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J.A. Happ is just OK, which makes him an attractive free agent

He’s not as good as he looked with the Yankees, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

J.A. Happ is a good free agent, just not as good as he seems.

According to Davemanuel.com, recency bias is defined as, “the phenomenon of a person most easily remembering something that has happened recently, compared to remembering something that may have occurred a while back.” This is particularly relevant to Happ.

The 36-year-old lefty shined brightly after his July 26th trade from the Blue Jays to the Yankees. In 11 starts he finished 7-0 with a 2.69 ERA. Now, if you’re a regular reader of Beyond the Box Score, you know that win-loss record and ERA mean very little, especially over a small sample.

But the pennant race is where logic has the most difficult time restraining emotion. When Happ pitched for the Yankees, they usually won, and the other team didn’t score many runs. If you don’t look deeper than that, here’s a pitcher that just excelled in the toughest market pitching critical games in September and October. There were also a lot more eyeballs on him in New York. Casual or strictly regional fans unfamiliar with his track record think he’s the next Andy Pettitte.

With September and October are finished, November logic wrestles emotion back into its cage. When we look at the peripherals, we see that Happ the Yankee was pretty much the same pitcher as Happ the Blue Jay.

J.A. Happ Peripherals

Metric Happ with NYY Happ with TOR (2018) Happ 2015-2017
Metric Happ with NYY Happ with TOR (2018) Happ 2015-2017
IP 63.2 114.0 512.1
K% 24.4% 27.4% 21.3%
BB% 6.2% 7.4% 7.1%
HR% 3.9% 3.6% 2.6%
SwStrike% 10.9% 11.6% 10.1%
FB Velocity 92.41 92.97 92.83

You can nitpick in certain places, but Happ was basically the same in New York as he has always been throughout his career. The results were a lot better, but some of that is chalked up to his .252 BABIP-against with the Yankees. He surrendered a .289 BABIP from 2015-18, and a .291 BABIP over his 12-year career. Quality of competition might be a factor as well. He faced teams that finished below .500 in seven of his eleven starts as a Yankee, including two starts against Baltimore and one against a Red Sox team that had already clinched homefield advantage in the playoffs.

Clearly, Happ isn’t as good as he appeared in pinstripes, but you know what? He’s still pretty good!

He started at least 24 games every season since 2011, and has a career 3.73 FIP. His FIP- (park adjusted FIP, in which lower is better) has stayed in the 85-111 range for the last seven seasons. What we have here is a consistent, reliable lefty starter. Those are pretty hard to find.

That’s not to say there’s no risk to signing him. He just turned 36 last month, and he’s not exactly the kind of soft-tossing lefty that gets by on guile and command. He won’t pitch forever like Jaime Moyer, and when his velocity inevitably drops, he’ll have a hard time getting batters out.

As shown above, he hasn’t lost anything off his fastball just yet. It’s impressive that he’s maintained throwing 92-93 into his mid-thirties. That won’t last forever, and within the next few years he’ll cease to be a reliable mid-rotation starter.

In fact, only one pitcher older than Happ threw enough innings in 2018 to qualify for the ERA title. James Shields started 33 games for the White Sox, throwing 204 23 innings with a 5.09 FIP and 0.8 fWAR. That’s not exactly encouraging for Happ. Over the last ten years, only 16 times has a pitcher accumulated more than 2.5 fWAR at age 36 or older. Hiroki Kuroda and Bartolo Colon each accomplished this four times; neither of whom are explainable. A.J. Burnett, John Lackey, and Andy Pettitte (achievement unlocked: two Pettitte references in one article) are all on the list twice, while Chris Carpenter and R.A. Dickey each did it once.

Over the past four years, Happ’s fWARs have been 3.4, 3.1, 2.8, and 3.2. Based on past success and consistency of velocity, there’s no reason to expect a dropoff in production in 2019. However, it’s pretty rare for pitchers to remain successful past the age of 35. These competing factors will both substantially impact the length of his next contract.

Because of his age, securing as many guaranteed years as possible matters more than average annual value. It’s unlikely he gets a three year deal anywhere, unless it comes with team options. He probably will sign a two year contract for somewhere in the realm of $12-15M per season.

I predict he re-signs with the Yankees for two years, $28 million of guaranteed money. The pitching-needy Yankees could sign two more starters this winter even after bringing back CC Sabathia. A reunion makes a lot of sense; Happ sure was great in New York, wasn’t he?


Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at www.OffTheBenchBaseball.com. Tweets @depstein1983