Saturday, May 12, 2012

J.A. Happ: What the hell?

(Note: The following stats have been updated to include last night's games)

So J.A. Happ looked more tonight like the J.A. Happ with whom we are more familiar. In 5IP, Happ allowed 6H/5ER, 4K:1BB, needing 95 pitches to get through 22 batters, ballooning his ERA to 5.72 with a 1.55 WHIP. It's the 3rd time in his last four starts he hasn't made it out of the 6th inning, and the third time in his last four outings that he hasn't made it over the 25 Batters Faced mark. What's going on with Happ?

He's throwing 63.8% of his pitches for strikes. By comparison, Wandy leads the way among the rotation, with 65.1%, followed by Norris (64.6%), then Happ, then Harrell (62.8%). So at least we know the rotation is throwing strikes. The NL average for starters (coming into tonight's slate of games) was 63.0% of pitches going for strikes.

Is Happ just not missing bats? After tonight's game, he's generating swinging strikes in 9.7% of his pitches. Sounds low, right? It's second among the four main starters on the Astros staff, behind Bud Norris (12%), ahead of Wandy (8.5%), way ahead of Lucas Harrell (4.5%), and even ahead of the NL starter average (8.6%).

What about BABIP (batting average on balls in play)? The season average on BABIP for NL starters is .286. After tonight's game, opponents had a .324 BABIP against Happ. Given that Happ is walking 9.7% of the batters he has faced in 2012, that "bad luck" is going to catch up with him.

A couple of things stand out:

RHBs vs. Happ: .299/.378/.577 - .956 OPS, .315 BABIP, 11.7% walk rate
RHBs vs. NL LHPs: .255/.320/.405 - .725 OPS, .291 BABIP, 8.4% walk rate

Happ, after a first-pitch ball (45.6% of PAs): .288/.403/.593 - .996 OPS, .279 BABIP, 16.4% walk rate
NL LHPs, after a first-pitch ball (45.6% of PAs): .265/.375/.424 - .799 OPS, .300 BABIP, 14.6% walk rate

Happ, after a first-pitch strike (54.4%): .280/.322/.512 - .834 OPS, .377 BABIP, 5.7% walk rate
NL LHPs, after a first-pitch strike (54.4%): .219/.263/.332 - .595 OPS, .290 BABIP, 5.1% walk rate

We could go around and around on Happ's stats, and it seems to me that, while he's generating swinging strikes, hitters are just tagging him up, particularly on his fastball. Both homers hit off Happ tonight came on his fastball (according to MLB Gameday), and prior to that FanGraphs had him at a -6.9 wFB (a positive number is the amount of runs the pitcher saved with their fastball over the course of 100 fastballs thrown. In this case, Happ's fastball has cost him seven runs - and that's before the two homers tonight). -6.9 wFB is the 6th-worst among pitchers in both leagues.

It seems simplistic to say, but too many hitters are getting on base, in part because his fastball isn't very effective. At all. When Happ broke out in 2009 and finished 2nd in the NL Rookie of the Year voting, a couple of notes stand out: a +10.2 wFB, 3.0 BB/9, 2.13 K:BB, and a .266 BABIP. While strikeouts are up, so are walks, the BABIP is waaaay up, and he was much more effective with his fastball (which averaged 89.7mph, whereas it's now about 90.5mph).

Where do the Astros go from here? His FIP and xFIP show that he should have a better ERA than is indicated - his 5.72 ERA comes with a 4.96 FIP, and a 3.98 xFIP. But that's a complete reversal from Happ at his most effective, in 2009-10. Happ's FIP out-performed his ERA by 0.66 in 2011, and by 0.60 coming into tonight (which is sure to increase). Happ theoretically is better than he's been pitching, but that has been the case for 35 starts now. At what point does one say he's just not the pitcher he was thought to be?

Back in July 2010 - before he was traded to the Astros - our old friends Crashburn Alley had this to say about the then-Philly pitcher:
He will never be the same pitcher he was (in 2009). He is not a maven of control, he is not able to miss bats on a frequent basis, and he has no special batted ball abilities. He is simply mundane. Happ pitches like a 4.50 ERA pitcher and that is what should be expected. His 2009 was a complete and utter fluke.

Anyone waiting on Happ to repeat his 2009 season - 12-4 with a 2.93 ERA/1.23 WHIP - can probably go ahead and stop holding their breath.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

"We could go around and around on Happ's stats, and it seems to me that, while he's generating swinging strikes, hitters are just tagging him up, particularly on his fastball."

Nail on head. That is why his OPS-against and BABIP are high.

Statistical analyses rarely provide the illumination trained eyes do. Your quoted observation, combined with the fact that his breaking ball and change aren't even average, adds up to one sub-par pitcher.

Juvenile Court Clerk - Bryan Trostel said...

"Statistical analyses rarely provide the illumination trained eyes do"

This is an interesting point, and I think this is why Luhnow is so well respected in the industry. He doesn't look at either stats or scouting as a be-all and end-all. If someone ignores one or the other, they are needlessly handicapping themselves.