Pittsburgh Pirates History: Revisiting the J.A. Happ Trade

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At the 2015 MLB Trade Deadline, the Pittsburgh Pirates made a trade that flew under the radar at the time, but turned out to be one of the best moves made that July

Back at the 2015 MLB Trade Deadline, the Pittsburgh Pirates were buyers. They bolstered their bullpen by acquiring right-handed relief pitcher Joakim Soria, who was the best reliever available at the trade deadline that season, and traded for veteran third baseman Aramis Ramirez to give themselves another infield bat. The team also added reliever Joe Blanton, who was also excellent with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

One area that they still needed to improve upon as the July 31st deadline rolled around was the starting rotation. A.J. Burnett, Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano made one of the best 1-2-3 combos in baseball, but Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke were struggling, and Burnett had spent some time on the disabled list. So, the starting rotation could use an upgrade. To add said rotation help, the Pittsburgh Pirates went out and traded prospect Adrian Sampson for lefty starter J.A. Happ.

When the trade went down, it did not appear the Pirates upgraded their pitching staff. Before being traded to the Pirates, Happ owned a 4.64 ERA, 4.12 FIP, and 1.41 WHIP in 108 innings pitched with the Seattle Mariners. Sure, he had a walk rate of 2.7 per 9 and 6.8% walk rate, but he had a strikeout rate of just 6.8 per 9 and 17.5%.

Plus, it’s not like these were unusual numbers for the lefty. From 2010 to 2014, Happ had a 4.56 ERA, 4.33 FIP and 1.42 WHIP. It’s also not like Happ was getting unlucky. He still carried a 4.29 SIERA, and had the 31st highest HR/9 in the MLB that season.

The Pirates looked like they made a fairly pointless trade. A team that had the second best record in the Majors at the time, and would finish with the second best record in baseball, traded for a back-end starter with the likes of David Price, Cole Hamels, Johnny Cueto, and Dan Haren all being thrown around in trades. This did not look like a good move on the Pirates end, but nobody would have predicted that Happ would become one of the best pitchers in baseball down the stretch.

After the trade from the Mariners to Pittsburgh, Happ went on a tear. In his next 63.1 innings, Happ surrendered just 13 earned runs and 52 hits. He only let 13 batters on base via a free pass, and struck out 69 opposing batters. His K/BB ratio with the Pirates was 5.31. Happ also allowed just three home runs. From the trade deadline to the end of the season, Happ’s 1.85 ERA was the 3rd best in baseball. Only Clayton Kershaw (1.55), and Jake Arrieta’s super-human second half of 2015 (0.41) passed him. He also ranked 5th in FIP at 2.19. Happ’s 2.0 fWAR post-trade deadline was the 9th best among all starters in this time frame.

The Pirates went 8-3 in games Happ started, and some are not even fair to count against him. For example, on September 28th, despite Happ going 6 scoreless against the St. Louis Caridnals, and giving up only one base runner, the Pirates still lost the game because, in an odd turn of events, closer Mark Melancon was not able to carry it into the 10th inning. Happ, out of Price, Hamels and Cueto was the best pitcher among the three aces.

On the Mariners end, Sampson only played one game for the team. His one and only start for the Marines came in 2016. In this start, Sampson pitched in 4.2 innings, and allowed 4 earned runs on eight hits. During the 2016-2017 off-season, the Texas Rangers claimed the righty off of waivers, but was released at the end of November, 2019. He is still a free agent.

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Should Happ have started the 2015 Wild Card game? Possibly. After all, the Cubs were statistically worse vs left-handed pitchers (89 wRC+) than right-handed pitchers (98 wRC+). Their wRC+ drops to 87 when facing a LHP on the road.

That’s a big what if scenario, but regardless of it, Happ was outstanding after the trade to the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was only a rental, and was signed by the Toronto Blue Jays to a three-year deal after the 2015 season. Another big what if is what if the Pirates signed him instead of the miss-matched group of starters that included Ryan Vogelsong and Juan Nicasio. The Pirates trading for J.A. Happ is probably the best and most recent rental trade in baseball history. A rental pitcher might pitch well after a trade to a new team, but what Happ did was insane.

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