The Truth About J.A. Happ

Despite an improved pitching staff compared to last season, the Phillies have been on the lookout for arms that could bolster the starting rotation. There were rumors bringing Cliff Lee back in Phillies pinstripes, but they were ultimately silenced. Then there was Dan Haren and Roy Oswalt. Some of us have been clamoring for Brett Myers. Pedro Martinez is still unsigned, you know.

As you can see, the Phillies do have options if they’re willing to pay the price and take the risk. The more conservative among us are banking on the return of J.A. Happ, currently rehabbing in the Minor Leagues. Happ, of course, was knighted the future of the Phillies’ rotation after a breakout year in which he posted a 2.93 ERA in 166 innings of work. He was credited as a big help to the Phillies, who won their third straight division title. And rightly so.

Going into 2010, many wondered if he would be able to replicate his success from ’09. His strikeout and walk rates were average at best and his ERA was suppressed by an unsustainable .270 BABIP and subsequent 85.2% strand rate. Among qualified starters, that was by far the highest strand rate, beating Matt Cain‘s 81.6% by a mile (the league average is 72%). Additionally, Happ did not have any special ability to induce ground balls. Taking that information into account, it is no surprise that his 4.37 SIERA was in direct conflict with his 2.93 ERA.

Happ, however, defied the odds in his first two starts of 2010 before landing on the disabled list. Despite striking out only five and walking eight in 10 and one-third innings, Happ did not allow a single earned run to cross home plate. Yeah, that’s right: a 0.00 ERA.

Fast forward through his injury to his Minor League rehab starts, where he has struggled. In 34 and two-thirds innings of work, Happ struck out 31 and walked 19. The strikeouts are good; the walks are not. Additionally, Happ has allowed 44 hits and 25 earned runs (6.49 ERA). His performance merited the Phillies filing for an extension on Happ’s rehabilitation so that they are able to retain a useful player until he shows marked improvement.

Many are simply attributing Happ’s struggles to his injury, but that is simply not the case. Happ’s walk rate of 4.9 per nine innings is high, but not substantially higher than his Minor League average of 3.6. He has also allowed a bunch of hits, but as we know, that is not something pitchers have a whole lot of control over. When his rehab stats are put side-by-side with his 2009 Major League stats, you are left scrambling for some sort of explanation. The easiest conclusion is that Happ must be struggling because he’s still injured.

Todd Zolecki has this quote from GM Ruben Amaro:

“He’s not quite the same pitcher as he was last year yet, but he’s getting close.”

He will never be the same pitcher he was last year. He is not a maven of control, he is not able to miss bats on a frequent basis, and he has no special batted ball abilities. He is simply mundane. Happ pitches like a 4.50 ERA pitcher and that is what should be expected. His 2009 was a complete and utter fluke.

When Happ returns, he will likely usurp the role of Kyle Kendrick. As they say, “six in one hand, half a dozen in the other.” If the Phillies want to bolster the starting rotation, waiting for Happ is not the solution.