One2Watch4: J.A. Happ

As the Philadelphia Phillies prepare for a run to a third consecutive World Series, they enter 2010 as the favorites in the National League. But they are far from a sure thing, with questions up and down the pitching staff. In the offseason the Phils acquired former Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay to front their rotation, and expect a bounceback season from 2008 postseason MVP Cole Hamels.

But it’s 28-year-old lefthander J.A. Happ who is the One2Watch4 in Philadelphia this season.

Happ went 12-4 with a 2.93 ERA after forcing his way into the rotation at the end of May, and the Phightin’ Phils need something close to a repeat performance if they plan to be playing in October. Phillies fans shouldn’t hold their breath though, as Happ should have a more pedestrian season in 2010.

Last season, among pitchers with at least 140 innings pitched, he led the league in LOB% -- the percentage of baserunners he stranded -- by a wide margin. He was one of just three pitchers with a mark over 80%, when the league average was 71.9%. Happ stranded 85.2% of his runners – and the gap between 1st and 2nd was as large as the gap between 2nd and 11th. Expect that number to drop, and likely by a significant amount.

On top of that, Happ had an unusually low BABIP (batting average on balls in play) of .270, the fifth-lowest mark in the league (min. 140 IP). The league average was .303, and pitchers who came in above that include NL wins leader Adam Wainwright and AL Cy Young winner Zack Greinke. In addition, Happ struck out fewer than 6.5 batters per nine innings, which will need to increase to keep both his LOB% and his BABIP steady this year.

Lastly, Happ led the league (min. 140 IP) by a huge margin in FIP minus ERA – the difference between his Fielding Independent Pitching and his actual Earned Run Average. FIP helps to determine how well a pitcher pitched, regardless of the defense behind him. Happ’s FIP was 4.33 while his ERA was just 2.93, a difference of nearly a run and a half! Kevin Millwood’s difference was 1.13, and only two other pitchers had their FIP more than a run higher than their ERA.

If J.A. Happ can keep his LOB%, BABIP and FIP minus ERA near their 2009 levels, the Phillies should cruise to a fourth straight NL East title. If Happ regresses to the mean in 2010, the Phillies will need the NL bump from Roy Halladay, a return to form (and regression to the mean) from Cole Hamels, and the right combination of starts from Jamie Moyer and Kyle Kendrick to make their return to October baseball.

And that makes J.A. Happ One2Watch4.