If early indications mean anything, this is going to be another long winter of the Milwaukee Brewers being connected to pitching upgrades. Each rumor that has leaked out so far regarding our Menomonee Valley Nine has them looking at one arm or another - Anibal Sanchez, Sonny Gray, Nathan Eovaldi, and now, JA Happ.
According to Jon Paul Morosi of MLB.com, the markets for Eovaldi and Happ are evolving rapidly here in the offseason’s early going. Morosi connected the Brewers to Eovaldi last week, and this time around he offers that his sources have indicated that Milwaukee is one of the teams interested in the veteran Happ, joining the Yankees, Blue Jays, Angels, Phillies, and Astros.
Happ, who turned 36 last month, has followed a journeyman’s career path but seemingly found another gear after hitting the age-30 threshold. Happ’s control improved suddenly in 2014 after problems with walks plagued him during the early portion of his career, and he has tossed 848.0 innings over the last five years while posting a 3.62 ERA. He made his first All-Star team in 2018 while splitting the season between Toronto and New York, making 31 starts between those two clubs and working to a 3.65 ERA across 177.2 innings. Happ struck out batters at a career-high 9.78 K/9 clip and his walk rate was right around where it’s been since 2014, coming in at 2.58 BB/9. The only real complaint about Happ’s season is his home run rate, coming in at 1.37 HR/9, the highest rate of his career. The southpaw fly-ball pitcher has dealt with intermittent issues with homers as a big leaguer but has held batters to well below-average rates of hard contact during the last two years, and has generally thrived at that skill throughout his career.
Happ is by no means reliant on velocity, though it is worth noting that the firmness on his four-seam fastball has held steady between 92.7 MPH and 92.9 MPH for the last four years. His pitch selection has evolved over the years, and last season the lefty cut his sinker usage in more than half (down to 14.4%) while relying on his four-seamer more than 59% of the time. With good reason, too - Pitch Info rated his fastball as 19.3 runs better than average in 2018 while batters hit only .207 against the offering, which was frequently elevated within the strike zone. Happ also largely shelved his historically ineffective curveball, throwing both his slider and changeup about 12% of the time. These changes helped Happ to produce the best swinging strike rate of his career (10.4%), and led run estimators like FIP- (92) and DRA- (87) to agree that he was indeed an above-average performer in 2018.
Though he is one of the older pitchers on the market this winter, the age-defying lefty has long been expected to generate plenty of interest. That could push his market into the range of a three-year guarantee through his age-38 season, with MLB Trade Rumors predicting that he’ll secure a total outlay of $48 mil over three seasons. JA Happ looks like he should be a steady source of quality innings for a contender next year and has piled up at least 145 innings in each of the last five seasons, but any team willing to make a significant multiyear offer to him will need to feel confident that he can continue to keep Father Time at bay.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus