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.

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  1. holeplug

    July 16, 2010 09:44 AM

    I think his elbow is just fubared. Wouldn’t be surprised if he has surgery before the season is over. His velocity was way off in his rehab starts.

  2. Bill

    July 16, 2010 10:21 AM

    Happ isn’t nearly as good as his stats last year, but come on, he’s no Kyle Kendrick. Happ has always shown at least a little bit of the ability to strike batters out, whereas Kendrick never has.

  3. phatj

    July 16, 2010 10:26 AM

    9.2 K/9 in the minors.

  4. Sophist

    July 16, 2010 11:17 AM

    He’s not the pitcher he was last year, but I do think the command problems are injury related. If we want to make something of his 2 starts this year, it’s helpful to see that they were very different.

    5 IP, 2 BB, 5 K
    5.1 IP, 6 BB, 0 K

    Possible that he got injured sometime in between the 2 or during the second start. That’s 3.6 BB9, 9 K9 in his first start (about normal) and about 6 BB9, 0 K9 in the second (not).

    Story of the Phillies season to some extent.

  5. Sophist

    July 16, 2010 11:21 AM

    Also, isn’t Happ’s velocity way down in his rehab starts?

  6. Phylan

    July 16, 2010 11:29 AM

    I was thinking when I saw “the Phillies are unlikely to pursue pitching before the trade deadline” that Rube is banking on Happ coming back and posting a sub-3.00 ERA again and that lack of foresight would not be that surprising to me.

  7. Steve-O

    July 17, 2010 11:09 AM

    Not that the FO keeps secrets or anything but I can’t figure out why RAJ is looking for a starter unless Blanton is still hurt and/or Happ is a TJ candidate in waiting. The least of the Phils worries is SP the real problem is the shitty bench and BP.

  8. PhillyFriar

    July 17, 2010 03:46 PM

    Obviously, agree with the general premise that Happ can’t post the same numbers as last year.

    As for particulars, though, I do think that the assertion that he’s not 100% right now has some merit. The substantially decreased velocity is one indicator; a second is that, while (as you point out) he was never a control freak in the minors, whenever he’s been healthy (read: every year but 2007), he’s managed much better peripherals than his 2010 numbers. Compare his 2008 Triple-A numbers to this year’s, and tell me something isn’t wrong here…

    2008: 10.1 K/9 — 3.2 BB/9 — 0.93 HR/9 — 3.68 FIP
    2010: 8.8 K/9 — 7.0 BB/9 — 1.40 HR/9 — 5.19 FIP

    More broadly, I’ll admit that I’m sick of hearing how fluky Happ’s 2009 was. This isn’t directed at you in particular, Bill, but anyone who understands sabermetrics gets it — Happ isn’t a 2.93 ERA pitcher. That’s a straw man that’s been bludgeoned to death by Keith Law and others since last October, and those of us who argue realistically on Happ’s behalf (i.e. that, when he’s healthy, he’s a nice asset as a cost-controlled #4/5 starter) get lumped in with the WIP crowd who think he’s a “clutch” “gamer” who’s better than Hamels.

  9. Bill Baer

    July 17, 2010 09:03 PM

    Innings pitched in 2008 at AAA: 135.0
    Innings pitched in 2010 at AAA: 19.1

    I think you’ll agree that the error bars on his 2010 stats, given 19.1 IP, are quite large.

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