Felix Hernandez has been the most valuable Seattle Mariners player so far this year. Surprised? didn’t think you would be! Coming in at number two is Nelson Cruz, he of the nine home runs. The third-most valuable April Mariner is J.A. Happ. As in, the fifth starter.
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During a month where vaunted starters Hisashi Iwakuma, James Paxton, and Taijuan Walker all struggled to various extents, Happ has emerged as the surprise anchor of the rotation. With a 2.30 ERA in 27.1 innings, he’s been much better than expected. It’s not even a luck illusion, as he’s also running a 3.10 FIP.
As you’re probably aware, Happ’s track record does not suggest that this will last. For his career he’s a 4.18 ERA pitcher, and that’s supported by a 4.32 FIP. That’s why he opened the year as the number five guy in the rotation, behind two youngsters with higher ceilings. He’s typically been nothing more than an innings-eater.
Yet the idea wasn’t for Happ to be mediocre – when the team traded Michael Saunders for Happ straight up, the stated hope was that he could use his ever-increasing velocity and Safeco Field’s friendly dimensions to take his game to previously unreachable levels. The Mariners acquired Happ as a number five starter, with the idea that they could turn him into something better than that. So far, the results are encouraging.
The starting point here is to examine what Happ’s been this month versus what he’s been before. Right now his strong 3.10 FIP is being driven by a 5.93 K/9, 0.99 BB/9, and 0.66 HR/9. His career marks: 7.53 K/9, 3.70 BB/9, 1.12 HR/9. That suggests that so far in 2015, Happ’s been pretty different than what he was before.
Even after his nine K effort last night, Happ’s strikeouts are below where they’ve typically been at. Even as recently as last year his K/9 was 7.58. But he’s getting his outs, and a good way to get outs is to get hitters to ground out. So far Happ’s got a 41.2% grounder rate, which is higher than his career 38.3% mark and a hair above the 40.6% mark he posted a year ago.
That’s an increased number of grounders, but still not a lot, and yes, Happ’s still getting plenty of outs in the air. But this is where the Safeco Affect comes into play, and we notice that Happ’s home run per fly ball rate is 8.3% – sterling compared to his 10.1% career mark and his 11.5% last year in Toronto. The ballpark is working for him in the early going, and he’s added more grounders to boot. It’s a very encouraging combination.
Happ’s also made up for his decrease in strikeouts by throwing less balls overall – he’s only issued three walks on the year. This is probably the key to sustaining these improvements – if Happ continues to walk nobody, he’s almost certainly a better pitcher than he’s ever been before. That’s a lot to ask, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he has a walk-heavy clunker or two in him.
Safeco Field accounts for the improved home run rates, and that suggests some level of sustainability. Happ accounts for the increase in grounders and decrease in walks, and that’s on him to sustain. If he can do that, then the Mariners were right and he’s now better than a number five.
Of course, there’s room for improvement still. Happ could strike out more guys in the future, and last night’s effort against the Rangers seemingly indicates that this is a real possibility. His velocity, which has increased every year, is actually down this year. He could find more gas. Happ’s better already, but he could soon be even better than this.
But the wheels could fall off. The walks could return. The homers could increase. The fastball velocity could stay closer to 90 than 93. Anything that Happ could do right going forward is also something he could do wrong. We’re dealing with 27.1 innings worth of information. It’s not nearly as informative as we wish it was.
J.A. Happ has generated good results so far to start this season, and there are some positive signs that this might be sustainable. At the same time, this might be Happ’s high water mark, a month spent performing at peak levels. As with all things baseball, we’ll have to wait and see how this plays out.