Yankees Appear to Snag J.A. Happ in Shrinking Market

Rumors swirled on Wednesday morning that the New York Yankees had reached an agreement to re-sign J.A. Happ, but that deal was walked back as the two teams couldn’t quite come together. As the parties kept getting closer, alternatives continued to come off the board, with Charlie Morton signing with the Rays and Lance Lynn headed to Texas. All of this was set against the backdrop of a warmer-than-expected market for starting pitching, which had already seen Patrick Corbin get a sixth year on his deal with the Nationals and Nate Eovaldi receive a guarantee of $68 million from the Red Sox. The cause of the holdup between Happ and the Yankees was likely the years of the contract, as Happ wanted three and the Yankees wanted to pay for two. The result the two sides seem to have come to is a two-year, $34 million contract with a $17 million option vesting for Happ if he reaches 27 starts or 165 innings in 2020, providing the Yankees with significant protection against potentially paying an ineffective 38-year-old. The deal has yet to be officially announced.

Happ returning to the Bronx wasn’t a foregone conclusion, as there appears to have been significant interest in the lefty, and for good reason. Over the last four years, Happ has been a consistently above-average pitcher, grabbing about three wins and 170 innings every year. In our free agent rankings, Eric Longenhagen discussed how Happ has been able to perform well through his mid-30s.

Greater use of a sinker to complement his changeup has facilitated his ascent from 1.0 WAR back-end starter to 3.0 WAR mid-rotation innings-eater. Happ’s size and length create discomfort for opposing lefties, and he has been able to dominate them (left-handed opponents slashed .171/.239/.248 against Happ last year) without a good breaking ball. Instead, Happ makes unusually frequent use of his fastball (throwing 73% of the time, roughly 20 points higher than the league-average mark for starters), which is firmer now than it was in his mid-20s.

Every team could use the three wins and 30 starts the Yankees can expect from Happ in 2019. The potential issue, though, isn’t so much next season as it is the ones that come after it. The Yankees didn’t want to guarantee that third year and that reticence is justified. The lefty turned 36 years old in October. A three-year contract would take him through his age-38 season. Over the last decade, only six pitchers have produced even four wins and 400 innings in their age-36 to age-38 seasons, with CC Sabathia likely to join that group in 2019. Here is how those pitchers, along with Happ, fared in their age-32 to age-35 seasons.

Good Old Pitchers, Ages 32-35
Derek Lowe 850.1 5.96 2.26 3.59 3.77 15.2
J.A. Happ 690 8.47 2.63 3.48 3.78 12.5
Hiroki Kuroda 497 6.56 2.06 3.6 3.46 10.2
A.J. Burnett 786.1 7.93 3.66 4.46 4.35 8.4
CC Sabathia 604 7.63 2.83 4.54 4.36 6.6
John Lackey 547.1 7.12 2.35 4.47 4.08 5.8
R.A. Dickey 351 5.23 3.15 3.92 4.41 2.1
Rich Hill 92.2 11.36 4.95 3.69 3.08 1.7

Those pitchers’ performances seem like pretty good news for Happ and the Yankees. He’s similar to a lot of the pitchers who aged well, and actually outperformed the bulk of them leading up to his late 30s. What the list above is missing, however, are all the pitchers who performed like Happ, but then didn’t age well. From 2005-2014, there were 18 pitchers who averaged at least two wins per season from age 32 through their age-35 campaigns. Of those 18, only three made the list above — Lowe, Kuroda, and Burnett. Those aren’t great odds. We can take the group of 18, and eliminate the four players who pitched poorly in their age-35 seasons to get a better group of recent comps.

On average, that group of 14 players put up 4.1 WAR from age 36 through age 38. Six of the 14 failed to produce one win above replacement over the three years; half of them had reasonably good, if not overwhelming, seasons. In the age-36 season, the group averaged 1.8 WAR, lower than Happ’s three-win projection but not completely out of range. By age 37, the group averaged just one win, with only nine of the 14 pitchers even pitching that season at all. Even among those who did pitch, the average WAR was just 1.6. Here’s how that group of players performed in their age-38 season.

JA Happ-like Pitchers at 38 Years Old
Hiroki Kuroda 32 201.1 3.31 3.56 3.7
A.J. Burnett 26 164 3.18 3.36 2.9
Andy Pettitte 21 129 3.28 3.85 2.4
Derek Lowe 34 187 5.05 3.7 2.1
Tim Hudson 31 189.1 3.57 3.54 2
Jose Contreras 0 56.2 3.34 3.27 0.6
Mark Buehrle Did not pitch at age 38
Chris Carpenter Did not pitch at age 38
Ryan Dempster Did not pitch at age 38
Roy Halladay Did not pitch at age 38
Ted Lilly Did not pitch at age 38
Kyle Lohse Did not pitch at age 38
Carl Pavano Did not pitch at age 38
Javier Vazquez Did not pitch at age 38

Care to guess which pitchers went at least 27 starts or 165 innings in their age-37 seasons? If you picked Kuroda, Burnett, Pettitte, and Lowe, well done. The good news for Happ is that a handful of pitchers did quite well at age-38. The bad news is that the majority didn’t even make it there. If Happ is effective in 2020 and his option vests, he’s actually a pretty good bet to keep performing well for the Yankees in 2021. He may very well be able to keep things going over the next three years, but there’s a decent chance that by 2021, and maybe as soon as 2020, he’ll be much less effective. The Yankees likely wanted to sign Happ to a two-year deal, and balked at the idea of a third year for a pitcher who might not make it there. In recent seasons, we’ve seen Rich Hill do really well, but Hill is an unusual case given his career trajectory, so hoping for a Hill-like outcome doesn’t seem realistic, much less guaranteed. Coming off a solid age-36 season with the Cardinals, the Cubs signed Lackey to a two-year deal. Lackey performed well in the first season, but had an ugly 2017 and couldn’t find a contract in 2018.

Any team signing Happ is getting him for 2019 and the solid innings he’s likely to provide. After that, it’s a tossup, though decline seems likely. While the free agent starting pitching market had some depth with Happ, Dallas Keuchel, Lance Lynn, and Charlie Morton, that depth didn’t stand in the way of big signings for Corbin and Eovaldi, or solid guarantees to Morton and Lynn. It doesn’t look like it will hurt Happ this winter, either; if the deal goes through, he’ll beat his predicted guarantee by $4 million to $6 million with a decent opportunity for a third year. Teams need to cover around 1500 innings to navigate the regular season and guys like Happ – who can provide six innings every five games – are still pretty valuable.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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5 years ago

“Good Old Pitchers”

What a chart

5 years ago
Reply to  Dmjn53

Best chart title I have seen today for sure!