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Kendrick II?

It’s getting to the point where one almost can’t write a story about Phillies lefty J.A. Happ without using words like "unflappable" or "composure," and I know because I’ve been doing it myself. That’s the sort of label a pitcher gets when he shows the ability to get out of trouble as deep as what Happ found himself in Sunday afternoon in Florida, when the Marlins loaded the bases with no outs on two singles and a booted shoulda-been double play ball. The rookie preserved a 4-0 lead on a pop-up and two strikeouts. With the seven scoreless innings he fired against the Marlins, Happ raised his record to 7-0 and lowered his ERA to 2.68, almost two runs lower than the next best Phillies starters.

It occurred to me recently, however, that I might have seen this play out before. In several ways, J.A. Happ’s 2009 season is unfolding very much like Kyle Kendrick’s 2007.  Which means that in addition to those descriptors noted above, we probably should add "lucky."

Here are Happ’s 2009 splits, by game situation:

None on: .267/.315/.436, BABIP .301

Runners on: .154/.270/.272, BABIP .155

RISP: .081/.191/.135, BABIP .081

The Hardball Times has Happ's Fielding Independent Pitching measure at 4.40--nearly two runs higher than his actual ERA of 2.68. The astonishing good fortune of his situational BABIP (batting average on balls in play) explains the difference, and history--including recent Phillies history--suggests that it's unsustainable. Which is where Kyle Kendrick comes in. 

When Kendrick came up from Reading in June 2007, it was initially to make one emergency start. Nobody expected much from the 22 year-old, with reason: he had a 3-7 won-lost mark in two months and change at AA, and his previous minor-league record was respectable but unspectacular. His reputation was that he threw strikes and had a good head on his shoulders. But the baseball gods, as they sometimes do, sprinkled the Pacific northwest native with magic dust: he won his first start, got another, and within a few weeks we were hailing him as--say it with me--composed and unflappable. Kendrick's 2007 splits by game situation: 

None on: .305/.348/.511, BABIP .306

Runners on: .245/.293/.344; BABIP: .254

RISP: .297/.271/.310; BABIP: .216

His 2007 FIP of 4.90 was more than a run higher than his ERA of 3.87. 

Kendrick began the 2007 season without so much as an invite to major-league spring training. He ended it by starting Game Two of the 2007 National League Division Series, earning some Rookie of the Year votes for his troubles. Unfortunately for Kendrick, the sequel wasn’t nearly as much fun. After a reasonably solid first half to the 2008 campaign in which he went 8-3 with a 4.47 ERA, the bottom fell out after the all-star break: a 3-6 record, a 7.59 ERA, and banishment first from the starting rotation, then the post-season roster as the Phillies stormed to their second World F. Championship. His situational splits for the full season:

None on: .316/.373/.524; BABIP .325

Runners on: .288/.368/.448; BABIP: .291

RISP: .281/.358/.431; BABIP: .282

This time around, Kendrick's FIP of 5.58 was a close approximation of his 5.49 ERA. 

Will something like this be Happ’s fate in 2010 (or, heaven help us, sooner)? I don’t think so. The split similarities belie some important underlying differences: Happ’s strikeout rate is higher than Kendrick’s, he’s got several average to above-average pitches where Kyle really just had a plus sinker that hitters soon learned to lay off, he’s far from helpless against righty hitters where Kendrick was at the mercy of almost every lefty bat, and he has a better (and longer) minor league track record.

I’d be very surprised if Happ finds himself back in the minors two years hence, as Kendrick is in 2009. But what wouldn’t surprise me is if he eventually settles in as the solid fourth starter we originally hoped he’d be, rather than the ace-level performer he’s looked like since joining the Phillies’ rotation in late May.