Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Curious Case of James Anthony Happ

I've noticed that several writers, particularly the statistically-inclined, are abuzz about our favorite 2nd place ROY finisher and upstart starter, J.A. Happ. The consensus seems to be that he overperformed last year and is headed, as ESPN's Hot Stove U put it, into the "dreaded sophomore slump." Now, I have to be consistent. A lot of the stats, especially BABIP and FIP, that predict Happ having a worse year next year are the same stats that I would point to to say that Hamels will have a better year next year. Briefly, BABIP is batting average on balls in play and FIP is fielding independent pitching. BABIP is generally out of the pitcher's control, while FIP tries to isolate what the pitcher is directly responsible for. So I've already made the argument that Hamels will have a better year because he had bad luck last year, in this case a high BABIP. Happ had an unusually low BABIP. Hamels underperformed his FIP last year, while Happ overperformed his. So based on that, and other stats that you can read about in the links at the bottom, I have to agree that Happ is a candidate for a sophomore slump.

However, no pitcher remains the same from season to season, and Happ is still relatively new to the big leagues. He did show resolve under pressure by coming through time after time with runners in scoring position. Some of his absurdly good numbers in those situations can be attributed to luck, that low BABIP, but he also showed the ability to get batters out swinging after those waist-high (and higher) fastballs. The stuff and confidence is there, even if he did overperform somewhat in 2009. He's also shown that's he's a fast learner, another skill that you can't teach.

I don't remember exactly when it was, but sometime after his beautiful complete game shutout against the Jays on June 27th, Happ said in an interview that someone else on the team told him to throw more strikes, and that's exactly what he did, and that's exactly what he continued to do for the subsequent 3 months. I don't necessarily expect another sub-3 or even sub-4 ERA season out of Happ, but remember, we don't need him to be that guy. That's why we have Roy Halladay, and yes, Cole Hamels.

As promised, some links:

Crashburn Alley: The Case Against J.A. Happ

Phillies Nation: Year in Review: J.A. Happ

If you have ESPN Insider access, definitely read:
2010's Biggest Breakout and Bust

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