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The Throwback Dominance of J.A. Happ’s No-Hit Bid

The bearded veteran showed there remains a place for coaxing soft contact in baseball today

Pittsburgh Pirates v Minnesota Twins Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

In case you missed it, veteran left-hander J.A. Happ twirled Minnesota’s second 22-out (7 and 1/3 innings) no-hit bid of the 2021 season Friday night. Happ’s individual effort in the Twins’ tidy 2-0 win over Pittsburgh matched the collective April 3 work of José Berríos, Taylor Rogers, and Tyler Duffey who combined for 22 outs without a hit against Milwaukee.

Happ’s final line — 7.1 innings, 1 hit, 0 runs, 2 walks, and 3 strikeouts on 95 pitches — came in a game that lasted just 2 hours and 17 minutes and is one that is infrequently seen in baseball today.

Happ’s gem not only stopped the Twins’ four game losing streak, it was also the fourth MLB game, and third individual outing, of the young 2021 season to reach at least 7 and 1/3 innings of no-hit ball. The prior three were authored by his aforementioned teammates, San Diego’s Joe Musgrove, and Chicago’s (AL) Carlos Rodón. Musgrove and Rodón both completed their no-hit bids.

Happ’s outing, in contrast to those three other games, might appear more fluky than dominant on account of just the three strikeouts. In their combined bid Berríos, Rogers, and Duffey struck out 16 batters before allowing a hit. Musgrove struck out 10 in his no-hitter and Rodón got 9 strikeouts in his. Those are the types of bat missing stats we tend to associate with no-hit bids. After all, the chances of throwing a no-hitter increase greatly when batters are not able to actually put the ball in play.

While it might not meet the modern criteria of a dominant outing, the below the surface numbers point to Happ’s effort stacking up well with the other no-hit bids we’ve seen so far this season. It truly was a dominant outing, albeit one that would have been more easily recognized as such 30 or 40 years ago.

This wasn’t a luck-driven case where he allowed a lot of hard contact that just happened to find gloves. All no-hitters require some degree of good batted ball fortune. Happ certainly had his share — including a particularly weird interference call from the umpires on a comebacker — but it’s also true that he did not allow many batted balls that threatened to become hits.

Of the 20 balls put in play against Happ, only 5 were classified as “hard hit” — meaning they had an exit velocity off the bat of 95 mph or more — by Statcast, Only 4 were classified as line drives, which is the batted ball category most likely to become hits. The rest were split evenly between (mostly lazy) fly balls and (mostly weak) ground balls.

Comparing the raw counting numbers of Happ’s outing to those of Musgrove and Rodón is a little bit of mixing apples and oranges. They were able to continue pitching through the ninth inning, facing more batters than Happ in the process. Setting that aside, it is illustrative to note, in Musgrove’s no-hitter he allowed 18 balls in play and 7 of those were classified as hard hits. Rodón also allowed 7 hard hits among the 21 balls put in play against him in his no-hitter. Berríos, Rogers, and Duffey yielded just 2 hard hits in the 9 balls in play against them in their effort against Milwaukee.

Altogether, the batted balls against Happ last night averaged 88.8 mph off the bat and yielded an expected batting average (xBA) of just .181. By comparison, Musgrove allowed 91.3 mph average exit velocity and an xBA of .208 in his no-hitter. Rodón allowed 90.0 mph on average off the bat and .161 xBA in his bid. Happ’s teammates allowed just 80.7 mph exit velocity and .062 xBA in their combined effort.

Over 20 balls in play, the .181 expected batting average suggests Happ *should* have allowed 3.62 hits. Musgrove’s figures suggest he should have allowed 3.74 hits, Rodón’s suggest he should have allowed 3.38, and Berríos, Rogers, and Duffey should have allowed 0.56. If Happ had actually allowed the 3 or 4 hits his numbers suggest he should have, we still would have to consider this an excellent and dominant outing, not a BABIP dependent aberration.

The point is, these batted ball numbers show, despite the lack of strikeouts, Happ’s outing still belongs in the same class of dominance as these earlier no-hit bids. He just went about it in a different way that is more reminiscent of a past era of baseball than today’s “three true outcomes” style of play.

Of the 20 balls in play he allowed, ten had .100 or less expected batting averages. Just six had expected batting averages over .200, including the Jacob Stallings’ double that broke up the no-hitter and ended Happ’s night. You can see for yourself in the video cut up below that none of those presented much challenge for the Twins defense:

There was no need for any Byron Buxton defensive heroics in this one. Happ’s old school, attack the zone, and pitch to contact approach generated easy fielding plays for his teammates and the overall results speak for themselves.

How he went about deploying his pitches to slice through the Pittsburgh lineup was a throwback, too. Of his 95 pitches, 77 were his varieties of fastballs, 17 were sliders, and he offered one changeup.

There’s an awful lot of red (four-seamer) and orange (sinker) in that pitch plot. Happ has always relied heavily on his fastballs, especially as he has aged. Even with that background, his 80.8% fastball rate so far this season is a new level even for him, and it is a stark deviation from the breaking ball heavy trends of many of his teammates and that is seen from pitchers across the game today.

On a cold Minnesota spring night, he threw 81% four seamers and sinkers, despite averaging only 90.4 mph and 87.8 mph on those pitches, respectively. The results of those fastballs were 18 of his 22 outs, including all three of his strikeouts. Of course, the lone hit allowed came on a four-seam fastball, resulting in a well-struck double off a 3-2 pitch with one out in the 8th:

In hindsight, it feels appropriate that it worked out that way. With a full-count, late in a close game, a no-hitter in reach, and his team on a skid, Happ stayed true to form. He challenged Stallings with his fastball, refusing to give in. If he was going to make history, he was going to make it happen with his best stuff.

That’s throwback, indeed.

John is a contributor to Twinkie Town with an emphasis on analytics. He is a lifelong Twins fan and former college pitcher. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnFoley_21.