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Assessing Happ’s Performance

It’s been a while since someone other than Hamels, Moyer, Kendrick, Myers or Eaton have started for the Phillies, but last night we got a glimpse of JA Happ, who went 4.2 innings, giving up three hits and walking four and letting two score.

For a second-career start, in a pressure situation against a team gunning for you, and against one of the top pitchers of the last 25 years, all things considered Happ did a nice job.

In fact, he did very well, and there’s a lot of promise for Happ.

Happ really reminded me of a left-handed Kyle Kendrick, using location and speed changes to throw hitters off. Both have a high-80s/low-90s fastball, both have an effective out pitch (Kendrick’s sinker/Happ’s slider). But Happ has a one-up on Kendrick because he already possesses a strong changeup. Kendrick is still trying to find his.

Happ’s fastball was hitting about 90 for the most part, and he dialed up to 92 a few times. His location on the fastball was almost flawless. He danced between nailing the outside corner and riding guys inside. When he went outside some hitters took it (Carlos Beltran took two straight in a strikeout), while most hit it weakly to right field, where Jayson Werth’s stout defense came into play. When he went inside most hitters took it for a strike (though David Wright wisely took it in the fifth on an 0-2 count), while rarely a guy tried to pull it, but fouled it hard. To be short, he hit his spots. Only once did he miss completely, and Ramon Castro took the turnpike fastball into right for a ground-rule double.

Because his fastball was on point, Happ’s changeup worked very well. He wasn’t afraid to throw it behind in a count, and did so early against Wright. In the first, Wright hit the change for a weak pop to the deep infield, failing to bring home Jose Reyes. The change remained on the low half of the plate, and steadily hit the gun in the low-mid 80s.

I was very impressed with the slider, which he sometimes used to open an at bat. Most times he used it as his out pitch, and when guys swung they either struck out or made weak outs. Like Kendrick’s sinker, it can be an embarrassment for hitters.

In the fifth inning, however, Happ ran into trouble. Damion Easley hit a good changeup for a hole-finding bloop single. Castro was patient enough to run the count to 3-2, and Happ finally made a mistake. Then he became rattled. The slider was falling off — easy to take for Mets hitters as it bounced in there — and he was throwing it a lot, probably not trying to give up a big hit with the fastball. It didn’t prove too costly, but it brought his pitch count into the 90. What could’ve been a strong six-inning outing turned into five.

I’m not sure if there’s much for Happ to improve upon. The fastball is good when it’s hitting. The change falls in from there. The slider, when it’s not hitting the dirt, is an effective out pitch. He’ll need to gain a little more poise and not be afraid to throw his good stuff when necessary, but you have to be happy with this first start. Against a good, patient offense Happ will be exposed somewhat, and will probably dance to get through five and six innings, much like Kendrick. But against less-experienced and jumpy hitters Happ can get some great eight-inning outings. I’m more excited about his future than Kendrick’s — not by much — and can say with confidence Happ has a chance to be a good No. 3 starter in his prime.

All in all, a good first outing for James A.

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