Rising fastball coming, will it end up another home run?
He's been here for a while now, but recently we learned that not only did the Jays give up last year's first-round supplemental pick Joe Musgrove, they also gave up one of last year's biggest bonus babies in Kevin Comer. That means that either that draft was a big disappointment, or the Jays somehow saw some value in acquiring J.A. Happ from the Astros. I'd like to examine the second possibility by looking at J.A. Happ's numbers a little closer.
Happ's career ERA- is 106, with FIP- at 111 and xFIP- at 109. What that means, is that correcting for park and league, Happ's been below-average according to ERA, and pretty bad according to FIP. Happ's given up more home runs than you'd expect based on his flyball ratio, but less hits than you'd expect based on his strikeout ratio. Given that Happ's groundball% has been only 37.8 over his career, it's not that surprising that he has limited the hits he's allowed on balls in play, as flyballs go for hits less often than grounders. Looking at Happ's career progression, his fastball velocity has risen slightly each year, from 89.7 mph in 2009 to 90.3 mph this year, with his strikeout numbers rising from 17.4% in 2009 to 22.1% in 2012. So, it seems Happ is getting better right? Well, not according to ERA. Happ's ERA has gone from 2.93 in 2009 to 3.40 in 2010 to 5.35 in 2011, while in 2012 it's now at 4.88.
What has caused Happ to be so much worse the past two years, even though he's struck out more batters? His control hasn't been great, but that was true for 2009-2010 as well. The problem is that Happ has allowed a lot more homers on balls hit in the air, more regular hits on balls put into play as well, and he's been worse at leaving runners on base. Looking at the numbers, though, it seems Happ pitches just fine (not any worse than usual, I mean) with runners on base. The problem with leaving runners on base has probably been the high amount of hits and homers. Homers don't let pitchers leave runners on base, so that makes a lot of sense. If we look past the K/BB/HR numbers, an interesting fact is revealed: while Happ struck out more hitters in 2011 than in previous years, he did in fact allow hitters to make contact more often if they did swing. The strikeout numbers increased not because of better pitching, but probably because of a more patient and power-oriented approach by the batters Happ faced. The same is not true for 2012, however, as Happ has actually missed more bats this season, and hitters have swung more aggressively at his pitches.
Let's look at Happ's repertoire. Happ throws a four-seam fastball at approximately 90 miles per hour with plenty of "rise", an offering he goes to approximately 65% of the time. His main offspeed weapon, thrown 14% of the time, has been a slider, which comes in around 83.5 mph and doesn't have spectacular movement, which is probably why some call it a cutter, even though it's very slow for a cutter. He also mixes in a changeup (12.5%) and a curveball (8%). Interestingly, pitch values indicate that the fastball has been by far Happ's best pitch over the years. It has been the only pitch he's commanded well enough to throw reliable strikes with it, and despite his dependence on it, hitters have not made a lot of contact on it. Not anymore than on the changeup, and slightly more than on the slider. The slider has some things going for it, like reasonably high groundball rate and reasonable control, but it's also been hit for a home run too often. 2011 was an especially bad year for Happ's slider, as it had even less movement than in other years and was hit for both line drives and home runs.
In 2012, Happ has improved both his curveball and slider. The curveball has gotten more whiffs and groundballs, although Happ still struggles to throw it for strikes. The slider has recovered from its down year and is now more like the 2009-2010 slider both in terms of movement and results, with a few more whiffs as encouraging sign. The changeup hasn't changed much, but the fastball has had a tough time with home runs. Why it has had such a tough time isn't obvious though, as Happ has thrown it for strikes at an impressive rate, while getting whiffs at a better rate than before. The problem might be that hitters are sitting fastball and swinging for the fences when they see one. Possibly to counter this effect, the Jays have had him throw the fastball a bit less often, with a lot more sliders and way fewer curveballs thrown in. This may be a small sample issue, of course, so we'll have to wait to see if the Jays really want Happ to throw more sliders and less curveballs and/or fastballs.
J.A. Happ's not a very good pitcher, nor does he have huge upside. He is, however, having a good year in terms of missing bats, and he could be decent if that continues while the home runs disappear. If the Jays have seen something like Happ tipping his fastball, perhaps they thought they could fix that and get his fastball to former (2009-2010) dominance again. Happ is not that far removed from being a decent pitcher, so if the Astros somehow made him worse, perhaps the Jays are gambling on being able to reverse the process. Perhaps the Jays just believe that both the homers in 2012, and the breaking ball problems from 2011 are flukes, and Happ will pitch to his reasonably good 2012 xFIP (3.92) going forward. We'll see.