The Winter Meetings are over. They ended on Thursday right after the Rule 5 Draft that saw the Cincinnati Reds select outfielder Mark Payton (read all about him here). But there are still stories from the trip to San Diego worth exploring because while some players were signed and traded by Major League Baseball teams, a lot of the things discussed are still in the “let’s talk” phase of negotiations. And one of those rumors involves the New York Yankees looking at moving starting pitcher J.A. Happ according to Joel Sherman of The New York Post.
Last offseason the Reds were reportedly interested in bringing in Happ to help rebuild their rotation. Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reported back in January that Cincinnati made a bigger offer to the left-handed starter than the one he eventually took with the New York Yankees. Happ signed with New York for 2-years and $34M, with a third year that could vest for 2021 if he reached 27 starts of 165.0 innings during 2020 for $17M. The report did indicate, though, the Yankees deal was larger on the annual value than the one offered by the Reds, though.
There’s a bit of a difference between J.A. Happ before 2019 and before 2020. Last offseason he was entering free agency coming off of a year where he posted a 3.65 ERA in 177.2 innings with 193 strikeouts. Last season, after signing his deal, he posted a 4.91 ERA in 161.1 innings with 140 strikeouts. His walk rate remained mostly the same, but his strikeout rate fell off dramatically. And like nearly every pitcher in baseball in 2019, his home run rate also went up.
None of those things are ideal. And maybe they tell us something about the pitcher. Maybe the stuff is declining, which wouldn’t be surprising for a 36-year-old pitcher. His velocity did drop off a little bit from 2018 to 2019, going from 92.7 to 92.2 MPH.
But perhaps there’s something else at play, too. Sonny Gray was there for the Cincinnati Reds to acquire because his performance with the Yankees suffered when they changed how he had always pitched. And when the Reds and Derek Johnson helped him get back to the guy he used to be, he put together one of the best seasons he had ever had.
With J.A. Happ there is some difference in his pitch usage from 2018 to 2019. He threw fewer 4-seam fastballs, more 2-seasm fastballs, and more sliders. His slider usage was the highest it had been in a decade. The fastball usage, though, is in areas where he had been in previous seasons of his career.
Looking at the value of his pitches, the fastball has historically been his best pitch. The slider has only been a pitch that wasn’t below-average once dating back to 2013. That the Yankees had that pitch increase in usage by 37% from the previous year is interesting. His whiff rate on the 4-seam fastball increased, slightly, in 2019 over 2018 – but as noted above, he threw that pitch less. It also increased, slightly, on the 2-seam fastball. It did take a big hit from 2018 to 2019 on the slider, though. The swing-and-miss rate on the slider was at the lowest it had been since 2011. Perhaps a change in pitch usage could return his numbers to an area closer to where they were.
When the Reds reportedly made their offer to J.A. Happ they hadn’t yet traded for an extended Sonny Gray. And they hadn’t yet traded for Trevor Bauer. They hadn’t yet signed Mike Moustakas. There was a lot more money available to make such a move. Cincinnati has been in the market for pitchers like Madison Bumgarner even after all of those moves – so the money itself would seem to be there. The question is more about does it make sense to commit it to Happ. And to get even more into it, could the Yankees be willing to eat some salary depending on what kind of player the Reds would trade to them?
The Reds are still looking for an upgrade in their rotation. J.A. Happ doesn’t necessarily fill that role if he’s going to repeat exactly what he did in 2019. But if Cincinnati thinks that he can be corrected, much like they saw with Sonny Gray, this could be an option worth exploring – and like the deal with Gray, one that could provide upside.