Destination Philadelphia: James Happ


Destination Philadelphia is the corny nickname I’m going to give to a series of posts I plan to make highlighting different Phillies prospects that should push their way onto the big-league team sometime in 2007. Kicking off the inaugural version of this series is arguably the most polished pitching prospect in the Phillies system, James (JA) Happ. I’ve never spoken to the young man, so I don’t know if he prefers his friends to call him JA, but since I’m not his friend, I’ll just call him James. Happ turned 24 in October, which means his 2007 will be his age 24 season. Happ was drafted in the 3rd round out of Northwestern University in 2004, and had racked up several accolades as a college pitcher, including being the first Wildcat to be named to the All Big Ten team three years in a row. Upon leaving school, Happ ranked near the top of every category in school history for pitchers.

Happ’s freshman year of college, he was used primarily as a reliever, starting only 3 of 21 games in which he appeared. From 2003-2004, he started 28 games, threw 177 innings, posted a 3.10 ERA, and posted an impressive 200:66 strikeout to walk rate. Still, Happ flew under the radar a bit, having not pitched for a baseball juggernaut and not completely dominated in the Big Ten. The Phillies snatched him up in the 3rd round and assigned him to short season Batavia. He pitched just 32.2 innings, but was strong enough to put up a 2.02 ERA, allowing only 22 hits and striking out 37. The Phillies assigned him to Lakewood to start 2005, and he responded with a 2.36 ERA in 72.1 innings, again giving up fewer hits than innings (55 hits) and again striking out 70 in the 72 innings. Happ saw his control return to collegiate form, and more importantly, gave up only 3 HR. The Phillies game him 1 start in Reading at the end of the year, and he responded with 6 innings, allowing 1 run, striking out 8 and walking 2. To start 2006, the Phillies were a bit cautious, sending Happ to Clearwater. He pitched 80 innings, posting a 2.81 ERA, allowing 63 hits and 19 BB while striking out 77 and allowing a surprising 9 HR. He was promoted to Reading mid season, and his numbers actually improved. He pitched 74.2 innings at Reading, posting a 2.65 ERA, allowing 58 hits, 29 walks, and striking out an impressive 81 hitters, while allowing only 2 home runs. He capped his season by making one start at Scranton, pitching 6 innings, allowing 1 run (a home run) with 4 strikeouts and 1 walk.

So, now that we know who Mr Happ is and what he’s done, it’s time to figure out what he can do going forward. In his chat after the 2005 season, Baseball America’s Will Kimmey was asked about Happ, and he responded with these comments

A: Will Kimmey: Floyd breached the innings qualification (topping 50 in the majors for his career) with his final start. Blalock could still turn into a 25 HR per year guy because of his work ethic, and he’ll move one level at a time. Happ reminds the club of Randy Wolf in that he throws an average fastball by hitters up in the zone because of the deception in his delivery. He’s got great feel, as evidenced by his final start of the year in a promotion to Reading. He needs to tighten his slider.

Basically, this goes in line with most of the scouting reports on Happ in the past. He’s tall (6’6) and a bit wiry, yet he doesn’t have overpowering velocity, pitching mainly around 88-90. The comparison to Randy Wolf makes sense in some respects, because Wolf threw in the high 80’s, but he hid the ball well and could run his fastball by hitters up in the zone. Happ has an advantage over Wolf, because he is taller and can throw more on a downward plane. Nevertheless, let’s take a look at Happ’s numbers compared to Wolf’s. Wolf was drafted in the second round of the 1997 draft out of Pepperdine and like Happ, was assigned to short season ball. He pitched all of 1998 in the minors (AA and AAA) and he spent part of 1999 at Scranton before getting called up to the big team, and didn’t go back after (except to rehab), so he got to the majors quicker than Happ will. So, for comparison’s sake, we’ll look at both guys year by year numbers

Happ, 2004 (SS): 35.2 IP, 22 H, 18 BB, 37 K, 1 HR allowed
Wolf, 1997 (SS): 40.0 IP, 29 H, 8 BB, 53 K, 1 HR allowed
Happ, 2005 (A-): 72.1 IP, 2.36 ERA, 57 H, 26 BB, 70 K, 3 HR allowed
Wolf, 1998 (AA/AAA): 173 IP, 4.16 ERA, 182 H, 52 BB, 151 K, 16 HR allowed
Happ, 2006 (A+/AA): 160.2 IP, 2.70 ERA, 124 H, 49 BB, 162 K, 12 HR allowed
Wolf, 1999 (AAA/MLB): 199 IP, 4.79 ERA, 199 H, 96 BB, 188 K, 28 HR allowed

If we look at those numbers, the first thing we have to realize is that Wolf was moved much quicker and much more aggressively than Happ was. Wolf dominated in 2 seasons at Pepperdine, posting a 25-8 record, a 1.97 ERA and 328 K’s, the most in school history. Happ, as we talked about above, hasn’t been quite as dominant. That said, Happ is right on track, in terms of age and level in the system, to still be considered a prospect. Most minor league experts are hesitant to heap praise on Happ because he doesn’t have marquee “tools” like a blazing 95 mph fastball, a devastating changeup, or a nasty 12-6 curveball. That said, most are starting to come around on Happ and see him as a useful part. Lots of guys have gotten by without dominating stuff, but they have to be much more refined and their margin for error is smaller. The biggest asset Happ has, both over Wolf and over other guys like him with similar stuff, is his height. One of the biggest indicators of future success is a pitcher’s ability to get swings and misses, but also his ability to keep the ball in the park and not let batters get good swings on him. Happ does a pretty good job of getting swings and misses (9.09 K/9 in his career), but he does an even better job of keeping the ball in the park, allowing only 16 HR in 277 innings. In addition, he induced 199 groundballs, compared to only 155 flyballs and 57 line drives….that bodes well if he’s going to pitch half his games in Citizens Bank Park.

Now, the whole destination Philadelphia thing. At this point, it’s tough to figure out where Happ stands in the Phillies plans. Currently, the big club has six starters, with Jon Lieber figuring to be traded for fringe minor leaguers or a journeyman reliever. However, two members of the rotation have medical issues (Eaton, Hamels), one is 93 years old (Moyer) and one has off the field issues in his past (Myers), so there’s a pretty decent chance that all 162 starts this season aren’t coming from those five guys. With Gavin Floyd and Gio Gonzalez being sent to Chicago for The Chief, two roadblocks to Happ’s ascendancy have been removed. The Phillies do have three other viable options in Fabio Castro, Zach Segovia and Justin Germano, but the plans for the first two haven’t been decided, and it appears Germano will start the season in Ottawa. Castro and Segovia figure to be bullpen options and also emergency starter options, along with Happ. At this point, Happ’s numbers have been good against both lefties and righties, but he’s actually been better against righties (.615 OPS in 2006, compared to .664 against LHB) which means he really doesn’t profile as a LOOGY candidate. It seems he’d be best suited for a 6th inning role with the big league club if he isn’t starting, or he’d be better off just starting every 5 days at Ottawa. However, if he is going to be the first option to make a start, he might be kept at Reading because of the proximity to Philadelphia.

Happ, to date, has done nothing but pitch well, and he’s beginning to prove the doubters of his stuff wrong. Because he doesn’t overpower hitters, keeping the ball down and staying on top of his pitches will continue to be of the utmost importance to him going forward. Right now, by most accounts, his changeup is an above average pitch, while his curve is merely average. To succeed at the highest level as a starter, he’s probably going to have to sharpen his curveball a bit, but as a reliever, he’s probably more than capable now. The Phillies likely will add a veteran or two to the bullpen this winter, which means Happ will probably start somewhere in the minors, whether it be at Ottawa or at Reading, but he’s on the shortlist to head to Philadelphia, and if his past success translates forward, he could become a quite useful part.

ETA, June 2007

4 thoughts on “Destination Philadelphia: James Happ

  1. Another great analyis and aggregation of info- I enjoyed reading it! I worry they should keep 6 pitchers given the age, offfield risks and injury history they have….

  2. I’d also give Segovia a “possible” for ’07.

    He’s ticketed for relief duty I think w the big club…but may be considered for starting since he did so well in that role in ’06.
    “In the kinow” people say that he was drafted when his FB was supposedly in the low to mid-90s w a slider for an out pitch. All he SEEMED to need would be a changeup to be competitive for the rotation…until he injured his arm, required surgery and ‘0-6 was his frirst season back, as he continued to develop but hisFB hasn’t yet returned to that 94(?) mph.
    He DOES throw a lot of ground balls which–of course–would be good for CBP.
    Watching for a recovery of his former giddyup on his FB; if so, he MIGHT help in a relief job w the big club down the line in ’07…or at least in ’08.
    I’d hope he recovers well soon since our Achilles heel seems to be the pen…so far.

    Suggest we watch him carefully for possible ’07 help…..

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