5 Things for Twins Fans to Know About J.A. Happ
Image courtesy of Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY SportsFirst, you can get the requisite details about Happ in Seth and Tom's story from when the news broke. That article puts his deal into context and includes info about the veteran lefty's repertoire and recent history.
Here I'll dig a little deeper with five facts about Happ that are especially noteworthy for Twins fans.
1. Things ended sourly between Happ and the Yankees.
Happ just completed a two-year, $32 million contract, with the latter season being described as "messy" by the New York Post. The left-hander was none too shy about expressing his displeasure with what he perceived as intentional efforts by New York to limit his innings and circumvent a $17 million vesting option. Happ ended up coming one start short of the trigger in 2020, and now will end up making $9 million less with the Twins.
This strikes me for two reasons.
First, because it marks the second straight offseason where the Twins acquired a starting pitcher who was displeased with his previous team's handling of him, and how it impacted his earnings. (Kenta Maeda's starting-based incentives were suppressed in Los Angeles by his hybrid usage.)
Second, because it means Happ might hold a bit of a grudge against the Yankees. Hey, we'll take it.
2. Happ was never viewed as a particularly strong prospect in the minors.
Despite being a third-round draft pick who performed well in the minors, and possessed desirable attributes as a 6-foot-5 left-handed pitcher, Happ never drew a ton of hype in prospect circles. This was mainly because of his middling fastball velocity, which sat in the 80s and hardly conveyed dominant upside while coming up with the Phillies.
Alas, Happ is still plugging away in the majors, some 17 years after being drafted and 14 years after arriving. He has thrown more than 1,700 innings with a sub-4 career ERA. Meanwhile, many of the prospects who appeared on those lists ahead of him never even reached the big leagues.
It's a reminder that rankings and industry assessments are only worth so much. Keep that in mind before you write off the unheralded Randy Dobnak – currently slotted as the No. 5 starter behind Happ – due to a second-half slump in 2020.
3. Happ seemingly turned a corner last year.
By the time he got clubbed around in his second start for New York in 2020, it's fair to say Happ was a maligned figure at Yankee Stadium. He was coming off a disappointing first year in pinstripes, and had given up eight runs across his first two turns of the abbreviated season.
From then on, however, Happ was brilliant. Over his final seven starts he posted a 2.34 ERA and held opponents to a .200/.241/.340 slash. Matt Wallach wrote at Pitcher List in September about how Happ was changing the narrative, outperforming even Gerrit Cole over a five-week stretch. Wallach highlighted a few noticeable changes in approach aiding Happ's success: more sinkers thrown to lefties, more four-seamers to righties, more locating down in the zone.
Looking at his circumstances, the Happ signing actually reminds me a lot of Homer Bailey, who himself had turned a corner by making tweaks in Oakland before the Twins signed him to a nearly identical contract (one year, $7 million). Last year's Bailey signing obviously didn't work out due to injury, but the righty showed fleeting promise when he was on the mound to validate the front office's thinking.
Adding Happ to the back half of this rotation represents a similar type of gambit, although here the Twins have paid more to acquire a much safer bet.
In 80 innings over his past 15 starts, dating back to 2019, Happ has a 2.97 ERA.
4: By some measures, Happ is right on par with Minnesota's rotation-fronting trio.
A directive for the front office this winter was to add a starting pitcher who was at least at the level of their returning top three. I still think they need to do so after signing Happ. That said, a case can be made that he's not far off from being in the category of Maeda, José Berríos and Michael Pineda. As I mentioned on Twitter, by FanGraphs' WAR measurement, Happ stacks up pretty closely to Maeda and Berríos over the past five years, and is well ahead of the oft-unavailable Pineda.
Granted, that sample includes Berríos' brutal rookie year in 2016, but it also includes Happ's most recent stretch in New York, which looks in some ways to be the outlier of an otherwise outstanding post-30 track record.
5. Happ's biggest weakness is one that the Twins have proven very adept at solving.
The lefty's primary downfall in New York was that his home run rate went off the charts. Happ's career 1.1 HR/9 average jumped to 1.7 during his time in the Bronx. He went from being roughly average at keeping the ball in the yard to one of the league's worst.
The good news is that escaping Yankee Stadium and its cartoonish dimensions will help enough on its own. The better news is that Minnesota has shown a penchant for addressing this specific issue.
When the Twins acquired Jake Odorizzi from Tampa, the main reason they got him so cheaply is because Odorizzi's proneness to home runs had diminished his effectiveness. After allowing 1.6 HR/9 during his final two years with the Rays, Odorizzi reduced that average to 1.0 in 2018/19 with the Twins, progressively getting better.
He went from one of the league's worst at keeping the ball in the yard to roughly average. He also made his first All-Star Game.
When the Twins acquired Pineda as a free agent, he too had formed a reputation as one of the league's most homer-prone starters. In his final two seasons with the Yankees, Pineda allowed 1.6 HR/9 on average. In 2019/20 with the Twins, he allowed 1.2 HR/9, progressively getting better (he allowed zero in five starts last year).
He went from one of the league's worst at keeping the ball in the yard to roughly average. And he has led the Twins to a 21-10 record in his starts.
Suffice to say, while I was feeling lukewarm about Happ's signing as an initial reaction, my faith in this front office has given me confidence. And as you unpack some of these truths about Happ, placing them against the backdrop of the Twins' past actions and larger strategy, it gets a lot easier to feel excited about what they've got in the 38-year-old southpaw.
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