of those who emphasize keeping and developing their own talent. Perhaps the Bosox and their acquistion of Beckett worked and a Halladay deal could work similarly for the Phils (but for only 1 year). Although I imagine it would be interesting to see how good the Bosox would be with Ramirez at SS. The Yankees dont count here because there is obviously no ceiling to their spending. However, one might judge that given what they’ve spent over the last 9 years they’ve underachieved.

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