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Can J.A. Happ Avoid Sophomore Slump in 2010?

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Can J.A. Happ Avoid Sophomore Slump in 2010?
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Take a glance at the statistics, and it would be easy to say Phillies left-hander J.A. Happ is primed for a disappointing 2010.

Not many expected the 26-year-old rookie to go 12-4 with a 2.93 ERA while dominating the opposition on numerous occasions, but he did just that. 

Not many expected him to have a chance to be named Rookie of the Year, but he did. (He eventually lost out to Marlins outfielder Chris Coghlan.)

Not many even expected him to be anything more than a bullpen piece or occasional spot-starter, but Chan Ho Park's struggles allowed the two players to reverse roles relatively early in the season.

Now, Happ finds himself ready to go through his first full season as a starter in the majors. 

Tons of great work has already been done on the prospects of Happ in 2010, especially by David Murphy of the Philadelphia Daily News, so he gets credit for a lot of what will be talked about in this space.

It was Keith Law of ESPN who, in part, set off the alarms last September about Happ's incredibly good luck in 2009.

For those who had not followed Happ's stats last year, it was a bit of a disconcerting shot at the left-hander.

For those who had, it was a realistic slap in the face that this won't last forever.

The damage? Happ's FIP in 2009 was 4.33. Fielding Independent Pitching is a metric used to see how a pitcher pitches when defense is disregarded.

Meanwhile, xFIP, which has been used to predict a pitcher's future ERA, had Happ at 4.49 last year.

The use of xFIP has increased over the years because of its accuracy. 

Joe Blanton had a 4.05 ERA last season, with an xFIP of 4.07. Cole Hamels' xFIP was 3.69, with his actual ERA being 4.32. That would mean Hamels is likely to see a decrease in his ERA this year as long as he doesn't change his approach.

The fact that Happ's ERA and xFIP were so drastically different would lead one to believe his ERA will increase this season.

His BABIP last year was .270, with anything above the league average of .290 being unlucky and anything below being lucky.

Being 20 points below the league average would tell anyone that Happ had a very good season in terms of luck. 

Throw in the fact that he stranded 85.2 percent of baserunners, and it's just hard to imagine Happ can have the same performance in 2010.

Taking all that into consideration, would an ERA in the 4.30-4.50 range be a disappointment for Happ?

From my perspective, it wouldn't be. Coming out of college, Happ wasn't a highly regarded prospect.

There wasn't much expected of him (which seems to be the story of his career). When Law said last year that Happ was a decent fourth starter, he was probably right.

Over the long haul, it's probably not a good idea to bank on Happ to go out and post the numbers he did last year as a starter. A 2.93 ERA is something we should expect out of Hamels and Roy Halladay, not Happ.

If Happ comes out this season and posts a 4.35 ERA, wins 12 or 13 games, and doesn't break down due to injury, I'd call it a successful year for him.

As mentioned previously, Murphy did some interesting research regarding Happ.

He found that "from 1995-2008, 13 pitchers have posted an ERA of 3.00 or below (min. 150 IP) in one of their first three seasons in the majors. One of those pitchers, Alan Benes, missed the entire next season.

Of the remaining 12 pitchers, eight saw their ERA rise by at least 0.75, seven by at least 1.00, and three by at least 2.00. Eight of the 12 saw their WHIP rise by at least .200."

The pitchers who had similar numbers the next year were Tim Lincecum, Jake Peavy, Barry Zito, and Hideo Nomo.

Great things have always been expected of them because they are (or were at one point) great pitchers.

It could be possible that Happ may have a season parallel to the 1998 year that Andy Pettitte had for the Yankees. It serves us right to look at the two, because many scouts have compared the pitchers at times.

Pettitte had a 2.88 ERA and 1.24 WHIP in 1997, then had a 4.24 ERA and 1.45 WHIP in 1998. (We'll try to avoid the use of performance-enhancing drug jokes here.)

Unfortunately xFIP only goes back to 2002, so the calculations would have to be done through manual labor, but we can still talk about the effect that Pettitte's season had on the Yankees.

What did 1998 result in? A World Championship for the New Yorkers.

While Pettitte did struggle, he was a good fourth starter for the team. Happ can be just that for the Phillies, because Halladay, Hamels, and Blanton will go to war before Happ will.

Even if Happ doesn't repeat his 2009, he is still a valuable asset for 2010.

His sneaky fastball does seem to catch hitters off guard, and his change-up has been devastating at times.

His cutter keeps the ball in on the hands of hitters, not allowing them to extend for good swings.

He hides the ball well and is relatively deceptive, which has appeared to give him an advantage thus far in his career.

Intense video watching by the opposition from last year's games could force Happ to make adjustments.

Baseball is certainly a game of adjustments, and Happ will have to adapt.

 

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