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The end of JA Happ in pinstripes [2020 Season Review]

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JA Happ wasn’t supposed to be on the Yankees this season. The team reportedly shopped him in the winter after a terrible 2019 campaign but never wound up trading him. As it turns out, holding onto him mostly paid off. He may have been disgruntled with how he was handled, but nonetheless, the lefty was a key figure in the rotation over the final month of the regular season. The narrative quickly changed come the ALDS, but all told, Happ was a net positive for the Yankees in 2020.

Vesting option saga

Before COVID-19 altered the season for good, Happ needed to make 27 starts or throw 165 innings in order to have his 2021 $17 million option picked up. Instead, as a result of a shortened season, those triggers were prorated to 10 starts and 61 1/3 innings. Or, so we thought. Happ was excluded from that rule and actually had to either have his vesting option renegotiated or arbitrated. We’re still awaiting word on a solution.

The Yankees wound up skipping Happ’s turn in the rotation a couple of times in August. After his second start of the season on August 5th, after which he had a 10.29 ERA in 7 innings, the Yankees didn’t bring the veteran back to the mound until August 16th. But even after pitching well that day (one out short of six innings pitched, one run allowed), the Yankees passed over him once more. He didn’t start again until August 29th against the Mets. Happ was none too pleased:

The Yankees didn’t skip Happ again for the rest of the season. The big reason? Happ was great over the final month of the year, which I’ll touch upon shortly. But even if he struggled, the Yankees may not have overlooked him anyway because of James Paxton’s absence. In the end, Happ tallied 9 starts and 49 1/3 innings this year, short of the prorated figures we thought he’d have to hit initially.

Now, I can’t say I’m sympathetic to Happ’s gripes earlier in the year. It’s one thing if he pitched well out of the gate, but he didn’t. Those two rough starts plus a dreadful 2019 made skipping him a no brainer. Brian Cashman basically said as much. Had he pitched well from the get go, it might have been a different story.

Thoughts after the end of season press conferences

Aaron Boone and Brian Cashman spoke to the media yesterday afternoon. Each took the better part of an hour for their discussions with the media, though I think folks were a bit more curious to hear what the general manager had to say. We had already heard Boone talk a bit after the Game 5 loss, though yesterday came with a few days to marinate after the end of the season. I know I was more interested in what Cashman had to say, at least.

I do have one thing I want to say about Boone’s presser, but the rest of my thoughts relate to Cashman’s briefing. Without further ado, let’s get to it.

Aaron Boone needs to stop saying how close the Yankees are to winning a title.

This is grating. Boone said this in what seemed like a dozen different ways yesterday. Close? If this is close, then how do you describe the 2001 Yankees? Or the 2011 Rangers? Maybe make a World Series before you start saying that this team is close. Here’s how Boone’s seasons have ended since taking the helm:

  1. 2018: 100-62, Wild Card, Lost ALDS to Red Sox 3-1
  2. 2019: 103-59, Division Title, Lost ALCS to Astros 4-2
  3. 2020: 33-27, Wild Card, Lost ALDS to Rays 3-2

The “closest” Boone’s Yankees have gotten was a year ago. I don’t think there’s any other way to describe 2020 except as a step back for this group, unusual circumstances of this season notwithstanding.

Mailbag: Postseason bullpen strategy, Gary Sánchez’s future

Nothing to do with today’s mailbag, but I can’t wait to see this guy pitch tonight.

Happy Friday, everyone. We’re just a few hours away from Game 5. In the meantime, let’s open up this week’s mailbag. I’m only answering two questions because so many of this week’s questions related to the offseason after losses in Game 2 and Game 3. Let’s wait until the Yankees are actually eliminated (if they are eliminated!) to discuss the 2021 plans.

As always, shoot your questions to viewsfrom 314 [at] gmail [dot] com. Away we go:

Dan asked/suggested: The Yanks need to rethink their bullpen usage. Considering the no off days and the fact that they have only three good relievers, the Yanks should try using starters out of the pen on their throw days. It worked for the Nats last year. Do you think Masahiro Tanaka or JA Happ are up for it? 

I understand this sentiment, but the Nationals didn’t have much of a choice last year. The only reliever Washington could really trust was Daniel Hudson. Sean Doolittle too, I suppose. The Yankees have a deeper bullpen that’s really good on paper, inconsistencies aside. And sure, the lack of off days this postseason makes it more difficult on the Yankees’ traditional relievers, but it’s not as if that makes it any easier for starters as well.

It’s also important to point out that Washington really only did this with Patrick Corbin, who came out of the ‘pen five times last October. Yes, Stephen Strasburg relieved in the do-or-die Wild Card Game and Max Scherzer made one bullpen appearance in the NLDS, but that’s it.

ALDS Game 2: So you centered a gameplan around JA Happ

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There’s a lot to complain about in this one, folks. The Yankees fell 7-5 in spite of Giancarlo Stanton’s heroics. The decision to use Deivi García as an opener for JA Happ backfired, CB Bucknor had himself a night, and the Yankees offense just fell short against Tampa Bay’s bullpen. This best-of-five series is now level at one a piece. Let’s get to the takeaways.

If I were the Yankees, I’d simply would have waited as long as possible to use JA Happ in this series. I know, I know. Happ had a resurgence during the regular season. But there’s no way I want to see him get the ball before Masahiro Tanaka in a playoff series with both guys fully rested. It’s overthinking things. Yes, hindsight is 20/20 and all, but give me Tanaka over Happ as the bulk guy every time.

Mailbag: 2021 rotation, Voit’s contract, COVID-19 opt-outs, and Urshela’s metrics

Got a few questions to answer as we head into the final weekend of the regular season. Before we dive in, remember to send your questions to viewsfrom314 [at] gmail [dot] com for a chance to be included in a future mailbag. Now, to this week’s questions:

A few people asked: What does the Yankees’ 2021 rotation look like?

People sure love to talk about next year’s team when this season isn’t over, huh? Nonetheless, I’ll oblige.

As you likely know, the Yankees can lose Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton, and JA Happ in free agency this offseason. That leaves a number of holes to fill, though the team does have enough big league caliber starters to fill out a staff. It just may not be as good as this year (or before this year). The players under contract for 2021: Gerrit Cole, Luis Severino, Jordan Montgomery, Domingo Germán, Deivi García, Clarke Schmidt, and Michael King.

Of course, there are caveats with the seven pitchers I just rattled off. Severino is recovering from Tommy John surgery and will start the 2021 season on the injured list. Germán will have just finished his suspension under the league’s domestic violence policy, so who knows how much rust he will have to shake off. Montgomery was a roller coaster this season. King was terrible. Schmidt will have just one big league start to his name entering 2021. At least Cole and Deivi looked great.

Now, if all goes well, that group could look pretty good by 2021’s end! Cole and Severino could make for a formidable one-two punch. García and Schmidt have a ton of upside. Germán and Montgomery are more than capable back-end guys, with the former having shown flashes of better than that in 2019.

That said, count on the Yankees reinforcing the rotation this year. For one, I’d bet on Tanaka’s return, but I expect Paxton and Happ to depart. Don’t expect any free agent splurges like Trevor Bauer to replace those guys, though. A trade or middle-market free agent (Kevin Gausman? Marcus Stroman? Mike Minor?) signing seems more likely. Here’s what I envision as the Yankees’ ideal rotation come Opening Day 2021:

  1. Gerrit Cole
  2. Masahiro Tanaka
  3. Trade/Free Agent
  4. Deivi García
  5. Jordan Montgomery

By season’s end, you can slot in Sevy. Forget about who that boots from the staff as that sorta thing always seems to sort itself out. Injuries and unexpected performances happen.

Paul asks: Should Luke Voit’s contract be extended?

Everyone at this here blog loves Voit, but this answer is a pretty easy no. Voit turns 30 in February and won’t be a free agent until after the 2024 season. It stinks for the first baseman, but he was a late bloomer who won’t hit the open market until his mid-thirties. That leaves the Yankees very little motivation to extend him beyond 2024 at the moment.

Voit’s now a lifetime 138 wRC+ hitter in over 1,000 big league plate appearances and should still get paid fairly well in arbitration. He’s going to be super-two eligible this offseason and should get a nice raise over the near league-minimum pay he’s gotten over the last couple of seasons. More traditional stats like home runs and RBIs pay in arbitration, and Luke’s got those aplenty.

Aside from age and team control considerations, I think Voit’s position and health are detractors from any extension. I just don’t see much of a reason to lock up a 1B/DH type when the team already has a number of those guys on the roster already. Additionally, though Voit has played through “foot stuff” this season, I can’t help but worry about his health over the long run. Last year’s oblique injury really held him back too.

Dan asks: I recall speculation before the season started that players who were on teams that were clearly eliminated would be compelled to opt-out, to avoid playing in meaningless games.  Obviously, that hasn’t happened.  Are you surprised at all?

I’m a little surprised, but I think that there are two big reasons we haven’t seen a bunch of opt-outs.

First, The expanded playoffs have definitely played a big part here. 21 of the league’s 30 teams are still alive with just three games remaining. Had the league stuck to 10 playoff teams for this season, perhaps we’d see a lot more guys bowing out early.

Additionally, perhaps players have become more confident in the league’s health protocols as the season’s gone on. The amount of positive tests and team-wide outbreaks has slowed down the stretch. Earlier this season, it was a lot easier to imagine players dropping out as playoff hopes dwindled because of the numerous positive tests and postponements.

All that said, one high profile player has opted out this week: Andrelton Simmons. The Angels (26-31) are technically still alive too, though it’ll take a lot going right for them to overcome the Astros (29-28) for second place in the AL West.

Jeremy asks: Gio Urshela is the man. I’m hoping you can help me understand something about his advanced stats (and advanced stats in general). His Exit Velo (86th percentile), xBA (98th), and xSLG (86th) are elite. Why are those stats so high when his Hard Hit% (56th) and Barrel% (48th) are fairly average? His K% (90th) is pretty elite but I feel like that only explains part of the xBA and not much of anything else. Is it more so because his GB%/FB%/LD% mix (38.3%/19.2%/38.3%) is seemingly much better than the MLB average (45.3%/21.9%/25.7%)?

It’s definitely strange that Gio’s hard hit percentage and barrel percentage aren’t up to snuff with his average exit velocity. I do think that Jeremy is on the right track with the batted ball type mix, but there’s one other thing I’d like to add.

ComparisonWeak %Topped %Under %Flare/Burner %Solid %Barrel %
Urshela0.826.725.031.77.57.5
MLB3.233.224.324.35.66.4

Gio’s distribution of batted ball quality is excellent. He may not have a ton of hard hits or barrels, but he almost never makes weak contact. He also doesn’t get on top of the ball too often either. Further, the “under” or “flare/burner” category isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Many of those are bloopers that dunk in. Better than a weak hit or chopper that’s almost an automatic out.

We should also keep in mind what this means for Gio’s hard hit and barrel percentages. Remember, a hard hit ball is 95 MPH or greater exit velocity in any direction. Grounders, pop-ups, or line drives can all get the same treatment under hard hit percentage. So just because Urshela isn’t great there doesn’t mean his exit velocity and xStats are inflated. Rather, it appears that Urshela’s distribution of hit quality helps him in the exit velocity department, while his launch angle helps him rarely hit into easy outs.

As Jeremy noted, Gio hits grounders well below league average and hits liners well above league average. Consider that with his hit quality distribution and elite bat-to-ball skills and you can see why Urshela’s had so much success.

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