Happ-y Go Lucky?

26-year old rookie pitcher J.A. Happ has been a revelation for the Phillies. With 10-2 record and a 2.59 ERA for a team that’s a lock for the NL East pennant, Happ may be pitching his way to the NL Rookie of the Year award.

So then, is Happ for real? That depends on what you mean by “for real”. If you mean legit big leaguer? Sure, absolutely. Is he a genuine top of the rotation starter? Well, let’s not get too worked up.

Right off the bat, his ERA-FIP differential is a striking 1.57. His strikeout (6.2) and walk rate (3.3) both are average. His HR/FB rate is 7.6%, pretty suspect, especially for a Philly pitcher. His left on base % is 86%, and his BABIP is at an unsustainably low .252 mark. His expected fielding independent ERA (xFIP) is 4.75. Reading various scouting reports on Happ, the group-think seems to be that he’s a 4th starter. That would make an xFIP of 4.75 feel about right. So there you have it. Red flags o’plenty. I would, however, expect his K’s to go up a bit based on his minor league numbers.

Digging a little deeper, let’s look at Happ’s repertoire, as this is where things get interesting. Few pitchers throw the fastball more than Happ. He throws the pitch 71.5% of the time and for a good reason, the pitch has been worth 18.6 runs above average. Pitchers that throw the fastball as often and effectively as Happ are either: A.) Flame-throwers like Clayton Kershaw or B.) Extreme sinker-ballers like Joel Pineiro. Happ is neither. His fastball averages 89.7 MPH and it’s straight as an arrow. No, really, check it out; it’s actually kind of bizarre. Here is a chart of his vertical and horizontal movement from his last start against the Mets –


The pitch, on average, has 4.5 inches less vertical movement than the average four-seamer, but three inches more ‘rise’. I have the tendency to think a pitch this straight might get punished, but it’s giving hitters fits. There’s an interesting theory out there that because of Happ’s freakishly long wingspan (he’s 6-6), he gets more extension towards home plate, making his perceived velocity to the hitter 94 MPH. That would explain a lot. It reminds me of Chris Young, pre-injury.

Young's 7/4/07 start

Young’s 7/4/07 start

To compliment the heat, Happ also features a decent slider, along with a decent change-up and curve. Put this all together and you have the marks of a solid, cost-controlled piece of the Phillies’ rotation who happens to be on one heck of a nice run at the moment. Happ has benefited from some luck, but he has been more than just lucky. He’s actually pretty good. Not this good, but better than average.

I’m grateful to Eric Seidman for sharing some of his insights for this post.

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Erik Manning is the founder of Future Redbirds and covers the Cardinals for Heater Magazine. You can get more of his analysis and rantings in bite-sized bits by following him on twitter.

17 Responses to “Happ-y Go Lucky?”

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  1. Jamie says:

    he really bears down when people are on base, too. i dont’ know how he does it. but he does.

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    • don says:

      He’s not doing it with strikeouts, the difference between his K/BB from the windup and from the stretch is higher than the league average.

      His BABIP with runners on is .196. With RISP .143. With 2 outs and RISP .093.

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      • Dan says:

        I noticed the extreme difference for Happ from the windup vs. the stretch. I can find no real explination for it. From the small amount of digging I did, it seems that a pitcher is generally a lot better from the windup than the stretch, so that causes me to wonder if there are any pitchers who over their careers have done better from the stretch? If not, it seems clear Happ will regress. If so, there may be hope for him to outperform his FIP going forward.

        All in all, he reminds me quite a bit of Kent Mercker, another pitcher who always seemed to pitch better than his pure stuff would seem to indicate.

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    • BlackOps says:

      Grit and passion.

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  2. NEPP says:

    He’s not a 2s ERA guy but he’s a legit starter. For whatever reason, hitters have trouble with his fastball and he’s pretty good at locating it where he wants to.

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    • verd14 says:

      The Happ phenomenon was talked about last night on the MLB network. They cited his deceptive mechanics / delivery as the reason for hitters inability to pick up his fastball.

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  3. nick says:

    I do believe he could be an average 3 starter for his career or a solid 4 but there is no way he maintains this pace. The HR rate is bound to go up for an extreme flyball pitcher that pitches in a small ballpark such as Citizens Bank. He’s a nice find for the Phillies but as a Braves fan I find it incredible when Phillies fans suggest he will be better than or equal to Tommy Hanson

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    • Nick says:

      no. hes gonna b good, iv been watching him for years now. he may not keep this up. but hes gonna hav a darn good carrer maybe as a 3 or even a 2. im telling u hes got a future. keep an eye on this kid! and o btw NL ROY BABY!

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  4. Kris says:

    That is one odd PFX chart. It’s not just his fastball that’s straight, everything’s straight. I really need to watch this kid pitch, because for the most part — if the pitch is in the strike-zone, it’s staying there. I’m surprised that with a BB/9 over three, batters just can’t tee off on this kid.

    I’m confused. I’ll watch this kid pitch next chance I get.

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    • The A Team says:

      I think what will strike you right off the bat is that he is a smart pitcher with good command. His control is a little iffy, but when he misses it’s off the plate rather than down the cock. He’s gotten away with a mediocre walk rate so far but really needs to improve in that category to be more than a #3-4 guy.

      His stuff isn’t fantastic but his pitch strategy is strong and doesn’t rely on any kind of patterns making me believe that beyond the numbers he could be a 3.5-4 ERA type pitcher going forward

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  5. Ron says:

    Nick, I am a Phillies fan and I wouldn’t even think of suggesting that Happ will be better than Hanson. I’m not sure that you would find many educated Phils fans who would. Now if you talk to the casual, rose-colored glasses variety….

    That said, this isn’t about Hanson, it’s about Happ. The kid is a gamer. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop and so far it hasn’t. Hopefully his run continues through the playoffs. I hope the organization stays realistic when his luck catches up (ala Kendrick). But if he is expected to remain a #4 (maybe a 3) for the duration, I can live happily with that.

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    • nick says:

      I know, i’ve just developed a bad taste for Happ with all the love he receives from the W-L loving fan and ESPN but the kid has been a very pleasant surprise for the Phillies. Looking back to the offseason he wasn’t even expected to contribute much and if anything it’d be out of the pen but he’s turned into a very good MOR guy. It’ll be interesting to see if he can hold off on a fall like Kendrick but those numbers (namely the BABIP with RISP) are just ridiculous

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  6. BallDude says:

    This Happ dude is smart and has got lots of poise and grit on the mound. He made an amazing fielding play last game where he shoveled the ball to first base from on the ground. He never gives up. He eats up innings and seems to get stronger as a game goes on. He’s not going to have a 2.66 ERA forever – what pitcher does? And maybe his peripherals aren’t what we are trained to look for but he’s pitched well on every level of ball he’s played and I’ll take him on my team anyday,

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  7. Jon says:

    Phillies fans are tough and as Billy Wagner recently said, “It’s hard to play there, those fans expect everything.” Well for whatever reason they really like this Happ guy. I checked out the Phillies blogs during all the trade rumors and well over a majority of people did not want to give Happ up in any trade. I talked to a Philadelphia friend who said how so many people liked how Happ pitched his guts out for a month not knowing if he’d still be on the team and for a couple of weeks after the Lee trade not knowing if he’d be in the bullpen. And get a runner in scoring position, Happ just seems to be unflappable and get the next batters out.

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  8. Abreutime says:

    As much as stats guys may automatically believe that a guy like Happ is overrated based on amorphous claims of grit, clutch, etc, there’s more to it than that. His high K-rate in the minors suggest there is room for improvement in the stats that are FIP inputs. And amusingly, if you compare Happ’s peripherals with Matt Cain’s, their stats are eerily similar. These are 2 solid pitchers who would be very good number 3s.

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  9. B says:

    He’s 6’6 and has deception in his delivery, so his fastball plays up. His release point is closer to the plate than most pitchers because of his size and he hides the ball really well. Velocity readings don’t tell the whole story.

    He’ll have a decent career, he’s a decent pitcher. He’s a smart kid too, he attended Northwestern.

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