Disclaimer: It's early. The Phillies are 7-2. And before their melt-down against the Nationals yesterday, they led the National League with a 2.90 ERA. Roy Halladay is still pitching every five days, starting tonight. Joe Blanton and his six or seven innings per start could be back by the end of the month (You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone, right?). And for all the gruff the Nationals take, they still have at least four hitters who could hold their own in this Phillies line-up (Dunn, Guzman, Zimmerman, Willingham).
That being said, a couple of pitching subplots have developed over the first couple weeks of the season. And while Charlie Manuel and Rich Dubee will tell you that they don't fall into the "concern" category yet, they are at the very least puzzles that are worth monitoring over the next few trips through the rotation.
The first involves J.A. Happ's arm. Dating back to spring training, the lefty's fastball has appeared to lack some of the life it had during his stellar rookie campaign of a year ago. His success in 2009 stemmed from two chief variables: his ability to locate his fastball on both corners of the plate -- particularly inside -- and the way the ball seemed to explode out of his hand and surprise hitters (think of all the high swinging strikes he got). Happ has never been a low-pitch-count guy -- he walked 4.0 B/9 in 2008, 3.0 in 2009, and 3.5 during his minor league career -- but he has always seemed to be in command of his pitches. And though he is not known as an over-powering strikeout pitcher, he was able to work out of jams last year with opportune Ks.
Which brings us to yesterday. In 5.1 innings, Happ walked six batters while recording zero strikeouts. It was the first time in his career that he finished a start without a single strikeout. And the six walks tied a career-high.
The fact that he escaped without allowing a single earned run is not unprecedented, but it's pretty damn rare. In fact, Happ's performance was just the 12th time in the integration era in which a starting pitcher walked at least six and struck out none without allowing an earned run, according to data compiled by Baseball-Reference.com. Ten of those 12 starts lasted longer than Happ's. In short: it's hard to walk six batters in 5.1 innings and not allow an earned run.
So Happ is having command problems. What's the big deal?
Well, yesterday, his command problems were accompanied by a noticable drop in velocity. Happ usually sits between 89 MPH and 91 MPH, occasionally touching 92 or 93. Yesterday, he was sitting 87-89, dropping down to 85-86 at times. The drop-off might not sound significant, but it certainly jumped out at Charlie Manuel.
"I don't think he hit 90 once today," Manuel said after the game.
He actually hit 90 six times, according to Major League Baseball's pitch-tracking software, which is different from the notoriously-fickle scoreboard radar guns that ballparks use. But not once did he go above 90.
There were times in spring training when Happ battled his fastball. He finished March having walked 11 in 19.1 innings, a below-average 5.2 BB/9 rate. He's walked eight in 10.1 innings during the regular season.
The obvious first thought is that Happ is hurt. I asked Manuel and Dubee, and both responded, "I don't think so."
Of course, everybody's definiton of "hurt" is different.
Happ battled elbow soreness in 2007, a factor the team later attributed to his rough major league debut against the Mets in a spot start. He finished that season with a career-worst 5.02 ERA and 4.7 BB/9 walk rate at Triple-A Lehigh Valley.
Happ said he wasn't hurt yesterday.
"I'm not going to make anything big of it," Happ said. "It happens. I felt like that way a little bit in some spring games, where it seemed like it just wasn't quite coming out, but that's when you really have to try to execute. I was just a little inconsistent today."
Maybe Happ is just experiencing some arm fatigue that he has to work through. Maybe he is a slow starter. It took him a while to find his groove last summer -- in his first six starts, he walked 19 (4.8 BB/9) and struck out 24 (6.11 K/9) while posting a 4.08 ERA. In a start against the Red Sox on June 14, he walked six and struck out three while allowing five runs, seven hits and three home runs in 5.2 innings. His velocity that day was only slightly stronger than it was yesterday.
Whatever the case, it's something to watch. I wrote yesterday about the possibility of the Phillies skipping Kyle Kendrick in the rotation so that Happ could face the Braves, but I highly doubt that happens now. I figure Manuel will get Happ an extra day of rest whenever he can.
During 2008 and 2009, manager Charlie Manuel would sometimes indicate that he felt struggling righthander Brett Myers was relying too much on his cutter rather than being aggressive with his fastball.
In Myers' breakout 2005 season, when he went 13-8 with a 3.72 ERA in 215.1 innings, roughly 58 percent of his pitches were fastballs, and around 13 percent were cutters or sliders.
Below is his progression in the subsequent seasons
Year - FB%/SL%/ERA
2006 - 50/22/3.91
2007 - 48/13/4.33
2008 - 48/19/4.55
2009 - 52/18/4.84
We bring this up because the Phillies seemed similarly leery of Cole Hamels' desire to incorporate a cutter into his repetoire this spring. At the end of spring training Dubee said this was because the team did not want Hamels to abandon his curve ball.
Well, through two games, Hamels has thrown twice more cutters than curve balls. And just 52 percent of his pitches have been fastballs.
He has thrown just 12 curveballs, nine of them for balls, and one for a called strike (according to an unofficial tally).
EDIT: I'd initially written that he threw 11 curves, none for a called strike. He has actually thrown 12 curveballs, three for balls, one for a called strike.
Hamels has had some success with his cutter. Of the 27 he has thrown, only two have resulted in hits. Twenty have resulted in strikes, including five called, three swings, and seven foul balls.
But he has never pitched with a cutter before. And logic would seem to indicate that it will take him some time to learn exactly how best to use it. How do hitters react to it after seeing a fastball, after a change-up, on back-to-back pitches, with two strikes, etc.?
Paul Hagen has an interesting column on the situation, specifically on how the new pitch might affect his curveball.