J.A. Happ: 150 Innings of Average (Maybe Average is the New Good?)

0J._A._Happ_on_July_24,_2012Is it the happ- happ-iest time of the year?

Not so much.

But, as the Mariners found out with the Gift-from-Heaven season they received from Chris Young in 2014, having a guy who can go out every fifth day and not get bludgeoned to smithereens is a good thing.

So before we look at what might have been lost in coughing up Michael Saunders, let’s zero in on J.A. Happ.

Our Flowchart Profiler for pitchers hasn’t been fully introduced, but the explanatory stuff doesn’t get much traffic anyway, so we just dive in and take aim with it.

1. Does he strike guys out?

Yes.

Not tons and tons, but enough.

Using K%+ — which is just setting the league-average K-rate (as a percentage of batters faced) at 100 — Happ’s career total is 108.

So a little above average, but nothing eye-popping.

2. Does he induce weak contact?

No.

For a pitcher, ground balls and pop-ups = good.  Balls launched in the air = bad.

Has Happ been successful in that regard?  Not so much.

He gives up “launched contact” (HR, non-popup fly or line drive) on 57.6% of batted balls, whereas the average is 52.2%.

And he yields home runs on 7.2% of launched contact, whereas the average is 6.8%.

So on our “ALI+” measure of “authoritative launch” (which is % of “launched contact” with HR weighted at 4x a regular fly), he’s at 95.  That is, a bit below average at inducing weak contact.

3. Does he avoid walks?

No.  Actually, his BB-rate has been a real problem, though it did look much better in 2014.

For his career, his BB%+ (again, setting average at 100) is 81.

Isolating 2014 alone, it was 108.

If that reduced BB-rate is something sustainable, then Happ looks like a somewhat better bet.  [Though, as others have pointed out, the reduced BB-rate went along with an uptick in homers and ISO-against.]

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So Happ’s career profile is:  Strikeouts: yes; Weak contact: no; Avoid walks: no.

On our flowchart, yes-no-no puts Happ in the “Third Tier.”  Here’s the distribution of xFIP there:

happ1And when we turn that into a normal curve and place J.A. Happ on it, we get:

happ3Indeed, every year Happ has been right around the mean for that skill-set or very close to one standard deviation from the mean.

So he’s a guy who performs almost exactly as you would predict him to.

And when your alternatives are young, erratic, injury-prone and/or all of the above, then maybe predictable becomes sexy if you’re Jack Zduriencik.

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Is there upside?

Based on the skill-set that Happ has shown most of his career, no.  Only the chance of a random hot season.

What about 2009?  He was 12-4 with a 2.93 ERA.

Tantalizing as that is, his underlying stats were not really any better than his career norms, as indicated by the 4.43 xFIP that year.

As we said, random hot season.

More interesting is his drop in walk rate in 2014.

If Happ truly went from below-average to above-average in walk rate, and if that doesn’t have a negative impact elsewhere (as in more HR) (and we certainly don’t know about either), then, yes, he could make a mini-leap into the next tier up.

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Of course, there are different ways to be average.  Happ’s done it by being pretty much the same guy year-in, year-out — no wild swings up and down — and that no doubt appealed to Zduriencik.  (And it is certainly not true of Michael Saunders.)

Next we’ll look at the Saunders side of the deal.

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