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


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

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.

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.

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.

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 FanGraphs.com, 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.