Friday, November 30, 2012

Why the Negativity about the Jays' #5 Starter?

While 'tis the season for prospect analysis, I figured since we've already got a series about that going on here (and I happen to also know jack about prospects or how to project them), I'd pitch in (get it?) a series on analysing the performances of some key players over the past season, and using that information to project what we might see from them in 2013. I have no idea how long I plan to keep this up for, or how many players I intend to look at, and I'll also interrupt it with random posts about potential roster moves over the rest of the winter (especially now that the winter meetings have begun), but I do know one thing for sure. And that is that I'm going to talk about JA Happ right now. So without further ado...

JA Happ is someone AA really tried to get in the Halladay deal, but the Phils wouldn't part with him. The Halladay deal, as you probably know, is a great exercise in analyzing prospect value. The Phillies' 4 best prospects at the time were Happ, Gose, Drabek and Dominic Brown. The Jays were able to get only Drabek from this list, and unfortunately he's kinda flamed out. So did Brown though, and then so did Happ. Ironically though, the Jays ended up eventually landing both Gose and Happ later on through other teams. We're still not sure whether Gose is gonna be a defense-only 4th OF, or fringy regular, or whether he'll find that elusive hit tool and become an all-star. But that's for another time. This is about Happ.

Happ was very highly regarded as he rose through the Phillies' system, and broke into the majors in 2008 and 2009, where he did some work in the rotation and the bullpen. In 2010 he became a full-time starter, playing for both the Phillies and then the Astros, though he was limited in innings due to injury. In fact, he has never made it past 166 innings in any season of his career. Still, from 2008-2010 he did pitch quite well. At least in terms of the results. His ERAs looked very nice those years, but the truth is his peripherals didn't at all. His BB% was always well above average, and his K/BB below 2:1. This made for xFIPs that were consistently in the mid 4's, well above his ERAs. But still, guys like Jarrod Parker are still pretty highly regarded even though his ERA was also way better than what his peripherals would suggest. In 2011, though, Happ's luck seemed to finally run out, as his xFIP remained in the mid 4's but his ERA ballooned to 5.35. This seemed like expected regression, and Happ seemed like a pitcher who would average out to an ERA of about 4.50 over his career. That's a fringe 5th starter on most teams.

And then 2012 happened. In about 150 innings, Happ's ERA hovered around the mid 4's, which is close to his career average, and also in line with what his advanced stats always predicted he would do. The thing is though, those advanced stats went way up. In 2012, Happ's xFIP was 3.92 and his SIERA was even better at 3.79. These numbers are why Happ was worth a 1.8 fWAR in just 145 innings. What's more, is that one could argue that his numbers were perhaps even lower than they could have been, since he did spend some time moving between the bullpen and rotation, hurting the consistency that many players feel they need. Also, if my memory serves me correctly, in his first few starts as a Blue Jay, he was terrific through 4 or 5 innings, and then seemed to tire around the 5th or 6th inning, which really took away from how well he had pitched until that point in the game. If you chalk that up to adjusting from the bullpen to the rotation, then it's possible that Happ was even significantly better as a Jay than a glance at the total numbers would suggest.

Let's take a look at what led to that big improvement in xFIP and SIERA this season.

Well, to sum up, Happ basically just flat out improved in almost every advanced category across the board. His good xFIP/SIERA was no fluke. Happ's K/9 spiked to an elite 8.95, a K% of 23%. To bring these numbers to life, that means Happ made every batter he faced strike out as often as Colby Rasmus! And what's more, is that this spike in strikeouts is actually supported by his plate discipline numbers. Happ had a SwStr% of 9.5%. That's well above his career average of 8.1%, and 9.5% is an elite number in that category. One high enough to justify a k/9 close to 9.00. Batters made less contact on his pitches (79.5% compared to 81.8% career average), and the biggest difference was he got opposing batters to swing at 31.1% of his pitches that were out of the zone, compared to a 26.1% career rate. These all strongly suggest that Happ developed some legit swing-and-miss stuff this season, highlighed especially by getting batters to chase his stuff out of the zone.

Happ also dropped his BB/9 down to 3.48, which is still not great, but it's a nice improvement over his career 3.94 number. For a high strikeout pitcher, a 3.48 BB/9 is very acceptable. This improvement in control is also supported nicely by Happ's huge jump in F-Srike% to 63.6% up from a career 58.3%. Happ was getting ahead early in the count more often, and then getting batters to chase out of the zone once he was ahead. This sounds like a pretty good recipe for a successful 2012.

What's more, is that his batted ball profile also improved. Happ increased his GB% to 44%, up from 37.8%. While 44% is still not a great number, it's a huge improvement. These extra ground balls replaced about an equal number of fly balls and line drives.

Happ's improvements did not go unnoticed among the stat heads. Mike Podhorzer of Fangraphs wrote this about Happ at the end of August (a nice summary of everything I've said until now):
"This year, his skills are actually the best they have ever been, with a surge in strikeout rate, accompanied by better control and a sudden ground ball tilt. Yet, his luck is back on the bad side of the ledger and so his ERA is above his SIERA for the second year in a row. While his pitch mix is about the same as usual, his SwStk% has jumped to a career best and he is throwing first pitch strikes with great frequency. I’m not sure what he is doing differently, but the advanced metrics support the improved peripherals."

The Mockingbird also had an analysis of Happ when he came over to the Jays, suggesting that his peripherals were steadily improving, and also suggesting that Happ might want to ditch his curveball which had become one of his favorite pitches over the past few seasons. Happ did start throwing his curve less in Toronto, and positive results ensued, as discussed above. 

Happ, in my opinion, has kinda been pushed under the rug here in Toronto. Even after acquiring Johnson and Buehrle, a lot of fans and bloggers out there are still pushing for another addition to the rotation. A Marcum, or a Dempster, or a McCarthy or a Haren. What I'm trying to say is that while those guys can certainly come in here a post a season of 4.0+ WAR, the odds of them doing that are much more slim now. It's likely they fall somewhere between 2-4 WAR, or even worse if they succumb to injury. And the fact of the matter is that we likely have a 2-3 WAR pitcher in Happ already in our hands, for much cheaper and under control for 2 more seasons at least. The improvements he made last year were real, and hopefully they're here to stay, and hopefully his ERA catches up to his peripherals next season. His pro-rated 2.0+ fWAR in 2012 was no fluke, and that's why I believe that if there is money left to be spent on upgrades to the big league club, it would be better spent on a DH to replace Adam Lind than a marginally better but riskier pitcher to replace Happ in the rotation.

-Martin

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