Everyone has a breaking point. That point is further away for some than others, but it exists for all of us. It is fair to say that my perspective on the Yankees generally leans towards the positive side. I believe in optimism. The team is incredibly talented. They are legitimate title contenders and I strongly believe they will win the championship this year. The season is long so there is an acknowledgement that teams will have their ups and downs. With that said, there are some personnel decisions and player performances that really challenges that optimism. They push me towards a breaking point. The re-signing of JA Happ tops the list.
A few days ago, I hosted a Twitter chat on the Views Twitter account. We had a great conversation and there was a scenario posed that I’ve still been thinking about. It is even more relevant after Happ’s awful performance last night in Oakland. Here it is for reference:
In hindsight, this take isn’t a good one. In an ideal scenario, neither CC nor Happ see the mound in a crucial playoff situation. Both pitchers have been bad this season, but one is providing a tiny bit more value than the other. The reasoning behind my answer was twofold. One, CC’s knee is a legitimate concern and it would be really difficult to imagine a scenario where Sabathia could be fully ready to go in a relief situation. He doesn’t have a relief routine because he really hasn’t done it before and preparing his leg to pitch presumably takes a while. The state of his knee doesn’t call for a simple stretch routine and then throwing some warm up pitches. It is a full blown regiment that happens behind the scenes.
The second reason for my response was the belief that CC’s stuff diminished more than Happ’s this season. After last night’s game, I looked up some data and that inference was wrong. Here is Happ’s 2019 statcast rankings:
J.A. Happ could save the arctic with this cold as ice chart. Since Statcast began in 2015, Happ is experiencing career lows in xBA, xSLG, WOBA, xWOBA, xWOBACON and hard hit %. In some cases, the drops are significant. For comparisons sake, here are CC’s rankings:
CC is still really good at limiting hard contact. That is valuable and a skill he has maintained for years now. Sabathia is experiencing some career lows this year, but not nearly to the degree that Happ is. It is pretty clear that J.A. Happ is the Yankees worst starter.
The frustrating thing is there were clear signs of this coming if you looked under the hood. It is pretty alarming when a fastball reliant pitcher is featuring a declining fastball. The lack of dominant breaking stuff to offset that decline exasperates the issue. As Steven astutely notes in his takeaways last night, Happ struggles big time when behind in the count. He doesn’t have one pitch he can rely on, like CC’s change or German’s curve, to get out of trouble. The data showed this and the Yankees still went ahead and brought him back to the rotation. It is truly baffling for an organization that is so good at player analysis (yes, I know their history with pitchers is iffy to say the least).
It is important to mention the popular comparison between Patrick Corbin and J.A. Happ. The two pitchers will forever be linked to one another because of the Yankees pursuit of both players at different points in the offseason. The Yankees didn’t choose Happ over Corbin. This was an issue of value. In the end, the Yankees believed Happ’s short term contract offered more value than Corbin’s six year deal.
What makes it baffling is that this estimation seems to largely ignore recent and potential future production. A team should be willing to risk potential down years in seasons five and six if that means above average to elite production in years one through four. A short term contract that creates negative value through the entirety of the deal is a poor investment. But the Yankees are very much like the film industry. They operate from a risk adverse perspective rather than a risk taking one.
Returning to the idea of optimism, I hold on to a sliver of hope that Happ can make some adjustments in the final month of the season. Maybe he changes his attack to get ahead early in the count. Maybe he makes a mechanical adjustment that allows him to get that fastball in on righties with more consistency. Maybe his breaking stuff improves to help keep hitters off the fastball. Those are a lot of maybes and that breaking point is lurking. Let’s hope that breaking point doesn’t decide the fate of the Yankees season.