May 15, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher J.A. Happ delivers a pitch against Cleveland Indians at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Did J.A Happ-en to Find A Revelation in Pitching?

Last year, I wrote about Esmil Rogers after a recent hot streak and thought “Oooh!  We may have something here.”  Turned out, it was just a giant tease.  So I told myself before getting way too excited over the recent pitching performance of J.A. Happ, I would chalk it up to, well… Sh*t HAPPens (You’re welcome Shaun).

Looking at Happ’s basic numbers through Brooks Baseball’s Pitch f/X, there really isn’t much of a difference.  In two out of Happ’s last three starts, he has been quite effective, including last night.  Watching the games, Sportsnet generally breaks down the percentages of pitch usage.  So it should be of no surprise when I say 66% of his pitches thrown have been of the fastball (FB) variety (excluding the cutter [CUT], since it’s thrown at 84 MPH, 10 MPH slower than the FB, and actually 2 MPH slower than his changeup [CHG]).  That seems to be in line with his normal approach, so nothing has really changed there.  Like most pitchers in baseball, Happ’s success relies on FB location.

Taking a deeper look at location, I’ve come up with this strikezone plot over the last three games.  Nothing in baseball is more important to a pitcher than getting ahead in the count.

VS PHL 5-5-14

In this start versus the Philadelphia Phillies, notice the number of 1′s in the strikezone.  That “1″ stands for the first pitch and location of the pitch each batter Happ faced, happened to see (no pun intended here).  The number of first pitch strikes on this evening were high, however his location was poor and he spent most of the evening driving up his pitch count on the succession of pitches.  Happ wound up walking four batters that evening.  By the looks of the location, he was lucky as well.  Many of his pitches were in the middle of the strike zone, yet Phillies hitters could only muster off three hits.  Despite this poor location, Happ inexplicably threw five shutout innings.

VS ANA 5-10-14

In Happ’s start versus the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (do we really still have to refer to them by this name?  C’mon man!), his location was everywhere, none of it really good.  Happ’s line?  2.1 IP 7 H 4 R 4 ER 1 BB 4 K.  While he did manage to strike out four hitters, he spent most of his short night battling back from being behind in the count.  His FB wasn’t very effective at all.  According to Brooks Baseball’s linear weights, which determines the success (outcome) of the pitch, anything positive means not very successful.  Happ’s FB was getting pounded at a 2.44 rate.  So even when he threw the pitch, it did him no justice.

VS CLE 5-15-14

Look at this start!  This is what Happ NEEDS to do in order to stay in this rotation.  Nevermind that cluster of “1″s in the upper corner (release point issue, which he corrected), check out the number of first pitch strikes and the location.  Look at the number of second pitch strikes and the location.  On very few occasions (for Happ anyway) did he let the hitters get ahead in the count.  He was extremely effective because of this, going 6 IPs 6 H 1 ER 2 BB and 4 K.  It’s the most complete start we’ve seen from Happ since Sept.28, 2013.

So what’s changed?  Essentially, Happ’s release point is the same, maybe slightly more over the top in last night’s start.  His velocity was also up a tick last night, reaching as high as 96, which was 2 MPH faster than it had been in the previous two starts.  The location was better, but looking at, his FIP was well over 4.50, while his xFIP was not much better averaging around 4.00.  Nothing about his GB% stands out.  His BABIP over the three games is all over the place.  It’s what I like to call “Happ Syndrome.”  This is essentially how it is going to be with Happ.  Honestly, it’s almost inexplicable how he’s been successful at all over this stretch.  Almost.

The one stat that glaringly stands out on FanGraphs is his LOB%.  Happ puts me on base at a rate that makes most Fortune 500 companies say “DAMN!  That’s a lot of people.”  Even J.P. Arencibia‘s OBP would go up if he faced Happ.  His LOB% in his two wins?  100%.  That is absolutely mindboggling and extremely lucky.

So essentially, if there’s one thing to take away from this article today: J.A. Happ may be doing well now, but don’t expect it to last.  There’s no way anybody can pitch this well for a prolonged period while carrying around a 1.72 WHIP (where it’s at over these last 3 starts).  Not a snowball’s chance in hell.

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Tags: J.A. Happ Toronto Blue Jays

  • Andrew van Laar

    I don’t know if he found something (he being Happ). I think every pitcher knows they need to throw first pitch strikes. Its whether he can throw those strikes or has the balls to throw them. Everyone knows you have to get ahead in the count, but does Happ have the stuff physically and mentally to do so is the question.

    Good article :) I always love the pitching graphs AND I didn’t know their site was free! Guess whose going on there more :D

    • Justin Jay

      Brooks Baseball’s creator, Dan Brooks, is a professor at Brown University in Rhode Island, which is where I’m from. He lives not too far from me. I’ve requested visits in the past for interviews, but I’ve been told he’s very busy. It’s a great site and I love using it. Once you figure out the purpose of everything, it’s extremely insightful, especially when being used in conjunction with the games.

      • Jack Stevenson

        I’m still of the opinion that Happ struggles with FB command because they convinced him to change his arm slot and this will continue for awhile. As a former pitcher, I can imagine how distracting this must be at 31 to change your muscle memory on the mound.. Getting into a game groove is always imperative. Did you watch that game a few years back when he stuck out 5 Yankees in succession while throwing virtually overhand ? I can’t figure out why this arm slot changed. I thought it was quite effective and his location troubles mainly a result of coming on and off the DL.

        • Michael Wray

          Happ has always struggled with command, whether it’s throwing over the top or from a lower angle. He’s looked good at times using both (not at the same time obv). I agree his body might be a bit thrown off by the change but I would say poor command probably has more to do with who he is as a pitcher than necessarily his release point.

          • Jack Stevenson

            I think “always” is not correct Michael. In 2009 as a rookie ,he had a whip of 1.285 and walked a batter every 3 innings. In 2012 with the Jays (small sample I admit), his whip was comparable although his walk rate was slightly higher. In 2011 he had a Houston defence behind him and everything skyrocketed. Last year he had the injury plague and it was his knee that suffered most. This is a case where stats are difficult to make any case and IMO, the jury is still out until we can see many more starts without extenuating circumstances. (must be the lot for Jays pitchers)

        • Justin Jay

          Thanks for the response Jack! I don’t disagree with you about the muscle memory. It’s not simple at all to make changes when you’re used to doing things a certain way.

          As far as against the Yankees go, are you referring to his time with Houston or in 2012 with Toronto in which both starts against the Yankees, he didn’t make it out of the 6th while giving up 4 runs?

          To be honest, Happ hasn’t been the same since his days with Philadelphia, and even those numbers are a bit misleading based off of his minor league track record. Then the injuries came. He shows glimpses of being good, but about as often as Esmil Rogers does, and Rogers has better stuff.

          It’s not really the arm slot as much as it’s just the repeatability of his pitching motion. The 3/4 arm drop actually added back some of the velocity he lost due to the arm injuries while in Houston. And like I said, it’s not really the release point, because the pitch f/X data shows it being being at around the same height in the same slot.

  • Shaun Doyle

    Thanks for the pun! It made me HAPPy.

    A great piece, too.