Well, it's been just over 24 hours since the Mariners traded Michael Saunders to the Toronto Blue Jays, and even though I tried getting incredibly drunk and hallucinating an alternative situation before falling asleep to dream about the Condor still soaring over Safeco's right field grass, eventually waking up the next morning with the hope that everything was all just a dream.........it wasn't. Michael Saunders is still gone.
So instead of ruminating over this sad state of affairs, I thought we should maybe take a gander at what the Mariners got back in the trade, considering this changes quite a bit for 2015's game plan. None of this is to condone the trade or the logic that went into the whole thing, but now that the dust has settled a little bit, I think we could be pleasantly surprised at the Condor's return in former Jays' lefty J.A. Happ, who should help shore up what was already an intriguingly impressive starting rotation. So what does all this look like?
As noted by Logan in his immediate reaction to the trade, Happ brings a pretty specific skillset to Safeco Field that should echo what we saw (on paper) from Jason Vargas and Joe Saunders over the past couple of years: the requisite veteran lefty filling out a deep rotation and taking advantage of a spacious outfield that is known for killing fly balls. But before we jump to today, let's take a look at where he came from.
Happ attended college at the prestigious Northwestern University, where he did amazing things like nearly complete a degree in history, rack up 251 strikeouts over three career seasons, and pose for this incredible photo in the school's directory:
Happ started work out of Northwestern's bullpen in 2002, eventually making his way to the Northwestern's starting rotation where he would go on to throw 94 innings in 2004, still fifth-best in school history for the single-season innings record. He was drafted in the third round in 2004 by the Phillies, jumping up and down between callups until he earned a permanent position in the rotation following the disastrous 2009 season of Chan Ho Park.
Happ's 2009 was a career year, with the left-handed rookie going 12-4 over 35 games with 2.93 ERA, good for 1.5 fWAR and the Sporting News' unofficial Rookie of the Year award, missing out on the actual award thanks to a late season surprise from the Cubs' Chris Coghlan, who would also have a bunch of awful years until figuring his shit out in 2014. Man, those were some dark years for baseball.
Then, because the Phillies are the Phillies, Happ was traded after his great year to the Astros on July 29th of 2010, where he spent two seasons and mostly floundered in mediocrity despite somewhat getting his mojo back in 2012. My favorite line on his Wikipedia page says that "On June 13th, 2012, Happ earned a place in history," which is absolutely amazing when you think about the stakes of that statment, but then continues to say "...as the opposing starting pitcher for Matt Cain's perfect game," and then you just kind of have to feel bad for the guy. By 2012, that was his place in history.
Still, Happ posted a 1.8 fWAR season in 2012, despite missing most of September with a fractured right foot after being demoted to the bullpen on a Blue Jays team that had traded for him only a few months prior. But then with a 2013 comeback ready to make J.A. HAPPEN, he made history yet again:
I remember watching this video on my phone as I was taking the bus back to my apartment that season. I nearly swallowed my tongue when I heard the sound of the ball hitting his head, and I'm pretty sure other people heard it through my headphones because the guy sitting next to me looked over at my screen and then chortled some kind of strange reaction at seeing a dead person on his seat partner's phone, and for a minute, I felt like I was watching something I maybe shouldn't have been watching. Which, I don't know, could still be the case.
But thankfully, Happ fully recovered and finished the year with 18 starts, 92 2/3 innings, and surprisingly, a 1.2 fWAR, nearly matching his previous season highs in 2009 and 2012 that saw him throwing 166 and 144 innings respectively. Happ started 2014 again on the disabled list, coming out of the bullpen but making his way back to the starting rotation by May, eventually settling in to become a solid part of the Blue Jays' rotation, posting yet another 1+ win season with an 11-11 record and a 4.22 ERA.
All those ERAs and wins are great, but the interesting thing about Happ is that he's actually kind of like a lefty Chris Young, albeit a lefty Chris Young that can hit 93 and hasn't really had the opportunity of pitching in a park that really benefits his game. And you can see it in his xFIP--Happ has typically hovered around mid ~4's in his major league career:
This is, of course, interesting when you think about the parks he has played in. Because xFIP is a predictive statistic designed to measure, essentially, how many homers the pitcher should have given up based on a league average HR/FB ratio, suddenly you have an interesting conundrum that could play pretty handily into the M's hands:
Happ pitched 2009 and parts of 2010 in Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, a relatively neutral park that has a somewhat generous left-field power alley for righties to take advantage of. Same for his time in Minute Maid Park from 2010-2012, which has an absolutely asinine center field but yet another generous left field corner, perhaps one of the most generous in the game. And, of course, his final seasons in Rogers Center, an extreme hitters park, also did him few favors. xFIP is not park adjusted, so suddenly those high fours look quite a bit better coming into Safeco Field, which, as we all know, certainly helped a certain pitcher enjoy a pretty remarkably successful season despite having an xFIP north of five.
Happ's arsenal consists of a fourseamer that hits 93, as well as a sinking fast ball, a 78 mph curve, an 86 mph changeup, and as is all the rage in baseball today, an 84mph cutter that actually rates as a plus pitch despite being part of the source of his flyball problem. This is interesting, because Happ is entering his age 32 season, and you would be right to worry about his velocity and his command, which has always been plagued with a bit of a walk problem. Except:
Look at the right side of that chart!
Happ has consistently added velocity since his earliest appearances in 2008, and fascinatingly, jumped from an average of 91.59 on his fourseamer in 2013 to an average of 93.44 in exactly a year's time. That's a crazy jump, and part of it seems to have come out of his reticence to rely on his breaking stuff when he gets in trouble. For more on that, be sure to check out a really interesting breakdown of one of Happ's most recent performance against the Mariners over at Yahoo! Canada, complete with quotes and graphs to get to know him a little better.
It's going to be interesting to see where Happ lands in the M's rotation, which already includes two seemingly solid left-handers in James Paxton and Roenis Elias. As Logan noted in his initial reaction, many have suggested this trade has given the Mariners a sudden surplus of pitchers in a market with rebuilding teams and bats to sell, but I really have no idea what to think about that. That, or I've just had enough of watching my favorite players leave town for a return I'm not sure I want yet.
But also don't forget that the Mariners' starting rotation wildly overperformed last year. Happ gives the M's a bit of insurance for probably less than Chris Young will end up costing someone else (miss you, Dad), and while Saunders is most assuredly going to be missed, we all know he wouldn't have even been utilized properly had he stuck around for another season.
None of this justifies what feels like, at the moment, yet another bizarre trade from Jack Z that seems to have come out of the pages of a comic book instead of a scouting report. But we shouldn't let that doctor our opinion of Happ, who could very well end up being a pretty solid pickup for the M's come May.
Now we just need to give the guy a nickname, because the Condor has left a pretty glaring empty nest in the corner of the dugout.