I’m in a big money league that has no innings cap or start limit, which makes the race for the strikeouts and wins categories a feverish one. Finding a league average starter on the waiver wire is no small task given the lower-than-normal replacement level in this particular league. Last week I considered Chase Anderson’s viability but was outbid for him by a FAAB-hoarder. This week I want to find out if J.A. Happ (2% owned) is worth adding.
If you just look at his season long numbers, ‘ugh’ is an appropriate response. His ERA and SIERA are both below league average, and a below average walk rate is limiting the positive effects of an above average strikeout rate as his K-BB% falls below league average as well. He’s also a fly ball pitcher pitching in a home park that isn’t favorable to fly ball pitchers. To be fair, he has given up more homers at home, but he’s actually produced better numbers at home than he has on the road. To add on a bit more, none of his secondary pitches are anywhere close to being league average for the season.
But now let’s take a turn toward the bright side. First of all, he doesn’t throw those secondary pitches a ton. He throws a slider, a curve and a change, which, combined, make up a little less than 30% of his pitches for the season. That means he has thrown his fastball(s) over 70% of the time this year. Being so reliant on the fastball generally isn’t a good thing. But guys like Bartolo Colon and Lance Lynn have been better than average recently relying heavily on their fastball and not getting much else from their secondary pitches.
The good news for Happ is that he has had success with his fastball(s). His fastball(s) have the 14th best pitch value per 100 pitches among starters with at least 90 innings. He can thank a nice spike in velocity for making his fastball a plus pitch for the first time since 2010. He’s averaging 92.7 mph on his fastball(s) this year, which is a point and a half higher than where he sat last year and 2 mph faster than his career average. But the problem is that his secondary stuff has been much worse than Colon and Lynn’s have been. Colon’s slider and Lynn’s hook have at least been close to league average, but Happ doesn’t have a secondary pitch anywhere near it for the season. And his curve and change have been big negatives (-2.72 and -3.93 per 100 pitches, respectively).
If you noticed, a couple of times I said his secondary pitches have been bad ‘for the season.’ But if you look at the quality of his secondary stuff over the last 30 days, it has been much better. That’s mainly because he has stopped throwing the slider in favor of more curves. He’s almost scrapped the slider completely and has cut his change usage in half to allow for more curves. About 93% of his pitches over that span have been fastball or curves with a few changes in the mix and a slider here and there. His fastball has been slightly better than it has for the season, and his curve has been just as good as his fastball over the last month. As a bonus, his change has also been about as effective. That means he’s been working with three plus pitches for the last month.
Let’s look at a picture to illustrate his improvements.
More whiffs on every pitch. That’s never a bad thing. Since June 26, both his fastballs and his curve have swinging strike rates comfortably above average. This has had a huge effect in his success against righties. Happ has a pretty normal platoon split for his career, but he’s been much better against right-handed hitters for over a month now. Since June 26, righties are hitting just .232 off Happ compared to .252 for his career.
Obviously none of this means that Happ is going to be able to continue this production. If he did, we’d be talking about a borderline top 25 starter. But it’s just one month in an otherwise below average career. That said, his improvements cannot be ignored, and I’ll be picking him up in my 12-team mixed league with no start or innings cap. In a weekly league, he’s a nice two-start pitcher this week against Seattle and the White Sox, both on the road. The White Sox game is a little scary, but he’s a nice play tomorrow night in Seattle.
If their rotation remains on schedule, here is his projected schedule the rest of the way: @SEA, @CWS, TB, NYY, @BOS, CHC, @BAL, @NYY, BAL. Looking at how those teams have performed against left-handed pitching according to wRC+, Seattle, Chicago and the Red Sox look like good matchups, the Yankees are about average, and the Rays, Cubs and Orioles look like tough matchups. That’s five out of nine games I’d feel comfortable using him. That may not warrant a full-time add unless you’re in a league deeper than 12 teams, but he’s certainly a viable spot starter.