Rumors of J.A. Happ's pending demise may be exaggerated
Sociologists sometimes refer to a phenomenon called "The Pendulum Effect," which refers to the tendency of folks on opposite sides of an argument to make increasingly extreme statements until we reach a point where all Democrats are baby-slaying, liberty-hating communists and all Republicans are Muslim-bashing, sexually-repressed masochists. The effect is not limited to politics; it exists in all societal groups, including baseball pundits, where the schism du jour falls between the new school "Stat heads," who rely heavily on a number of advanced metrics whenevaluating and predicting performance, and the old school "Purists," who prefer things like ERA and eye-witness experience to things like OPS and xFIP. Witness the reaction to the NL Cy Young Ballot cast by ESPN.com columnist Keith Law, a former writer for Baseball Prospectus who voted Javier Vazquez No. 2 ahead of more conventional candidates like Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter. In choosing Vazquez, Law relied on metrics like xFIP and WAR, the second of which -- in addition to serving as an acronym for Wins Above Replacement (player) -- provides a pretty accurate summation of the conflict between the two parties. The Purists think the Stat Heads are taking a sport that features numerous incalculable subtleties and turning it into a glorified game of Strat-o-Matic. The Stat Heads think the Purists are dinosaurs blinded by their infatuation with Romance and their freqent trips to the seventh-inning hot dog table in the press box dining room. It's like Grumpy Old Men, except Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau have Hall of Fame votes. As often happens in world conquest, a seemingly harmless entity finds itself an unwitting linchpin, subjected to each side's repeated attempts to claim it as its own. It is kind of like two kids fighting over a Gumby doll: Both sides grab one arm and pull as hard as they can in the opposite direction until the object in question looks nothing like reality and more like Manute Bol with elephantitis of the arms. In this case, Gumby is J.A. Happ, the 26-year-old left-handed starter who last season went 12-4 with a 2.93 ERA for the Phillies. Happ finished second in the National League Rookie of the Year balloting, which is a pretty good measure of how the Purists view Happ, since the Baseball Writers Association of America votes on the awards, and the BBWAA is still largely composed of Purists. This, of course, prompted guffaws from the Stat Heads, who all season had been warning that Happ was not as good of a pitcher as his ERA or record (12-4) indicated. Law -- the aforementioned ESPN.com columnist who, by the way, maintains a pretty interesting blog that combines literature and food criticism with baseball -- has led the charge since Happ started garnering pub around the All-Star Break. After watching Happ allow four runs in a loss to the Giants in early September, Law labelled Happ "a back-end starter, maybe a No. 4 if you really believe in his deception and his feel for pitching, otherwise a very good No. 5." Judging by my email, many Phillies fans disagreed with this assessment. And, up to this point, both sides had legitimate arguments. Stat Heads pointed to things like the disparity between Happ's ERA and his FIP, short for "Fielding Independent Pitching," a metric that attempts to measure things for which a pitcher is reponsible (home runs, walks, strikeouts) while attempting to factor out the defense behind him. Happ's FIP was 4.49, and his xFIP -- a slightly adjusted version of FIP -- was 4.33. They pointed to his abnormal success with Runners in Scoring Position -- at the time Law labelled Happ a good No. 5 starter, he had held opponents to a ridiculous .120/.225/.157 line with RISP. They pointed to the fact that he stranded 85.2 percent of his runners, well above what is considered "normal." Many Purists who had watched Happ pitch regularly argued that many of the aforementioned statistics were the result of his unique poise on the mound, as well as the deception on his fastball. At this point, the two sides could have agreed to disagree and compare notes in a couple of seasons, when Happ has a couple more seasons under his belt. But the Pendulum was already in motion. Law left Happ off his hypothetical Rookie of the Year ballot. Phillies fans felt persecuted. Which brings us to this past week, when Law labelled Happ's 2009 season "a raging fluke driven by an unsustainable performance with men in scoring position that was about luck, not skill." This prompted one user on the always-entertaining Phillies message board at PhilaPhans.com to label Law an "ass." So which is it: Is Happ headed for an epic slump after a raging fluke of a season? Or are Keith Law and Co. asses? In the landscape of baseball projection and evaluation, I consider myself to be a Moderate. I know that is not a popular concept in modern day America, but I suggest that it is the proper stance to take. My moderate's creed: - I believe in advanced metrics. - I believe that there is no infallible metric. - I believe that metrics are valuable indicators. - I believe there are aspects of baseball - pitch sequence, deception, poise, intelligence - that are best evaluated through personal experience. - I believe that personal experience can be impacted by human biases and emotions. - I believe that the best evaluations are formulated when metrics are combined with personal experience.
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