Jays From the Couch explores just how good Toronto Blue Jays Opening Day starter, J.A. Happ has been
J.A. Happ, the Toronto Blue Jays’ 2018 Opening Day starter, is a very good pitcher. But, sometimes, I get the feeling that Jays fans don’t fully appreciate how good he is. For example, a fan poll on Bluebird Banter asked readers to pick their preferred non-Marcus Stroman Opening Day starter. Happ ranked third (21%), behind Aaron Sanchez (44%) and Marco Estrada (33%). While I value both of those pitchers quite highly, neither was as good as Happ was last season. Obviously, his 20-win season in 2016 got him some attention, but the focus of this post is his even better 2017 season.
By this point, engaged Jays fans know the how of Happ’s success. Joshua Howsam spotted an important trait of Happ’s back in mid-2016: the massive difference between the vertical breaks of his four- and two-seam fastballs. While the two fastballs look identical coming out of his hand, his four-seamer remains elevated while his two-seamer breaks hard. This gap wreaks havoc on batters, as they don’t really know whether to expect a fastball to ride high or break low.
Let’s start our analysis of Happ’s awesomeness with some top-line numbers. Regardless the specific stat one chooses, Happ ranks no worse than 40th among the 125 starting pitchers who pitched 100+ innings last season. Percentile-wise, he bottoms out at 69% (well above-average). ERA and FIP are the stats that best reflect the performance that was. Clearly, Happ’s performance was extremely good, with only the best pitchers in baseball ranking ahead of him.
Fangraphs’ more advanced pitcher stats (xFIP and SIERA) are less reflective of his 2017 performance, in the sense that they are more useful as predictors of future performance (particularly compared to ERA and FIP). Nevertheless, they both paint a positive picture of Happ’s performance, as well as its sustainability.
xFIP replaces actual home runs in the FIP equation with a kind of “expected” home run total—the number of fly balls surrendered by a pitcher multiplied by the league-average home run-to-fly ball ratio. Happ’s HR/FB% was slightly below league-average last season, so his xFIP is naturally a little higher than his FIP. It still remains better than the league-average for our group of starting pitchers.
SIERA uses a more complex equation than xFIP (which I plan to dig into further in an upcoming post). In particular, it rewards pitchers with extreme strengths, as the data suggests increasing returns to scale for stats like K%, BB% and GB%. Happ’s SIERA likely lags his ERA a bit because he is just above league-average at each of these metrics, rather than very good at one and okay at the others. Like xFIP, SIERA is best used as a predictor of future performance and views Happ’s 2017 as strong and repeatable.
Finally, Statcast’s xwOBA. This stat helps us bring together a pitcher’s ability to strike batters out, avoid walks and generate weak contact (and is unconcerned with the actual results of that contact). Of the five top-line numbers, xwOBA views Happ’s 2017 most positively. Its result-based cousin, wOBA, was about as positive on Happ as ERA and FIP, but noticeably less so than xwOBA. The implication is that the contact quality he surrendered resulted in worse outcomes than is normal.
Bringing these six stats together, we can say a few things with some confidence. Last year’s performance was excellent (strong ERA and FIP) and sustainable (strong xFIP and SIERA). Moreover, there may be some upside remaining, as more neutral batted ball luck would have seen him surrender fewer base (and extra base) hits (xwOBA < wOBA). Repeating his 2017 batted ball performance may allow Happ to drop his ERA a few ticks in 2018.
Next, we can dig deeper into his ability to get strikeouts and avoid walks. These are both strengths of his, as his strikeout and walk rates were both comfortably above-average for an everyday SP. The combination of the two strong rates results in a well above-average strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Positively, his ability to get batters to swing through strikes and (in particular) chase after balls implies that his strong K/BB is sustainable. In fact, there might be some upside here as well. A pitcher’s chase-to-zone contact ratio is intuitively correlated to his strikeout-to-walk ratio. In Happ’s case, the K/BB predicted by his O-Swing%/Z-Contact% is 3.65. This implies that he “should have” generated an extra half strikeout for each walk he surrendered, relative to his actual K/BB.
The xwOBA and wOBA marks we looked at earlier incorporated the number of strikeouts Happ earned and the number of walks he gave up. In order to more closely examine his batted ball performance, we can examine his xwOBA, wOBA, xBA and BA on balls in play only. These numbers make our aforementioned point even more clearly: Happ was burned by bad batted ball luck. I mean, the results he surrendered were still fine—he gave up less overall batted ball production (wOBA on BIP) than the average everyday starter and was average in terms of allowing base hits on balls in play (BA on BIP)—but he deserved better. His much lower xwOBA and xBA on BIP make it clear that batters were not getting the best of Happ.
Finally, let’s examine what is likely Happ’s greatest strength: his balanced skill set. In my view (and probably many others’), the three most important aims of a pitcher are to strike batters out (high K%), avoid giving up walks (low BB%) and generate weak contact (low xwOBA on BIP). Plenty of pitchers succeed at one of these aims. Some succeed at two of them. But few succeed at all three.
Happ does, producing better-than-average marks at all three underlying statistics. In the table below, I ranked all of the starting pitchers in our sample in terms of their lowest percentile rank across K%, BB% and xwOBA on BIP. In terms of these three stats, Happ’s lowest percentile rank is 65%, which is 13th best out of 125 starting pitchers. Few starters excel at all three of these dimensions as well as Happ does.
In conclusion, Happ’s 2017 performance was strong (evidenced by his ERA, FIP, K/BB, wOBA on BIP and BA on BIP) and sustainable (evidenced by his xFIP and SIERA). Moreover, there’s actually reason to believe that Happ has upside in 2018 (evidenced by his O-Swing%/Z-Contact%, xwOBA on BIP and xBA on BIP). These stats provide strong justification for giving him the perk of an Opening Day start, as does his long evolution as a pitcher, which saw more downs than ups until his second stint as a Jay. J.A. Happ is an easy guy to root for. I look forward to doing so Thursday, on Opening Day.
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I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.