The MLB Trade Deadline season is underway and the Blue Jays have the most valuable pitchign chip on the market
MLB Trade Rumours’ Top 50 MLB Trade Candidates makes for great reading for Blue Jays fans, once we get past the fact that we’re sellers and not buyers. Seven of those 50 players are Blue Jays and that doesn’t even account for guys like Josh Donaldson, Marco Estrada or Curtis Granderson. Of particular note are the two starting pitchers listed in the #3/4 spots: J.A Happ and Cole Hamels.
Up to and including the 2015 season, not a soul would’ve equated the abilities of these two pitchers. While Hamels had already accumulated 41.1 fWAR, Happ’s career fWAR was only 10.9. However, since his return to the Blue Jays, Happ has only improved. On the other hand, Hamels has fallen off, to the point that Happ now has a strong claim to being the superior pitcher.
Let’s focus first on the two pitchers’ top-line numbers, starting back in 2016. That year, the two pitched a nearly identical number of innings (a recurring theme), producing identical ERA- and FIP-. The more advanced metrics (xFIP-, SIERA and xwOBA) gave Hamels a small, but meaningful edge.
In 2017, the edge unequivocally belonged to Happ. In every metric, he rated comfortably better than Hamels. For the first time in his career, Happ produced like one of the top pitchers in the majors—among 189 starting pitchers with 50+ IP in 2017, Happ ranked 33rd in ERA-, 31st in FIP-, 40th in xFIP-, 45th in SIERA and 20th in xwOBA.
This season is a very similar story. The only metric in which Hamels has the edge is ERA-, but that can be explained away easily by the unsustainably high number of base runners he’s stranded—his LOB% of 84% is much higher than his career average of 76.9%. As it regresses downwards, his ERA- will regress upwards.
Over the last two and a half seasons, Happ’s cumulative performance has been comfortably above-average, while Hamels has deteriorated from great to average. This year’s 83 ERA- may look good, but every indication suggests that it’s smoke and mirrors. As the graph below illustrates, while Hamels ERA- has remained at a typical level, both his FIP- and xFIP- have increased quite a bit. Ditto for his SIERA (the last three seasons have seen him produce his three worst ever marks) and his xwOBA (which has meaningfully increased in each season of the Statcast era).
Happ’s increasing superiority over Hamels is even more evident if we break down their performances somewhat. There are many ways to do this, but I like separating a pitcher’s performance into three key parts: accumulating strikeouts, avoiding walks and generating weak contact.
In 2016, the two were fairly comparable in every way. Hamels had the edge in terms of strikeout rate, but Happ had small edges in terms of both walk rate and xwOBA on batted balls. Last season, Happ made improvements across the board, leading Hamels in each metric. This season, Happ has traded improvements in his strikeout and walk rates for some deterioration in his xwOBA on batted balls (though his contact quality allowed remains much better than this season’s league-average of .394). Once again, he leads Hamels in all three metrics.
So, I think we can confidently say that Happ > Hamels. Nevertheless, it’s worth asking whether there are any other available SP options better than Happ. MLBTR’s list suggests that the pickings are slim after Happ and Hamels, particularly in the high-end rental department. Tyson Ross is having a resurgence in 2018, after dealing with two lost seasons, looking like an above-average starting pitcher. However, he lags behind Happ in all eight metrics used in this post.
Really, the only way for a buyer to improve upon Happ is to go big on a controllable arm. Chris Archer is a perennial trade candidate, but he’s on the disabled list right now and has himself lagged behind Happ across the board this season. That leaves Jacob DeGrom and Noah Syndergaard, two unquestionable aces. The Mets appear to be listening on offers for the two, which is exactly the Mets thing to do. After accomplishing the hardest thing in baseball (developing not one, but two aces), they should be investing in winning, not starting all over again. But I digress.
There’s a clear demand for Happ, which is the other important part of this story. As has been said by many, every contender outside of the Astros would love to add Happ to their rotation, both now and in the post-season. Some appear to be particularly desperate, with rotation holes the main potential obstacle standing between them and October glory. The Yankees rotation is Luis Severino and question marks. The Mariners rotation is James Paxton and questions marks. The Brewers rotation is only question marks. The Cubs rotation is full of brand-name pitchers, but they’ve all pitched worse than Happ this year.
This is shaping up to be an interesting trade deadline for the Blue Jays, with plenty of useful rental players to trade away. At the top of that list is J.A. Happ. As a big fan of his and someone hopeful that 2019 will proceed like we all hoped 2018 might—continued prospect development in the minors and a blend of youth and (short-term) veteran talent contending for the second wild card spot—I am all for bringing him back in the off-season, so that he can continue contributing for the Blue Jays on the mound. In the meantime, given his ability and the scarcity of alternatives, he could make a very meaningful contribution to the team’s prospect depth.
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I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.