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Ask BD: Who is this year's J.A. Happ?

Toronto Blue Jays v Cleveland Indians Photo by Ron Schwane/Getty Images

Editor’s Note: Everyone please welcome Joe Petrich, who is going to write analysis articles for us. He is starting out with a topic from Ask Bucs Dugout.

- Eli Nellis


Who is this year's JA Happ?

Posted by bucsws2014


In 2015, the Pirates traded for an alright J.A. Happ and he ended up giving the Pirates a stellar final two months of the season, striking out 69 in 63 1-3 innings, and posting a 1.85 ERA. Following the 2015 season, Happ left Pittsburgh, signing a $36 million three-year deal with Toronto. The Pirates had found a diamond in the rough with Happ, who left a fringe 47-57 Mariners team for a first-place wild-card team in the Pittsburgh Pirates, but didn't get to reap the benefits of Happ's resurgence in the same way they had with A.J. Burnett or would with Francisco Liriano and Ivan Nova. As we are days from the 2017 trade deadline, who could be this year's J.A. Happ?

J.A. Happ was on a 47-57 Mariners team that was not in contention for the playoffs. He was their fifth starter during a pretty good pitching year for the Mariners - he had already accrued 1.3 WAR before being traded to the Pirates. This year, the Mariners are in an only slightly better position, but lack starting pitching depth and so there is no Happ lookalike on this year's Seattle team. Across baseball, players with similar stats to J.A. Happ's 2015 numbers include Clayton Richard, Jason Vargas and (the recently traded) Jaime Garcia. All three of these pitchers would be rentals as their contracts expire this year, and all three have been discussed as drawing trade interest prior to this year's deadline.

Name Team K/9 BB/9 BABIP ERA FIP xFIP WAR
Name Team K/9 BB/9 BABIP ERA FIP xFIP WAR
2015 J.A. Happ Mariners 6.79 2.65 0.319 4.64 4.12 4.15 1.3
Clayton Richard Padres 6.36 2.62 0.366 5.37 4.46 3.97 1.2
Jason Vargas Royals 6.63 2.37 0.285 3.08 4.11 4.89 1.7
Jaime Garcia Braves 6.77 3.27 0.287 4.3 4.14 4.21 1.4

Let's discuss Jaime Garcia first, as he was just traded to the Twins, and we can be sure the Twins hope Garcia pitches as well as Happ did in the last two months of 2015. Nothing about Garcia's advanced stats, however, indicate that he is due for a correction in ERA, strikeouts, or walks. His ERA is right around his FIP and xFIP, so he is not suffering from the Braves defense, and his BABIP is actually below the league average, so he is not getting unlucky on balls put in play, either. The Twins might be looking hopefully at his 2015 numbers, where he posted a 2.43 ERA (3.00 FIP) in 129 2/3 innings pitched, but that year he stranded a very high 78.1% of baserunners, so it's most likely the Twins' Garcia pitches about the same as the Braves' Garcia this year.

Jason Vargas has been having a solid year for the Kansas City Royals, who now find themselves in playoff contention after winning their last 7 games, and so is unlikely to be traded at this year's deadline. His traditional statistics have been better than Garcia's, though he has also benefited from a very strong Kansas City defense - his xFIP is nearly 22% higher than his FIP, which is 33% higher than his ERA. He has also benefited from a below-league average .285 BABIP. He has managed to keep his home run/fly-ball percentage below 10% (he ranks 7th in baseball for that statistic) even in today's fly-ball era, which would be enticing in today's trade market, were he on the trading block.

Clayton Richard is probably the best candidate to be this year's J.A. Happ. Like 2015's Happ, he is on a struggling West-Coast team, posting a respectable 1.3 WAR, and has an xFIP around 4. However, he could be even more undervalued than Happ was, as his 5.37 ERA is suffering from an astronomical .366 BABIP and 26th-ranked Padres defense. As the trade deadline approaches, Richard is coming off of an attractive start on July 24 where he went 8 innings, giving up 5 runs but posting a 2.79 xFIP and a 65.4% ground-ball percentage, recovering from his worst outing of the year, in Colorado, on July 19 when he gave up 11 runs in just 3 2/3 innings with a 6.55 FIP. Colorado can do that to you.

The parallels between Clayton Richard in 2017 and J.A. Happ in 2015 don't stop at a single season, however. Clayton Richard is 33, J.A. Happ was 32, and both pitchers were clearly in the second half of their careers by the trade deadline. J.A. Happ had been a starter with the Phillies and Blue Jays before injuries prevented him from starting regularly, and then he was traded from Toronto to Seattle and then to Pittsburgh. Richard began his career as a starter with the Padres before undergoing surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome in 2014. After his surgery, he spent 2014 and most of 2015 in the minors with the Diamondbacks, and then with the Pirates, before an upward-movement clause in his contract allowed the Cubs to pick him up from the Pirates late in 2015 (just before the Pirates signed Happ, in fact). He returned to the Padres in 2016, and 2017 marks the first year since his surgery that he started the year in a starting rotation.

Because Richard's conventional statistics are so clearly worse than his more advanced metrics, he is a much more obvious candidate for improvement than J.A. Happ was in 2015. Nevertheless, with a change of scenery to a contending team and a better defense behind him, Richard could quite possibly put up numbers mirroring Happ's 7 wins, 1.85 ERA and 2.1 WAR in the final two months of 2015, earning him a multi-year deal in the offseason. What do you think? Should the Pirates or another team go after Clayton Richard between now and Monday? Or will Richard remain a Padre for the remainder of 2017?