Is J.A. Happ Getting Better With Age?
Depending on how much stock you put into J.A. Happ’s 2012 season, the left-hander may be getting better with age. Happ is coming off the best year of his career with some statistical trends potentially pointing upward.
Let’s start with the strikeouts.
Happ punched out batters at a career-high clip last season and has begun 2013 doing so at an above-average rate. Since the start of the 2012 season, the lefty has struck out more than 1/5th of the hitters he has faced, which puts him in some very good company. This coming from a pitcher who, until the last week of spring training, appeared destined for an assignment to Triple-A Buffalo.
The 30-year-old has struck out 22.7 percent of the batters he has faced since the start of the 2012 season, which ranks 27th among 102 pitchers who have thrown at least 160 innings. His mark since arriving in Toronto is even more impressive, as Happ has ended 24.8 percent of plate appearances with a strikeout.
Happ’s sample with the Blue Jays is small (62 1/3 innings), and he’s striking out hitters less frequently than last season, but, for some context, there were only 20 starters who pitched at least 140 innings in 2012 and punched out a greater percentage of batters (Happ’s K% was 23 last season; 21.4 with Houston, 27.1 with Toronto.)
Zack Greinke and Tim Lincecum punched out the same percentage, while Happ topped names such as Adam Wainwright, Matt Cain, Jake Peavy and Mat Latos.
Pitchers Matt Moore, Felix Doubront, James Shields, CC Sabathia, Yovani Gallardo and Felix Hernandez all struck out batters less than one percent more often than Happ did.
Happ’s K% since 2009:
2009: 17.4 %
2010: 18.7 %
2011: 19.2 %
2012: 23 %
2013: 20 % (after four starts this year)
There is a clear trend here, and while his 23 K% is unlikely to be duplicated, Happ has been at an above-average mark since 2010. From 2000-11, according to Fangraphs, league average has ranged from 16.4% to 18.6%.
Remember, this is the Blue Jays’ No. 5 starter, who won a rotation spot less on merit and more on Ricky Romero’s faults. Toronto, and any club for that matter, could do a lot worse than having Happ at the backend of its rotation.
How is Happ generating more strikeouts?
Happ loves going to his fastball, a pitch former manager John Farrell described as "deceptive with late life up in the zone."
Farrell said last season that he was especially impressed with how many swing and misses Happ was able to generate upstairs. Happ gets the majority of his strikeouts off his fastball and the ESPN Stats and Info graphic below shows where he has located his heater with two strikes over the past two years. He keeps it up and challenges hitters and still generates an awful lot of punchouts off it, despite it not being what would be classified as an overpowering pitch.
Among starters who have thrown at least 160 innings since the start of the 2012 season, Happ ranks 16th in fastball usage at 65.3 percent. The only pitchers in the top 30 who have a slower average fastball than Happ are Bartolo Colon, Joe Saunders, Ian Kennedy, Trevor Cahill and Jered Weaver. Kennedy is the only pitcher from that group, besides Happ, who has stuck out at least 20 percent of the batters he has faced.
Happ does throws at an above-average speed, though, and his 91.20 average four-seam fastball in 2012 was the highest of his career. His whiff rate (misses per swing) off his four-seamer was 26.57 percent last season, which was close to six percent greater than his career mark. His putaway rate (the percentage of two-strike plate appearances that end in a K) on the pitch was 22.28 percent, which ranked seventh among starting pitchers (minimum 200 pitches).
Not just his fastball
The Illinois native was more effective with his curveball and cutter, too, in 2012.
Starting last season, Happ began throwing his curveball more than ever when ahead and in two-strike counts to both lefties and righties and did so at an above-average mark. And for good reason.
Happ’s whiff rate off his curveball was 25.53 percent last season, which was more than four percent greater than his career mark. Interestingly, Happ throws his curveball five mph faster now than when he first broke into the league.
Last year, he posted a career-high whiff rate off his four-seamer, curveball and cutter. Happ’s whiff rate off his cutter was 24.36 percent, which ranked 13th among starters, while his putaway percentage was 18.82, good for 22nd place.
Could the strikeout boost be partially related to the amount of movement he gets off his fastball and curve?
As you can see in this Brooks Baseball chart below, Happ has generated more lateral movement on his pitches compared to his early years in the majors.
Besides the strikeouts, Happ also set career highs in the following categories last season:
Groundball percentage: 44 percent. His career mark is 37.7 percent. It rose from 2008-10, before dipping in ’11.
First-pitch strikes: 63.7 percent (not including his 2007 season in which he threw just four innings). His F-Strike percentage gradually went up from 2010 to ’11 before making a big jump in ’12.
Swinging-strike percentage: 9.5 percent. That's up two percent from 2011, and this year it's at 8.6 percent.
FIP: 4.01; this season it’s 3.84. His career FIP is 4.37. Happ has had a lower FIP than ERA for two consecutive years.
Add all this up and the Blue Jays might have a pitcher who is starting to come into his own. Perhaps it means nothing and, after setting career highs in many statistical categories last season, Happ’s numbers and percentages revert back to pre-2012 form.
Either way, it's hard to ignore the data and it will be interesting to follow his progression as the year goes on.