Can a player's public perception be affected solely by another player's performance? In sports, athletes like to believe that they have control over how they perform and how the public views them. Philadelphian's beg to differ.
J.A. Happ put together an impressive performance in 2008, as he took over the starting duties of the failing Kyle Kendrick. Without Happ and his 2.32 era over those 4 starts, the Phillies might have never had the opportunity to breeze through the 2008 playoffs. Happ then continued to fight for a full time rotational spot in 2009, but was unfortunately inserted into the bullpen where he posted a 2.59 era. The Phillies finally realized their mistake on May 23rd, and put Happ in the rotation where he finished the season with a 2.92 era. It has been 17 seasons since a Phillies starting pitcher has posted an era that low. One would think that the public perception of a pitcher with those numbers early in his career would be unanimously high. Wrong?
Due to the recent performance of Kyle Kendrick, all successful rookie pitchers for the Phillies will be continually questioned until the day that they officially retire. If Kendrick was not part of the Phillies organization, Philadelphia would probably be praising Happ as the next Cy Young. That is not the case, instead, fans will continue to wait until he falters. They will continue to say "the league will adjust to him," or, "there's no book on him yet." Happ has pitched over 200 innings in his major league career. The MLB isn't that slow to adjust to players. Happ has appeared in 44 career games. There is more than enough game tape developed on Happ for batters to figure out what exactly he's doing out there.
The comparisons between the two pitchers are just ridiculous as they almost have nothing in common. When attempting to initially compare Happ and Kendrick, they pitch from completely different sides of the plate, and they share only one pitch. When comparing their rookie seasons, Happ had a better era, more innings, less hits per inning, more strikeouts per inning, less walks per inning, do I need to go on. How about PRAR, the measure of total value a pitcher provides, is the best utility when comparing pitchers. Happ's 2009 PRAR (41)was almost double that of Kendrick's 2007 PRAR (21).
It is true about how rookies can appear as if they are overachieving based on the league's lack of familiarity to the player. But that has to be viewed as the exception to the rule, not the rule itself. With more and more information available to players and coaches such as advanced statistics, scouting reports, and game film, it doesn't take long for the league to catch up to young players. It took the league less than 150 innings to catch up to Kendrick. If the league were to catch up to Happ, it would have happened already.
Kendrick failed in his second season because he didn't have enough reliable pitches to throw. Because of this, batters were able to sit on his sinker which allowed them to consistently hit Kendrick hard. Happ does not have this issue at all. Happ throws 4 quality pitches; a 4-seam fastball, cutter, changeup, and curveball. Happ also has the ability to throw all of these pitches for strikes. Like most pitchers he works off of his fastball, but what makes Happ so effective is that he throws two separate fastballs that have two separate motions. This does not allow hitters to square up on the ball, even if they are able to recognize fastball. Happ has shown the ability to work every area of the strikezone which makes him even harder to anticipate by batters. The way Happ pitches and approaches the game makes him very easy to compare to another Phillies ace. I mean Mariners ace. Yup, that's a Cliff Lee comparison. They both are lefthanded, throw the same exact pitches, and utilize all areas of the strikezone. If Happ had been in the starting rotation the entire season, Happ and Lee would have possessed the same 2009 VORP. The only reason that Lee holds a higher VORP over Happ is the difference in innings pitched. When Lee and Happ were at the same amount of innings, 166, they shared the same exact 2009 VORP of 46.7.
Another perception of Happ is that he possesses a low ceiling and is not going to improve from where he currently is. First of all, does Happ really need to improve any more from what he currently is? A 2.93 era is exactly Pedro Martinez's career era. I'd be o.k. with a Pedro Martinez era in the Phillies rotation. Obviously I am not comparing the two, just displaying how affective he's been.
Kyle Drabek was widely acknowledged as the best pitching prospect and had the highest ceiling in the Phillies' farm system. I am not disagreeing that he was the best pitching prospect in the Phillies' farm system. Fans and sportswriters all around the Philadelphia area will claim that Drabek is the better of the two down the road. I beg to differ, again. Drabek has an overpowering fastball and an amazing curveball, but that is about it as his changeup is a mediocre pitch at best. I do believe that Drabek will be a very good major league pitcher, but if you compare his minor league numbers to Happ's, they don't appear as impressive as many would think. Up to this point in Drabek's career, he has posted a 3.70 era, 8.1 H/9, 3.2 BB/9, and 7.6 SO/9. Throughout Happ's minorleague career, he posted a 3.34 era, 7.5 H/9, 3.5 BB/9, and 9.3 SO/9. As you can see, Happ has outperformed Drabek in almost every possible pitching statistic. Drabek could have a better career than Happ in the end, but based on their minorleague careers, it shouldn't be concluded that Drabek was the better long-term option.
Obviously not all Philadelphia fans have these opinions of Happ, but the beliefs do exist and I felt the need to address it, and shut them down.