Wednesday, March 3, 2010
Phillies' Happ both lucky and awesome
Let's set the record straight, shall we? David Murphy:
After a postseason in which he made just one start and six relief appearances, and an offseason in which he listened to various "experts" attribute much of his success to luck, the 27-year-old J.A. Happ is well aware that he has plenty left to prove.
"I'm not going to take too much out of it," Happ said. "I mean, it's a little bit disrespectful to assume everything was luck last year. I think it's very hard to have a full year in the big leagues and be lucky. But I guess it's on me to show."
As one might expect, neither Happ nor the coaches who know him best subscribe to such beliefs. And in doing so, they point to a number of factors that concrete numbers are unable to quantify, from pitch sequence and deception to sheer intelligence and will.
"He's a very sharp kid, very intelligent," Dubee said, "but he's also got a nice demeanor on the mound. He's very poised, very aware of situations, very aware of the game itself and how to control himself."
Happ's feel for situational pitching is one thing that might get lost in the numbers. For example, FIP is heavily dependent on a pitcher's walk rate, but it assigns the same value to all walks - whether it is an "unintentional" intentional walk issued to the No. 8 hitter with the pitcher on deck, or if it is a walk with the bases loaded.
Another hard-to-quantify aspect of Happ's game is his deception. At 6-6, he has long legs and a long wingspan and a delivery in which the ball remains largely hidden until he releases it. Because hitters pick up Happ's release point late, the ball appears to be traveling faster than a radar gun might indicate. In fact, according to Phillies minor leaguer Michael Schwimer, who has conducted in-depth studies on release points and velocity, the "perceived velocity" on Happ's fastball is between 94 and 96 mph, even when a radar gun clocks it between 88 and 92.
Look, nobody's saying Happ can't pitch. In 2008, I wrote at least once that Happ should have been getting some of the innings that were going to Adam Eaton and (especially) Kyle Kendrick. Kyle Kendrick ... now he was a lucky rookie (in 2007).
The fact is that Happ's pitched only 202 innings in the majors, and odd things can happen in 202 innings. Further, he was a somewhat different pitcher in the minors. In 259 Triple-A innings, he struck out 9.4 hitters per nine innings (as opposed to 6.7 in the majors). Just one year ago, Baseball America ranked Happ as the Phillies' ninth-best prospect (and far behind Carlos Carrasco, among others). John Sickels gave Happ a B- grade, mostly because Happ doesn't throw hard.
Sickels' conclusion: "I think he can be a fine number four starter if he maintains the progress he made this year. I compared him to Mark Redman last year, and I think that comparison still holds."
Every team needs a reliable No. 4 starter, but I think Happ's better than Redman, who won more than a dozen games just once in his career. Happ doesn't throw hard, but that big Triple-A strikeout rate does suggest that he's deceptive (and his major-league strikeout rate is better than Redman's, too).
There's a good bit about Zack Greinke in the piece, too. And a nice little primer on FIP and xFIP. I just wish that Happ didn't have to worry about this stuff. I mean, it's neat that Greinke's been introduced to sabermetrics by a teammate (Brian Bannister). But why should a pitcher have to take a bunch of guff from nerds like me?
Except he's probably not. Usually what happens is, some nerd writes that Happ was lucky (true) and then someone who works for a newspaper says, "Hey, did you see what the nerds are saying about you? They're saying you were just lucky. What do you think about that?"
What's Happ going to say? "Yeah, they're right. I'm not nearly as good as my ERA says. All that work I've been doing since I was 8 years old didn't have anything to do with it. And yeah, it's really easy to stand out there and stare at Albert Pujols from 60 feet away."
I don't think so.
The implication sometimes is that people like me don't respect the talents of people like J.A. Happ.
I don't suppose I should speak for my colleagues, so I'll just tell you this: J.A. Happ, lucky or not, awes me. He's one of the most brilliant athletes on the planet, doing something that's incredibly rare and difficult. And that's all true whether Happ is the new Mark Redman or the new Tom Glavine.