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
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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