J.A. Happ's New Toy

Tom Szczerbowski

J.A. Happ is dialling up the heat this year with interesting results.

J.A. Happ isn't an easy guy to like.

I don't for one second mean that in a personal way. I'm sure that Mr. Happ is absolutely fantastic company. However, as a baseball player he's not the most endearing guy around.

Although he hasn't done himself any favours by being outspoken about his role with the club, his pitching style is really what infuriates fans. The southpaw has become synonymous with the 5-inning 100 pitch outing, putting on a clinic in three ball counts. His career BB/9 is 4.04 and in 2014 its an even worse 5.16.  This leading to a consistent inability to get deep into games, and as a result he only has nine quality starts in his 29 starts with the Blue Jays.

That being said, two of those nine quality starts have been in the last three starts, and he has given up only five runs during that span. It's clear that Happ is hot right now. That in and of itself isn't especially interesting. Anyone can get hot. What makes  the 31-year-old's solid performances of late a bit more intriguing is his rising velocity.

The chart below shows how Happ's heater has been gaining velocity for years, with a particularly big jump in this season.

Year

Fastball Velocity (mph)

2008

89.8

2009

90.4

2010

90.2

2011

91.1

2012

91.4

2013

92.0

2014

93.5

It has been great to see Happ hitting 94 and 95 on the radar gun with regularity this year. There aren't a lot of southpaws with that kind of juice, and in theory it makes Happ a far more promising hurler going forward.

The only problem is that the results aren't there. Looking beyond Happ's excellent 4-1 record and 3.34 ERA (which can understandably be difficult to do) there is nothing exciting about his performance in 2014.

K/9

BB/9

HR/9

BABIP

LOB%

GB%

FIP

xFIP

WAR

8.19

5.16

1.52

.298

90.0%

38.4%

5.14

4.47

0.0

The strikeouts are nice, but not that much above his career average (7.61 K/9). Other than that, there's nothing to see here. Way too many walks and home runs, very few ground balls and an insane LOB% that is sure to plummet to earth. The sample is small, but it's peculiar that the added velocity doesn't seem to be making a big difference.

Looking at the fastball specifically, it appears Happ is getting similar results to his career norms despite the additional ticks.

Sample

Velocity

Swing%

Whiff/Swing

Foul/Swing

Ground Ball%

Fly Ball%

GB/FB

Career

90.2

42.8%

20.9%

47.8%

30.6%

37.2%

0.82

2014

93.5

38.62

20.5%

41.1%

31.8%

40.9%

0.78

The differences here are fairly negligible. If anything, his career numbers are more impressive as he got batters to foul off more fastballs and whiff on them more often as well.

All of this comes in a small sample. Going forward one would imagine that throwing harder will only help J.A. Happ being an effective pitcher. However, he hasn't proven that his relatively inexplicable velocity gain is something that is going to radically improve his game.

J.A. Happ has appeared to have taken great strides this year with improved run prevention. The easiest way to account for one to account for that phenomenon is a fastball that is looking more impressive than ever before. That kind of causal line is easy to draw, but so far it's more likely that luck has carried the day for Happ as opposed to the magical heat he has discovered in his early thirties.

None of this is to say that Happ has no chance of taking a step forward this year. In the kind of season where everything has gone right for this team it's not prudent to rule anything out.

Regardless of this team's excellent luck with breakouts and mini breakouts in 2014, the smart money is on Happ being more or less the same unwatchable pitcher as he's always been from here on out.

Even if he has a new toy to play with.

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