It’s playoff time! And naturally that means the Jays are no longer in it. But that doesn’t mean things around here are going to stop, and just like last year, to get you set up for each (non-weekend) night’s playoff action, and to give you a space to talk about the game, I’m going to be taking a hopefully-quick look around at some splits and stats and whatever else stands out on a Jays player’s 2014 season, because… what the hell else is there to do for the next month? Or the next week. Or just today– or however long I actually continue to follow through on this exercise. Tonight: J.A. Happ.
5:30 PM ET – Detroit @ Baltimore – Max Scherzer (6.0 rWAR) vs. Chris Tillman (2.4 rWAR)
8:00 PM ET – Kansas City @ Anaheim – Jason Vargas (2.4 rWAR) vs. Jered Weaver (3.0 rWAR)
In the overall, J.A. Happ didn’t have as good a 2014 as you probably think. Looking at the numbers, he certainly didn’t have as good a year as I believed — 1.3 fWAR, 1.4 rWAR, 4.22 ERA, 4.27 FIP, average HR/FB rate, almost three walks per nine innings, a K/9 that exactly matches his career mark of 7.58.
He really doesn’t even necessarily have long, stellar stretches to admire if we play the arbitrary endpoint game, either. For example, the end of his season was certainly better than the beginning, but his numbers after the All-Star break aren’t that different. The ERA is a tasty 3.56, yes, and the xFIP a handsome 3.65, but the FIP is 4.26, the strikeout rate is about the same (7.61), and though the walks were an impressively un-Happian 2.00 per nine, he was also getting some good fortune with respect to batted ball luck (.266 BABIP) and strand rate (77.8%).
Yet, 2014 felt like a real step in the right direction, odd as that may seem to be when you’re talking about a pitcher who turns 32 later this month.
Was it just the increased ability to limit walks? Not necessarily just that, but I think that’s one visible part of an entire reshaping of Happ as a pitcher that took place this season. One that we ought to hope he can sustain, as he’s in line to make just $6.7-million next season — provided the Jays don’t trade him, which could also be an intriguing possibility given their depth and the genuine value he built in 2014.
Part of what makes his year feel so much better than the aggregate numbers maybe look, I think, is our perception. I was at Brighthouse Field in Clearwater when Happ made his disastrous first appearance of the spring, and while he wasn’t quite as bad as his line that day made it look, it was pretty damn bad. And saying that the rest of his spring was equally vomitous is an understatement. I noted on March 25th that his Grapefruit League ERA at the time was a “cock-mangling 20.57.” That’s one of the reasons the club swallowed hard and started the season with Dustin McGowan in the rotation, with Happ taking a turn in Dunedin, then Buffalo before getting called up to join the big club’s bullpen.
He was awful, and I remember the lonely feeling of defending him to the frothing masses who found his atrocious spring bringing to mind the worst of the worst potential outcomes. (I… uh… I also remember the lonely feeling of saying it was dumb to call Brandon Morrow injury prone *COUGH*, so let’s not let me get feeling too smug about my predictive abilities here).
After a couple of relief appearances in April, it was revealed on May 1st that Happ would be getting a spot start in Philadelphia on the 5th, ostensibly as a way to get some extra rest in for the ailing McGowan (who, though the details weren’t public yet, was having trouble recovering from his starts) and the very green Drew Hutchison, who had been thrown into the fire with just 35.1 post-Tommy John innings on his arm. It was only a day later, however, that Brandon Morrow made his final start of the year, and Happ’s spot start turned into his becoming a fully-fledged member of the rotation, for better or worse.
Somehow, it was for better.
Much of it — maybe all of it — comes down to newfound velocity. Happ’s fastball sat at 92.7 in 2014, which was a 1.6 mph increase over the previous year (which was itself a career high), and a nonsensical improvement for a guy who made one start for the Phillies as a 24-year-old call-up in 2007, and sat at 87.7.
That velocity gain allowed him to change his pitch usage, too. He threw fastballs 72% of the time in 2014, which is a major change from 2010, when he moved from the Phillies to the Astros in-season, and his rate was just 58.9%. It was a big jump from what we’ve seen in his Blue Jays career, too, where he’d thrown it about 65% of the time. The increased usage came at the expense of his slider (used 6.3% of the time, compared to 10.9% in 2013, and 13.8% in 2012), and his changeup (9.5% in 2014 compared to 15.7% the year previous).
Meanwhile, he also built on steadily-made gains in terms of the percentage of pitches he threw for strikes — something it’s obviously easier to feel comfortable doing when you’re touching 94 and 95 than when your fastball sits at 87.7, or even, as it did in his first full year in the league, 88.9. Much of Happ’s plate discipline data doesn’t look terribly different in 2014 than it had in the years previous, though according to the Pitch F/X he threw strikes 52% of the time this season — a number that has steadily gone up since he bottomed out in 2009 with a 45.9% rate.
Velocity, it seems, is a good thing. Velocity and consistency might go a long, long way for Happ. He gave up four or more earned runs in ten of the 26 starts that he made in 2014, but he also gave up two or fewer in 12 of them. He didn’t have a lot of outings where he got his head handed to him, just a healthy number in which he was just kind of OK. And when you add that to all those good ones, for a back-of-the-rotation guy making $5.2-million this year and less than $7-million next, that’s really, really nice.
Who’dve thunk it? J.A. Happ is damn valuable. All it seems to have taken was a velocity spike at age 31. More pitchers should try that!