Phillies Should Get Happ-y

Fresh off a glorious World Series title, the Philadelphia Phillies will soon convene for spring training with relatively few roster changes. Outside of a curiously-handled swap of defensively-challenged left fielders (Seattle import Raul Ibanez is several years Pat Burrell’s senior, guaranteed nearly twice as much cash and cost the club a first-round pick), Philly returns with its core intact.

Aside from the obviously crucial health status of Chase Utley (hip), perhaps the most interesting story during March will be the battle for the fifth starter’s job. $20.5 million dollar man Cole Hamels, Brett Myers, Jamie Moyer and Joe Blanton are set one through four, but that last slot has a few contenders of varying consequence vying for the job. If we assume for the moment that Carlos Carrasco (Philly’s #2 prospect, per Baseball America) heads back to AAA for some more seasoning and newly-minted Chan Ho Park is probably best kept in the bullpen, then the battle for the last rotation spot comes down to lefty J.A. Happ and right-hander Kyle Kendrick.

Frankly, it doesn’t seem as though there should be much of a competition. Happ, a 26 year-old Northwestern product, is coming off of a stellar campaign at AAA Lehigh Valley. In 135 innings, the lanky 6-6 southpaw whiffed 151 batters (10.07 per nine innings) and walked 3.2 per nine, posting a 3.40 FIP. That strikeout rate might overstate Happ’s case at least somewhat- he’s not overpowering, but he does feature a solid changeup and slider to compensate for an 88-90 MPH fastball.

Happ has a history of making batters appear hapless (sorry), as he has punched out over a batter per inning during his minor league career (545 K in 528.2 IP, or 9.28 K/9). His control isn’t spectacular (3.49 BB/9) and a fly ball tendency (career 40.3 GB%) could be pernicious in Citizen’s Bank Park, so we’re not talking about a can’t miss stud or anything. But Happ’s brand of pitching very likely beats the alternative.

Kyle Kendrick, despite possessing 3 K’s in his name, just doesn’t miss many bats. The 24 year-old has displayed pretty good control in the majors (2.67 BB/9 in 276.2 innings), but his strikeout rate makes Livan Hernandez puff out his chest: Kendrick has a career mark of just 3.81 K/9. Not surprisingly, he has been among the easiest pitchers to make contact with. Only the aforementioned Hernandez (91.3 Contact%) gave batters a more hittable assortment last year among those tossing at least 150 innings, as opponents put the bat on Kendrick’s offerings 89.9% of the time.

The 6-3, 190 pounder managed to hold his head above water in 2007 when he walked just 1.86 batters per nine and posted a 4.94 FIP, but the figure ballooned to 5.55 this past season as he issued 3.3 BB/9 and K’d only 3.93, “good” for a 1.19 K/BB. Even if Kendrick possessed Maddux-esque control, he would be walking a fine line. With a neutral GB/FB ratio and a walk rate above three, he faces very long odds of enjoying major league success.

Happ might not be a sure-fire, flashy prospect, but he has shown the ability to fool hitters throughout his minor league career (something Kendrick didn’t really do either, with 6.28 K/9) and projects to be the better starter. CHONE (which incorporates minor league data) tends to agree, forecasting Happ to post a 4.52 FIP in 2009, compared to 5.11 for Kendrick. If the Phillies get Happ-y, you could do worse than to take a flyer on J.A. in deeper leagues.

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A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at david.golebiewski@gmail.com and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.

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Perhaps Happ’s best quality as a pitcher is his above average ability to command the up/down tilt of the strike zone. This probably explains why his peripherals seem to be better than his stuff.