Pittsburgh Pirates: Team Should Look To Reunite With J.A. Happ
By Noah Wright
With a lack of stability in their pitching staff, the Pittsburgh Pirates should reunite with veteran lefty J.A. Happ to provide some healthy innings for the team in 2021.
At the 2015 trade deadline, the Pittsburgh Pirates acquired left-handed starter J.A. Happ. What looked like a small trade to help round out the back of the team’s starting rotation turned into a game changing trade as Happ was one of the best pitchers in baseball down the stretch. Although the Pirates were interested in bringing back the lefty and willing to match any deal that any other team offered as our Marty Foster has discussed before, Happ signed with the Jays on a three-year deal with a vesting option for a fourth year.
Happ never reached that peak he hit in the final months of the 2015 season, but he did prove to be a solid md-rotation arm for the Blue Jays from 2016 up through the 2018 trade deadline. In his second go around with the Jays, Happ had a 3.55 ERA, 3.87 FIP and 1.22 WHIP in 454.2 innings. Though Happ wasn’t a big strikeout pitcher with a 22.9% strikeout rate (right around league average), he only allowed 7.4% of the batters he faced to reach via free pass and put up a solid 1.13 HR/9, which is fairly notable given that Rogers Centre is considered a hitter friendly park. Overall, he also had a 3.97 xFIP and 4.03 SIERA.
Happ was traded to the New York Yankees during the 2018 deadline and again provided good numbers once being traded to another team in a deadline deal. In the 63.1 innings he had with the Yanks in 2018, he had a 2.69 ERA, 24.4% strikeout rate and a 6.2% walk rate. Still, there were signs of regression with a 1.41 HR/9, 4.26 FIP, 4.36 xFIP, and 4.37 SIERA.
That regression seemed to catch up with Happ in 2019. He did toss 161.1 innings, but put up a 4.91 ERA, 5.22 FIP and 1.295 WHIP. He wasn’t walking a significant amount of batters with a 7.2% walk rate, and his strikeout rate was low at 20.6%, which isn’t unusual for Happ, but home runs were the main culprit to the lefty starter’s struggles. With 34 home runs given up, his 1.9 HR/9 was the most he has ever given up.
Last year, Happ bounced back. While he didn’t rebound to his 2016-2018 standards, he was an overall league average pitcher. He put up a 3.47 ERA and 1.05 WHIP, but his ERA estimators pinned him with a 4.57 FIP, 4.53 SIERA and 4.33 xFIP. Despite the ERA estimators, he had a 97 xFIP- and 101 FIP- which means he was right around league average. However, he was above average in hard hit rate, exit velocity, xwOBA and his xERA was better than his actual ERA. Even though DRA had him at 5.00, his DRA- of 103 again puts him within 3% of around average.
The big reason the Pittsburgh Pirates should reunite with Happ this off season is because of his durability. Between the 2016 season and 2019 season, Happ averaged 30 starts,170 innings a season and 5.2 innings a game. The only time he finished with less than 30 starts and at least 150 innings was in 2017. Despite suffering an injury that kept him out just over a month, he still averaged nearly six innings a start. Since the beginning of the 2019 season, only three Pirate pitcher have more than 150 innings pitched. Two of which are Joe Musgrove, one of the Pirates’ top trade candidates, and Trevor Williams, a non-tender candidate.
Happ would benefit from being put in a much less hitter friendly environment. In 2020, Yankees Stadium averaged the third most home runs per game at 1.565. PNC on the other hand averaged just 0.878. Also, being paired with Gold Glove finalist Jacob Stallings would be a massive upgrade to Gary Sanchez.
Even though MLB Trade Rumors projects the Pittsburgh Pirates to sign no top 50 free agents, the lefty workhorse is projected to make just $6 million through one year. Given the financial uncertainty many teams are in, Happ’s price might end up being in the $3-$5 million range. While the Pittsburgh Pirates might not be big spenders of any sort, moreso this off season than any, they still need to find nine guys to put on a baseball field for 162 games.
Happ might turn into a potential trade piece as well. Last deadline, Baltimore lefty Tommy Milone was sent to the Braves for two players to be named later. One of those players was the Braves’ 23rd ranked prospect per MLB Pipeline A.J. Graffanino. The Seattle Mariners were able to get back Alberto Rodriguez, who currently ranks as their 22nd best prospect, for Taijuan Walker. In both instances, the pitcher was on an expiring contract, and despite putting up numbers that overall looked like a #4 starter, were able to get back prospects some consider to be top 30 organizational prospects.
Reuniting with Happ could be very beneficial to the Pittsburgh Pirates. In the worst case scenario, the Bucs get a back-end starter, but one who can eat 170-180 innings and give them 30 starts. It will give them some stability for a pitching staff that saw two starters that were supposed to play large roles in 2020, that being Chris Archer and Jameson Taillon, miss all of the season. In a best case scenario, the Pirates get solid production from the veteran lefty and are able to flip him for a potentially notable prospect.