Ending The Pursuit of Happ-iness

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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.


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  1. Wire Fan

    Another pitcher the Yankees have changed the pitch mix on and gone more slider heavy. I get tweaking the pitch mix of a guy who is already struggling but Rothschild and the Yankees analytics group seems to be forcing the slider/cutter on pitchers from the get go.

    Gray talked about this. Paxton upped his cutter/slider and decreased his curve usage as soon as the Yankees acquired him (a 6-7% shift for both). Happ has upped his slider usage 5% this year. Deivi Garcia is ramping up slider usage this year (despite two other really good secondary pitches). They even apparently tried to get German to incorporate a slider this spring (he thankfully pushed back). Tanaka’s slider usage has gone up every year he has been in pinstripes.

    I think a part of the problem is this seeming one size fits all “more sliders, more better” approach to starting pitching. It is not the answer for every starting pitcher.

  2. Kyf

    This didn’t even mention Charlie Morton. For some reason there’s an idea that he didn’t want to come to NY, but I can’t find it anywhere. All I found is an MLBTR blurb about him potentially wanting to be closer to his wife’s family in Delaware, and we all know Ny is closer to Delaware than Tampa. Happ over Morton is the big mistake

    • Randy

      Yeah I wasn’t trying to go over the entire offseason again. I just thought it was important to briefly mention the decision making. Signing Happ was a bad decision. We can compare him to any of the top free agent pitchers and that would be true. He shouldn’t have been brought back.

      • Kyf

        That’s fair, and yup. Anybody would be better . I just lose more sleep over Morton than I do over Corbin though

  3. dasit

    might just be me, but the yankees seem to gravitate to guys who have experience pitching in the al east

  4. chip56

    Corbin’s contract may age poorly. Happ’s contract was a mistake the minute it was signed. There were lots of red flags in his analytics that pointed towards this rapid decline.

    Cashman’s disingenuous remarks that Corbin would have meant no DJ or Ottavino were just that: disingenuous. Corbin would have meant no Happ, While Corbin’s AAV is higher than Happ’s, his actual dollars are not because of the way the contract is structured, so Happ is actually making more than Corbin…that’s a long way of saying the Yankees could have had Corbin, DJ, and Ottavino.

    Even if not Corbin, there were other options – the Yankees panic signed Happ.

    • Cash took his hard fought 5 yr, 25 mil contract and resigned himself to the task of carrying Hal’s water in re the Budget.

      I’m sure he would have loved to sign Corbin. I bet he doesn’t miss being called the worst f***ing GM in MLB like George called him when he was winning title after title.

      Some things change for the better, some for the worse.

    • Randy

      Yeah the either/or comments regarding the payroll and certain FA decisions were really frustrating to hear. I know they have a budget, but that reasoning still feels faulty. Even with their constraints, there were better options like you mentioned.

  5. Look at Lance Lynn’s chart on baseball savant. He’s got a bit more velo than Happ but his fb spinrate seems to be his salvation this year. Bigger parks in the AL West also probably are helping.

  6. Brian M

    You’d hope that a guy with diminishing stuff would at least be able to garner some command. Kind of like what Fiers has been doing the past few months with some success (speaking of which, how many times yesterday did a Yankees hitter look at his 90 MPH meatball down the middle for strike one only to swing at a ball off the plate on the very next pitch?!). But nope. Happ was missing his spots by over a foot last night and has pretty much looked like that all year. I hope he figures something out in the next six weeks but the reality is he doesn’t deserve to make the playoff roster with this level of performance.

    • Randy

      Yeah fastball command has definitely been an issue all year for him. It makes the lack of strong breaking stuff even more apparent.

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