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What’s the Happ?

The White Sox have been connected to veteran J.A. Happ this offseason, in their search for a veteran presence in the rotation

MLB: New York Yankees at Boston Red Sox
Things That Make You Go Hmm: The White Sox might have a team full of No. 34s soon.
Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Before we get into J.A. Happ, there is a reason why the Chicago White Sox need to go outside of the organization for their starting rotation.

Carlos Rodon will be 26 next year, with 494 13 career innings. Lucas Giolito is entering his age 25 season, with 240 innings pitched. Reynaldo Lopez will be 25, with 280 13 innings. Dylan Covey, with a spot in the starting rotation up in the air, has only started 33 games in his MLB career.

The White Sox are full of young and inexperienced arms.

Happ, if signed, would be a much needed veteran arm. He will basically take Jame Shields’s role — but he will actually pitch well. Happ will be 36 in the 2019 season, and has pitched 1520 23 innings in his career, with ... playoff experience. He was (kind of) involved in the Philadelphia Phillies title run in 2008, and made appearances in the playoffs in 2009, 2016 and this past season with the New York Yankees. Even if Happ does not end up being the veteran guy in the starting rotation, he boasts the background the Sox should look for.

MLB Trade Rumors projects Happ’s salary to be three years/$48 million, and he certainly deserves it.

Happ may be in his mid-30s, but his productivity has remained the same for years. The lefty had a 3.41 FIP in 2015, 3.96 FIP in 2016, 3.76 FIP in 2017, and 3.98 FIP this past season. Since 2016, Happ’s K/9 has increased by more than one, every year. In the 2016 season, his K/9 was 7.52, and he just had his best K/9 season in 2018, with 9.78. That has helped Happ compile a 12.5 fWAR since 2015.

I cannot emphasize this any more stridently: J.A. Happ, would be the best starter on the White Sox in 2019. We’re not looking at a James Shields “innings-eater” situation.

The reason why Happ has had continued success is because his “stuff” hasn’t really regressed. In 2015, Happ’s average fastball velocity was 92.8 mph; in 2018, it was 92.7 mph. Now, that does not mean he has not lost any velocity: Happ’s max velocity has dropped more than one MPH during that timespan, so he can’t rear back and overpower hitters as often. But Happ’s velocity is still effective.

Happ relied on his fastball heavily last season, using it 59.1% of the time — and for good reason. In 2018, he had the 15th-best fastball among starting pitchers (minimum 120 innings, and per 100 pitches). His wRC+, at 100 last season, is right at average, but that is more a case of Happ giving up quite a bit of power on hits off of his fastball, with a .209 ISO. Jose Abreu had a .208 ISO, so Happ’s fastball last season, when hit, was essentially Abreu contact. However, batters only had a .203 average against Happ’s fastball, so it seems Happ was using it in excess. It’s still a great pitch, but a 59.1% usage rate is probably not a good thing.

Now, with every gain in a pitch usage usually comes a loss, and for Happ, he cut back drastically on his sinker and curveball.

Happ’s swing percentage on his curveball and sinker in 2018.

As you can see from the above heat map, hitters are not fooled by Happ’s sinker and curveball, because they are not swinging outside the zone against them. As Happ’s spin rate on his curveball has decreased, he throws it fewer times. In 2018, Happ only used his curve 51 times all season — and that was probably too many. Happ literally did not record a swinging strike on his curveball in 2018. Out of the 51 times he threw it, a batter made contact 51 times, to the tune of a .500 batting average.

Happ’s sinker was much better, but still awful. He used his sinker 14.4% of the time (his second most-used pitch), with a 122 wRC+ against. So whenever Happ threw the sinker, it was like Andrew Benintendi was at the plate (with his 122 wRC+ 2018 season).

Both Happ’s sinker and curveball used to be much better pitches. As recently as 2017, the sinker and curveball were Happ’s two best pitches. The seeming loss of these pitches can be regained, but age and diminished stuff are factors in to those two pitches’ demise.

But hey, two pitches go down, two must come up right? Well, for Happ that happened.

Happ’s slider and changeup have improved greatly over the past few years. The chaneup had a negative evaluation per 100 pitches overall, at -.67; however, that is the best his change has been since 2013. At first glance, there is a reason Happ’s changeup is rated negatively: the batting average against the changeup in 2018 was .268. However, the wRC+ against the change was an outstanding 73, even better than Happ’s fastball. The disconnect comes in the contact allowed by Happ with the change; the ISO against the pitch was miniscule .024. He also had his best swinging strike rate on the change in his career (13.3%) — not quite Jacob DeGrom level, but still, pretty good.

There’s an even better pitch in Happ’s arsenal, one you can see make All-Stars look bad on in the above clip: the slider. It was rated as Happ’s second-best pitch, and the 35th-best slider in baseball in 2018. Hitters’ slash line against the slider (.160/.177/.330) is worth remembering as it generated just a 44 wRC+. Just to put a caption on that, Happ’s slider makes hitters look slightly worse than 2018 Chris Davis (46 wRC+). Happ also had a career high in 2018 in swinging strikes with his slider (11.9%). That’s a more pedestrian figure, but it is pointing up. The slider would be rated even better, but when contact is made, hitters are generating extra-base hits, as Happ allowed a .170 ISO on the slider.

Again, Happ, would be a major improvement for the White Sox starting rotation in 2019, to the point where Happ would instantly become the team’s top starter. That may say more about the state of the White Sox starting rotation, but Happ also started Game 1 of the ALDS for the Yankees this season, so teams around the league know how good he is.

He will probably need to throw fewer fastballs and hopefully recoup his curveball and sinker, but overall, Happ has proven to be very successful, year-in, year-out. Since 2015, Happ has averaged 3.1 fWAR, and seems to improved in his mid-30s, as he pounds low-and-away in the strike zone.

Happ’s pitch location against lefties in 2018.
Happ’s pitch location against righties in 2018.

Now, even with the majority of his pitches low and away, Happ does have a home run problem. His HR/9 at 1.37 was 28th-worst in baseball among hurlers with at least 120 innings pitched. His HR/FB rate (13.4%) is well below average, and is even more worrisome because Happ actually allows more fly balls than ground balls. But with a walk rate in the top third of the league among starters, Happ was able to weather those storms (just not against the Boston Red Sox in October).

So, if the Sox sign Happ? Sure, it’s not exactly the Chicago Cubs signing Jon Lester, but it is the next best thing. Hell, overpay if you have to.