A month or two ago (it all blends together at this point), we took a look at some of the skepticism surrounding J.A. Happ's rookie season. Over the past couple of weeks, I've tried to dig a little deeper into Happ's performance last season, when he finished in the Top 10 in the National League in ERA and threw two complete games. One of the aspects of Happ's game that has always intrigued me is his delivery. While it might not look as unique as someone like Dontrelle Willis, Tim Lincecum or Hideo Nomo, Happ's delivery has some subtle characteristics that seem to keep hitters off balance. In addition to Phillies pitching coach Rich Dubee, I talked to Happ's pitching coach at Northwestern, a former major league pitcher named Tim Stoddard. I also spent some time over at PhuturePhillies.com, where Phillies minor leaguer pitcher Michael Schwimer maintains a fascinating blog that combines insights on the baseball life, as well as the craft of pitching.
Happ's "deception" -- you may also hear to referred to as his "sneaky" fastball -- seems to stem from a variety of components:
Happ has a 6-foot-6 frame that looks to be all arms and legs. This enables him to take a long stride to home plate, but it also enables him to release the ball closer to home plate than other pitchers, as well as get a good downward angle on the ball. Schwimer has done some pretty in-depth studies on release point and how it affects a hitter's timing at the plate. I'll refer you to the blog entry to get specifics.
2) Arm speed
The first thing you notice about Happ's delivery is his arm speed. His arm in motion looks very much like a whip cracking toward home plate. A pitcher who throws 95 miles an hour might light up the radar gun, but if his arm is moving in slow motion, it makes it easier for a hitter to follow the ball throughout the entire delivery.
3) Hiding the ball
Watch video of Happ throwing from a behind-the-plate camera angle. His arm seems to remain behind the rest of his body for an abnormally long amount of time. His right foot seems to hit the ground before his arm even leaves the cocked position.
4) Late movement
Happ's fastball doesn't have much movement on it, which is one of the reasons why is experiementing with a two-seamer. But the movement that he does have occurs really late to a hitter, something that Stoddard says results in the number of "mis-hits" that Happ seems to induce.
According to Schwimer's formula, Happ's fastball looks to be moving between 94 and 96 miles an hour to hitters, even when the radar gun shows its actual velocity to be between 89 and 92. Midway through last season, I talked to a Phillies hitter who had faced Happ in Live BP prior to the 2008 postseason, and he said the same thing -- that you don't realize how hard Happ is throwing unless you are actually in the batter's box trying to hit off of him.
Now, none of this directly debunks the notion that Happ pitched over his head last season, given the run-of-the-mill numbers he posted in some of the peripherals that sabermetrics relies heavily on (strikeout rate, walk rate, home run rate). But it does give some indication that there are certain aspects of Happ's game that get lost in the numbers.
Sports Illustrated baseball writer Tom Verducci spent the first week of spring training hanging around Bright House Field. Yesterday, he offered his first dispatch about the Phillies, and it is a really interesting one.
Verducci crunched some numbers from Stats Inc. and found that Ryan Howard saw more breaking balls, both in sheer volume and in percentage of pitches seen, than any other hitter in the majors. This might not be a newsflash to those of you who have watched pitchers feed the big man a steady diet of offspeed stuff, but it is really interesting to see an actual quantification of the trend. There is some really interesting stuff in here. I highly recommend reading it.