Fantasy baseball analysts look for a couple things in a four-seam fastball: how fast is it, and where is it located? Generally speaking, we want to answer the the first question to be “pretty darned fast.” Our view of the second question has changed in recent years. With the emergence of pitchers like Collin McHugh and Sean Doolittle, we’ve learned that locating in the top of the strike zone can be an excellent pathway to strikeouts and hence good results.
That brings us to J.A. Happ. He’s a seemingly innocuous pitcher from a fantasy perspective. Next year will be his age 32 season. In 2014, he pitched 158 innings with 11 wins, 133 strikeouts, a 4.22 ERA, and 1.34 WHIP. The total package was worth negative $3. In other words, Happ looks like a waiver wire streamer rather than somebody to draft. So why then am I writing about him?
For one, his velocity has steadily increased in the last few seasons. The lefty used to work in the 88 to 89 mph range, but he ramped up the heat to 92.7 mph last season (or over 93 mph per BrooksBaseball). It’s part of a multi-year trend that began all the way back in 2008. Since he entered the league as a Phillie, he’s always been willing to work up in the zone. At the time, I was convinced his use of the entire zone was why he outperformed his peripherals. It’s not easy to see, but here’s his heatmap.
The 2011 and 2012 seasons came with the soggy bite of over-regression as he underperformed his peripherals. Those rough seasons, along with some injuries, seemingly shook the confidence of the Blue Jays. He settled into a fifth/sixth starter role. They eventually traded him in a steal of Michael Saunders from the Mariners.
His new digs at Safeco Field should really help Happ and his fly ball tendencies. Toronto’s Rogers Centre has a 118 park factor for home runs compared to Safeco’s 96 park factor. That alone should help him to reduce some of the damage.
Let’s talk about Happ the pitcher. He works five pitches including two fastballs, a curve, a “cutter,” and a change-up. I put cutter in quotations because it averages 84 mph. With that kind of velocity differential, the pitch is definitely a slider.
He uses his four-seam fastball to get ahead. The pitch has a healthy whiff rate at 8.11 percent. For comparison, Brandon McCarthy had one of the best four-seamers last season, and it clocked in with an 8.42 percent whiff rate. Against lefties, he’ll mix his cutter, sinker, and curve while eschewing the change. Righties see the change-up more frequently with fewer cutters.
The biggest area to watch is his walk rate. In the past, he’s allowed about 4.00 BB/9. Last season, he cut the rate to 2.91 BB/9. A better walk rate can also signal improved command and control, which should lead to better outcomes.
No surprise, Steamer isn’t enamored. Our projection buddy calls for 163 innings, 10 wins, 7.63 K/9, 3.10 BB/9, a 3.98 ERA, and a 1.29 WHIP. This is still the profile of a waiver wire streamer, but that’s useful to know. I don’t have any qualms with the projection – I think it’s spot on assuming he can beat out Roenis Elias and Taijuan Walker for one of two available spots in the rotation.
The combination of gradual improvement and snazzy new digs makes Happ mildly interesting in 2015. I still wouldn’t incorporate him into your draft plans in standard leagues. However, AL Only owners should target Happ as an upside play.
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