Thursday, June 23, 2011

Crashburn Alley, on J.A. Happ

After J.A. Happ's latest Disaster, I got to wondering whether or not Phillies fans are surprised by the meltdown that is J.A. Happ's 2011. So I asked our resident go-to Phillies blogger, Crashburn Alley what he thought about Happ. His response, in its entirety:

As a Phillies fan who liked Happ, I'm saddened by his struggles since joining the Astros. Still, though, I am not in the slightest surprised. I had taken considerable heat from the traditionalists in the Phillies community for being so pessimistic towards the lefty. In this article, which I wrote two weeks prior to the Happ deal last year, I said, "Happ pitches like a 4.50 ERA pitcher and that is what should be expected. His 2009 was a complete and utter fluke."

Not much has changed for Happ in 2011 compared to last year. His K/9 is similar (7.5 to 7.2), his BB/9 is similar (4.4 to 4.8), and his xFIP is similar (4.45 to 4.63). Unlike last year, however, Happ isn't benefiting from an unsustainably-low BABIP. If you're not familiar with DIPS theory (defense-independent pitching statistics), studies have conclusively shown pitchers to have little control on what happens to batted balls outside of them being on the ground or in the air. Pitchers tend to hover around .300; in this more pitcher-friendly era that seems to be blossoming, .295 is more accurate. This year, Happ's BABIP is .298, which is quite normal. However, his BABIP in 2008, '09, and '10 was .266, .266, and .262, respectively.

The low BABIP marks helped Happ keep a lot of runners from touching home plate, but it just wasn't representative the results we should have expected from a pitcher with his peripherals.

Happ's ERA is currently at 5.33, but even an eternal pessimist such as myself cannot see Happ continuing to flounder this badly. His strand rate is 63 percent, 10 percent lower than the league average. Strand rate is tied to good old-fashioned luck, the quality of defense behind him, and park factors. The Astros are near the bottom in nearly every respected defensive metric (including UZR and defensive efficiency), so his defense is to blame for some of his struggles. Additionally, Happ has been even more air-prone than normal, allowing four percent more line drives and four percent more fly balls compared to last year. More balls in the air means more home runs. Combined with the extra base runners allowed on account of the shoddy defense, Happ should be expected to give up slightly more runs than the DIPS metrics indicate.

I would expect Happ to finish the season with an ERA in the 4.50-4.75 range. That's not great by any means, but it would be right in line with the production of other pitchers with similar skill sets. Happ will disappoint, but only because the expectations of him were unrealistic to begin with. He is a perfectly capable #5 starter.

Big thanks to Crashburn Alley for the jolt of reality.