Examining the J.A. Happ and Rich Hill Signings

What can we expect from the two veteran left-handers in 2016?

If I would have told you in July that J.A. Happ and Rich Hill would both sign contracts at above $5 million per season this winter, you would have looked at me like I was insane. 

That or you would have asked, “Who?”

Well, here we are in the first week of December, and Happ and Hill represent two of the most significant starting pitcher signings so far this offseason.

There are similarities abound with these two recent signees. Both are on the “wrong” side of 30, both are 6'5" left handers with deceptive deliveries, and, most importantly, both are coming off career seasons. Although these two senior citizens (by baseball terms) do not hold the name value or cache of a David Price or a Jordan Zimmermann, their signings may prove to be just as valuable for their new clubs.

J.A. Happ

Last Thursday, the Blue Jays announced that they had reached agreement with Happ on a  three-year, $36 million contract that will bring the former Bluebird back to Toronto in 2016. The lanky lefty struggled at the outset of 2015 with the Mariners, as he pitched to a 4.64 ERA and a 6.8 strikeouts per nine innings in his 21 outings with Seattle. Then, on July 31, Happ was traded to the Pirates, and suddenly, everything changed.

In Happ’s 11 starts with the Pirates, he was nearly unhittable, posting a 1.85 ERA over 63.1 innings with a 1.03 WHIP. That final statistic, Happ’s WHIP, is particularly telling, as the 33 year old had never posted a WHIP below 1.23, and his career mark sits at an unsightly 1.37.

Much of the credit for the veteran’s turnaround has to be attributed to Pirates pitching guru, Ray Searage, the man behind the revivals of Francisco Liriano, Mark Melancon, and A.J. Burnett, but how much of this newfound dominance will transfer over to Toronto?

Searage claims that a few minor mechanical adjustments are the causes behind Happ’s effectiveness, as the hurler’s front side was flying out at his release point instead of driving towards the plate, and this was preventing him from throwing strikes. In addition, Happ intensely focused on throwing his best two pitches, a low 90s fastball and a mid 80s slider, all but eliminating his less effective options in exchange.

One would assume the Blue Jays are aware of these modifications,and will do everything they can to preserve and develop them further in order to get the most they can out of their most recent addition.

If Happ can continue to throw strikes early in the count, limit his walks, and induce groundballs with his slider, the veteran could be in for a solid 2016 campaign.

That being said, fantasy owners and evaluators alike must exercise caution with Happ, as his career low 34.1% fly ball rate in 2015 is due for regression, and that correction could prove disastrous in a hitter friendly ballpark like Toronto’s Rogers Centre. Happ will also be forced to pitch the majority of his starts against talented American League East lineups, with no relief from the pitcher spot like he experienced in Pittsburgh, and this will surely spell a decrease in strikeouts and an increase in ERA.

Happ’s three-year ERAs in AL East ballparks -- Fenway (6.55), Tropicana (7.43), and Yankee Stadium (4.86) -- aren't great. Now hopefully the career journeyman can prove these stats irrelevant, as he builds on his adjustments from last year, but expecting another top-of-the-rotation campaign could be overly optimistic.

Rich Hill

Like Happ, Rich Hill has bounced back and forth between Major League and minor league clubhouses over his 10-year baseball career, with moderate success before last year.

Then in August, after a short stint with the Atlantic League’s Long Island Ducks, the Red Sox signed Hill to a minor league deal, and an unparalleled story of rejuvenation began. Called up from Pawtucket on September 8, Hill made four starts for a hapless Red Sox club last year and, in doing so, caught the attention of the baseball world. The lefty allowed a paltry 5 earned runs over 29 innings down the stretch, coupled with a remarkable 36 strikeouts and only 5 walks.

On the 23rd of November, Hill parlayed his excellent string of outings into a  one-year, $6 million deal with the Athletics. This relatively high value deal has certainly invited its fair share of critics, as many wonder if the hurler’s 29 untouchable innings were more of an aberration than a sign of things to come.

However, the Rich Hill signing represents a flawless evaluation of risk and reward by Billy Beane and his front office.

Much like his counterpart in Toronto, Hill’s prior statistical record may prove largely irrelevant in evaluating what his future holds. Simply put, Hill reinvented himself in his latest stint with the Red Sox, expanding his three-pitch focus to a five-pitch arsenal and essentially eliminating his less effective two-seamer and slider in exchange for a four-seam, curveball mix.

Hill’s looping curveball is certainly his moneymaker, as he located it with pinpoint accuracy in 2015 holding opponents to a .209 batting average against the pitch. With supreme confidence in his curve, Hill was able to keep hitters off balance with a low 90s fastball that Major League batters were often late to recognize. Hill only added to his deception by introducing a lower arm slot that he used unpredictably and often for one pitch at a time, to throw both his fastball and his curve.

Hill, too, is undoubtedly labeled for some regression, as his opponents' Batting Average on Balls in Play last year was a highly unsustainable .197 and his groundball rate was more than 12% higher than his career mark.

That being said, a one-year or “prove it” deal in the spacious confines of the O.Co Coliseum is the perfect solution to the Rich Hill conundrum, as the risk is extremely minimal and the payout could be massive.

I’ll leave you with one final statistic on Rich Hill. If qualified, the lefty would have led the league in soft hit rate at an absurd 28.6% and would have finished tied with Jake Arrieta and behind only Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel with a hard hit rate of only 22.2%.

Also, do you really want to bet against this?