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Why the Blue Jays aren't overpaying for J.A. Happ

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J.A. Happ doesn't need to do in Toronto what he did in Pittsburgh, but the Blue Jays wouldn't mind it.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Last year on Black Friday, the Toronto Blue Jays made a big splash. That was, of course, the trade that netted them the now-reigning MVP Josh Donaldson. So how does a team follow that up a year later? Naturally, you sign J.A. Happ to a three-year, $36 million deal.

That being said, what would you have done if I told you this time last year that a team would sign Happ to a contract with an AAV of $12 million? My guess is that you would have accused me of being clinically insane. To be fair, some of you still would have done the same this year. On the outside, this is completely understandable. Surely there must be a better option, right?

If you’re looking on the mid-tier for this pitcher, I assume you’re talking about one, multiple, or all of the following: Wei-Yin Chen, Doug Fister, Yovani Gallardo, Hisashi Iwakuma, Scott Kazmir, Ian Kennedy, John Lackey, Mike Leake, Jeff Samardzija. Ignoring the fact that, in 2015, Happ owned the best FIP and second-best K% of all the pitchers on that list, the southpaw was one of the best economical options in this tier of the market — if not the best.

Six players on this list (Chen, Gallardo, Iwakuma, Kennedy, Lackey, and Samardzija) rejected their qualifying offers. Since draft-pick compensation is tied to them, it is tough to argue that any of these six is inherently more valuable than Happ. Although Iwakuma and Lackey have two of the strongest cases, the former has a predicted $15 million AAV price tag while the latter has one near $17 million. Not to mention that both Iwakuma (turns 35 in mid-April) and Lackey (37) are older than the 33-year-old Happ. That leaves three pitchers: Fister, Kazmir, and Leake. Here is how Happ stacks up against them over the last couple seasons:

A jury of your tier
Pitcher IP K% BB% BABIP ERA FIP xFIP fWAR
Scott Kazmir 373.1 20.7% 7.1% .279 3.33 3.66 3.86 5.5
J.A. Happ 330.0 20.4% 6.9% .305 3.90 3.82 3.81 4.3
Mike Leake 406.1 16.9% 5.9% .280 3.70 4.03 3.70 4.0
Doug Fister 267.0 14.5% 4.3% .281 3.10 4.17 4.08 1.6

What sticks out is that the only pitcher that has been better than Happ since 2014 in the mid-tier pitching market is Scott Kazmir. Another thing that is odd? While Fister and Leake both carry projected $16 million AAV’s, Kazmir’s $13 million AAV is just higher than Happ. So what does all this mean? Well, other than Scott Kazmir, there really wasn’t an option that much better than Happ.

I know, I know. Happ stacking up well to the competition for the last couple seasons is just a testament to how well he threw for the Pirates last season, right? Obviously he can’t repeat it, either. Just another pitcher who lucked into a good stretch. His track-record means he has to regress at some point.

If this is your sentiment, well you wouldn’t be absolutely wrong.

In his career, Happ has appeared in 196 games, starting 171 of them and throwing a total of 1012.2 innings. The lefty owns a 4.13 ERA, 4.20 FIP, and 62-61 record (excuse me as I go jump off a cliff for including a W-L record as if it's meaningful) over those nine seasons, not to mention a career walk rate of 9.2 percent that is rather high. What I am saying is that a quick glance at his body of work makes you wonder JAst how he Happ-ened to receive the contract he did. See what I did there? Quite the ambitious pun if I do say so myselwait, what are you doing with your cursor? You shouldn’t click that X, don’t go yet! I promise it won’t hap —uhh, I mean I’ll try to stop!

All puns aside, maybe I am crazy for agreeing with this deal. On the surface-level there appears to be little reason to believe that the improved, relatively small sample-sized Pittsburgh Pirates version of J.A. Happ last season will stick. Oh, you don’t recall that 63.1 innings-sized version? Here you go:

...or is it just Happ-enstance?
2015 Team IP K% BB% BABIP ERA FIP xFIP fWAR
Seattle Mariners 108.2 17.5% 6.8% .319 4.64 4.12 4.15 1.2
Pittsburgh Pirates 60.1 27.7% 5.2% .299 1.85 2.19 2.90 2.1

So because of the sample size, his body of work alone doesn’t justify him maintaining the stats he finished last season with. Want to know what does? The plethora of good writing as to how Happ has transformed the way he apparently has. It first began when our very own Spencer Bingol noticed Happ was pitching very well for the Pirates back in early September. Around a week later, Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs went in depth as to why the lefty was having success. Lastly, Bingol again dove into the success Happ was having— giving it an 80-grade name to boot.

The consensus? Happ was throwing more fastballs, more strikes, and had more movement due to some very finite changes he made under the tutelage of a mister Ray Searage. Searage, of course, has played a hand in helping AJ Burnett, Francisco Liriano, and Edinson Volquez turn their careers around. So why are these changes so important? Well, they point to the fact that Happ’s turnaround wasn’t entirely luck-based. Sure, luck played a role, but if an adjustment in his motion is leading to the newfound success  something like Travis Sawchik described above — that could help the "Happ is a new, improved pitcher" case.

But, for instance, let’s say that the adjustments Happ made don’t stick. Let’s say he regresses to the pitcher he has largely been throughout his career. This type of regression would not hurt the Blue Jays — much less be something that blows up in their face. The pitcher who looked absolutely phenomenal in the Steel City is what the Blue Jays are hoping they signed, but it is by no means what they are expecting.

To understand why you need understand how much, in terms of WAR, one win actually costs on the free agent market. Two years ago, then-BtBS writer Lewie Pollis reasoned that one win was worth about seven million dollars. Dave Cameron of FanGraphs described one win costing around six million dollars, as did Matt Swartz writing at the Hardball Times. Finally, Nikolai Ballevski of Breaking Blue pegged the cost to be around $7.5 million for 2014. Over the last couple seasons, spending has increased a fair amount, with inflation bringing the cost of one win to roughly an assumed $8 million per win on the free agent market.

Translation: free agents cost a lot of money. That is why the Oakland Athletics signing a guy like Rich Hill for six million dollars is such a good move. According to Steamer, Hill is projected to be worth 2.2 wins. Should he live up to the projection, that is nearly ten million dollars in surplus value for an A’s team that will likely try to flip him for prospects at the trade deadline. On the other hand, if he doesn’t live up to the hype it doesn’t hurt the rebuilding A’s all that much as he then becomes a cheap innings eater.

I said all that stuff you probably already know to say this: at $36 million, all Happ has to do to live up to this new deal is post a total fWAR of 4.5 over the next three seasons — or be worth at least 1.5 wins each season. Remember, the average starting pitcher is worth about 1-2 wins. In other words all the 33-year-old needs to do, at minimum, is be average for the Blue Jays to get their money back.

What’s odd to me is that, disregarding Happ’s outburst for the Pirates, I think people forget just how remarkably average he is. That sounds bad, I know, but it could actually help a guy like him who is seemingly in the midst of putting it all together. With the Seattle Mariners last season, Happ managed to produce a 1.2 fWAR — the first time he had been worth that much since his first 40.1 innings stint with Toronto in 2012. That being said, the former third round pick has been worth somewhere between one to two wins in six of his last seven seasons. Happ, in a sense, has been the poster child for an average, not quite replacement level/quad-A pitcher. The floor of average is without a doubt within his reach, and if this is Happ’s definition of not living up to the deal I’m sure the Blue Jays would take it.

The ceiling, well that is a different story. Using Steamer, Happ is projected to regress a little from how well he pitched for the Pirates, yet prolong it over a greater amount of time. Over 146 innings Happ is predicted to own a 3.80 ERA and 3.95 FIP while being worth 1.9 wins in the process. Although those predictions are not meant to be exactly true, this projection alludes to us that Happ should continue to improve next season even though it can’t account for the changes he made. Either way, that excess value is an immediate boon for the Blue Jays.

So where does this leave us? As Dave Cameron wrote for Fox Sports’ Just a Bit Outside:

A few years ago, $20 million per year was a significant benchmark, and the only guys who were able to reach those lofty heights were star players with impeccable resumes. These days, $20 million buys you an above-average regular, a guy who can play every day and help your team, but isn't ever going to be mistaken for a franchise cornerstone. Average players now cost about $15 million per year, mediocre veterans with some track record of success at the end of their careers get around $10 million per year, and part-time platoon guys with some usefulness get $5 million per year. This is what happens when your sport has $9 billion in annual revenues; everyone gets really, really rich.

In a couple years, who knows what can happen. Maybe the Blue Jays look back at this deal as a steal, maybe they look back at it as one of the worst deals they’ve made. What we do know now is two things. The first is that J.A. Happ essentially killed the hopes of Jays’ fans everywhere that David Price would return. The second is that J.A. Happ is absolutely worth 12 million dollars a year in today's free agent market.

. . .

Shawn Brody is a contributor for Beyond the Box Score as well as a sophomore pitcher at Howard Payne University majoring in Business Management. He has the current misfortune of being a Red Sox fan. If you would like to get a hold of him, please feel free to email him at Shawnbrody9@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @ShawnBrody.