keyboard_arrow_uptop
Baseball Prospectus is looking for a Public Data Services Director. Read the description here.

It’s been almost 12 months to the day since J.A. Happ joined the Pittsburgh Pirates and genuflected at the feet of pitching coach Ray Searage. The mythology surrounding Searage conveniently ignores the hurlers who weren’t fixed—or, perhaps, were too far gone—but it’s undeniable that Searage has worked a few miracles in his professional career.

But should we really be including Happ as a success story?

In the 194.1 innings since joining the Pirates, J.A. Happ has compiled a 2.73 ERA with a strikeout rate of 8.34 K/9. He boasts a 21-5 record over that stretch, largely thanks to a pair of quality offenses behind him, and has been one of the best fantasy starting pitchers that everyone refuses to talk about. Consider this: Happ is the 13th-ranked fantasy starter in all of Major League Baseball.

Those surface numbers sound appetizing; however, there are warning signs. His .269 BABIP would be his best mark by a considerable margin since 2010 with the Phillies and Astros. Moreover, his 4.25 DRA indicates that he hasn’t been as good as his ERA would otherwise indicate, while his 107 cFIP projects him to be worse than average in the coming months. Thus, it’s not clear that his marked improvement is anymore than a mirage.

One of the most thorough and informative articles I’ve read this year came from Joshua Howsam at BP Toronto. It investigates the mechanical changes that Happ underwent with the help of Ray Searage. It also delves into his pitch mix to show how his fastball has become a major weapon. It’s well-worth the read.

The southpaw has never suffered from a significant platoon split, but his performance against righties has been exceedingly impressive. He’s holding opposite-handed hitters to a .229/.290/.383 slash line. He’s striking out 22.2 percent of righties, compared to only 15.3 percent of lefties. His walk rate is also better against righties (7.2 percent) than lefties (9.2 percent) this season.

It’s interesting, then, that Happ is actually facing a higher percentage of right-handers than he has in recent years.

Year

% RHH

2016

81.5%

2015

74.2%

2014

79.2%

2013

72.0%

2012

74.5%

For most lefties, this kind of platoon breakdown would be alarming. Given the great success of his fourseam fastball this season, Happ has thrived by seeing fewer lefties. Right-handed hitters are only hitting .150 against his four-seamer with only eight extra-base hits. They’re whiffing 15.07 percent of the time against his fastball. Lefties, on the other hand, are hitting .267 on the pitch and only whiff 5.91 percent of the time. His curveball has also been very difficult to handle for both lefties and righties, which gives him a very successful two-pitch arsenal against a subset of batters who are supposed to give him fits.

Much like I wrote about Stephen Strasburg a couple of months ago, finding a starting pitcher who has extreme success against opposite-handed pitching is rare. Reverse splits are concerning, too, but they seem less difficult to remedy.

Take Happ, for example. Lefties are only hitting .239/.320/.372 on the year, but his 5.70 K/9 and 3.42 BB/9 against them make the slash line far less convincing. He’s not missing bats and his command has gotten a bit loose. It wouldn’t be a stretch for Happ to suddenly get shelled against lefties. Of course, we’re also talking about 98 batters this year and a guy with a career K/BB that’s better against lefties than righties.

So, really, I’m much more concerned about Happ’s current success against righties. Lefty-lefty matchups are notoriously difficult for hitters, and the 33-year-old hurler has shown an ability to handle them throughout his career. The fact that he can miss a high level of bats against righties is a huge indicator that he’s discovered something in the past calendar year — whether that came from Ray Searage or from a long, slow evolution as a pitcher that began several years prior.

Given his mechanical improvements (shown in the BP Toronto article), his historical success versus lefties, and his sudden extra effectiveness against righties, I think J.A. Happ has a chance to sustain his above-average run prevention. He probably won’t remain a top-20 fantasy starter, but I have no problem believing he could be a top-40 guy over the next couple of months. He’ll strikeout 20-23 percent of the batters he faces with a mid-three ERA. If he can sustain his low BABIP, perhaps the run prevention could be a little better.

BUYER’S ADVICE: BUY

Happ benefits from a great offense and a quality all-around team. He should continue to amass the dreaded Pitcher Wins, which benefits those who play in traditional fantasy formats. For all owners, though, he’s a guy who boasts one of the more attractive starting-pitching profiles: a guy who can consistently get opposite-handed hitters out. If he continues to build upon his mechanical adjustments, he should be a nice pickup. Only for a bit, though. Only for the next few weeks until fantasy owners have time to reflect on his full-season numbers and start valuing him a bit more. Dynasty owners should worry about his age, but talent trumps age at this point.

Thank you for reading

This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.

Subscribe now
You need to be logged in to comment. Login or Subscribe