J.A. Happ over Roenis Elias?
Embarrassment of Riches, Dept.


Ryan Divish funnels some shot-caller shtick our way.  One suitcase comes spiralling out of the 3rd-story window, we catch it, only to realize that it's full of 1998 Baseball Prospectus books:

  • Felix Hernandez is a given
  • Hisashi Iwakuma is a given
  • J.A. HAPP is a given
  • Everybody else, let's see what you got.  JAMES PAXTON THIS MEANS YOU

Does that seem weird at all to you?  ... the 2014 Mariners took a flier on Roenis Elias, straight out of AA. By "straight out of AA" we mean that he had not pitched AAA.  

  • He had 10 starts in the low minors.  
  • Then a normal season, 26 starts, in high A.
  • Then a short season, 22 starts, in AA.

Then he came to Arizona, exactly as if Stephen Landazuri came to camp this year, and pitched tough .... "he's fearless and it's kinda hard to square him up".  BANG!  He's one of your Big Five.  Let's suit up and go get 'em.

Elias goes out there against three AL West rivals, boom boom boom, and locks them down in short starts.   He has a VERY solid year, shows LOTS of upside, and .... finishes the year with 10 straight lockdowns.  You could look it up.  From the middle of July through the end of the year, Elias allowed 1-2 runs in every single start.

Now, you got J.A. Happ, and suddenly Elias is out of there (or Paxton is, which is worse, or Taijuan is, which is not worse).  Giving us a binary logic tree:


O/I, Dept.

The Mariners' reasoning is incoherent.  If you throw Kevin Norwood into your pass patterns as a desperate gamble, and then he catches 15 passes in two games and then you yank him again, what were you hoping he'd do?  Why in the world did you ever point your finger at him in the first place?

There are few things more incoherent then this:  (1) bring in a guy with a 90% chance of being a disaster -- have him fulfill your 10% DREAM scenario -- and then (3) powerflush him after you get fantastically lucky.  

It's a neon sign flashing "We don't know a ballplayer from a banana."


I/O, dept.

But there's a second option here, and only a second option.

J.A. Happ is really good.  Usually I'm not much for watching hefty blokes elbow into the line halfway up, but ...


What might J.A. Happ really be, if he morphed as many baseball people think he did?  Well, on August 1st last year -- with the new 92-95 MPH fastball, thrown 70% of the time -- he threw deep into games in 10 of 11 starts.  It wasn't just missing bats; he was walking out there, pitching his game, and he never LEFT except at his own volition, after he got too tired.  That's a good string of 400 batters who couldn't do anything about him.

Second half, he had a 68:19 CTL in 81 innings, which made him a comp for the 2012-13 Derek Holland.  As we know, a lefty who can sustain 92+ MPH doesn't have to do much else right.  String all of last year's lefties who averaged 92, and you get a long list of Lirianos, Lesters, Prices, Bumgarners, Hamelses and ... um ... Eliases.

The M's think that Happ will jell as a minor star, and that the kids will still be there after he does.  Less hope they right.


Plexiglas Principle

In the 1990's, Bill James used to have fun --- > predicting teams' pennant chances by looking at leading indicators.  One of his indicators was "strength of AAA team."  The idea was, if you got into trouble at the big league level, you had someplace to go.  You could dip down into the minors and come up with something really useful, and that could easily make the difference during the chaos of the regular season.

Here, the Mariners in fact have the leading indicator nailed flush.  If and when something goes wrong with their rotation, they will dip down, and they will pull back an impact pitcher.  Not so many teams have to cut a 15-win starter on April 1.


Dr D






Mr.m's fan's picture

So it looks as if the M's management is content (with the exception of minor league invites/signees ) I don't like it as the all the AL West isn't done makes moves!!! That being said, Erasmo is out of options (if he doesn't make the squad out of spring training he's done as a mariner) some team will claim him considering he probably won't make the 25 man squad---We should package him and a low level prospect for a decent. "Need " return!!! Also I'm not sold on bloomquist and his recovery, or our 1st base situation (Montero) ---
I guess we'll see in ST , but the clock and trade value on these guys is ticking!!


It's take Happ over Walker EASILY right now. Ice been saying since we acquired him that I believe Happ is going to be a low 3s ERA masher for us...that he's going to pitch well enough to get us a qualifying offer and could even be worth a look for the all star game. I think he's a #2-#3 on a contender

j.b Kawika's picture

Has never been more than a decent back end guy before. It's not like he's a young guy. I honestly don't understand why everyone is so quick to toss out five years of information about what he is because he had a good August.
Optimism is great and all but I just don't see it here...


I'm with j.b.  I'm WAY with j.b.
In the 2nd half of the season Happ, in 14 games vs. 327 PA's, allowed a .229 BA, .322 OBP, .369 Slg. and a .267 BABIP.
Oh....that was in 2010...and it didn't change things...he was still J.A. Happ.
Last year his 2nd half was, in 13 games and 331 PA's, .239-.284-.455 and .266.
He was better in '10 and after that he was still just J.A. Happ.  OK...his K/BB ratio wasn't as good....But I'm not sitting Paxton or Elias because of 13 starts
Paxton's upside is Koufax, or something in that neighborhood.  Make it Kershaw and I won't quibble.  I'll take the Shields' discount even.
Elias' upside is Koosman.  Or make it a lefty Tiant.
Walker's upside is big big.  It is a bit unknown, I admit, but it is better that 156 innings and a 1.3 WHIP, which happens to be Happ's.
I like the Happ pick up.  But I hate it if he's a designated entitled starter.  H-A-T-E it.
Motivation?  Ha...
Deserved?  Nope...
Conserving young starters?  Hey...that's his role.  But don't step on the young starters to grant him a #3 role.

misterjonez's picture

that three of the five slots are all they're guaranteeing anyone. They're apparently satisfied, internally, that Happ is the best bet of the group to perform and they've decided to turn the #4 and #5 spots into a Seahawks-esque meat grinder of competition. That's worked out pretty well for Beane in the past, and those 'Hawks are doin' ok from what I hear...
Entitlement is the worst thing about MLB players. I absolutely love seeing the guys have to compete for their spots. And the upside is you don't have to pay Chris Young $8mil to be a stoploss at the back of the rotation; you've got Elias, who is a superior pitcher, filling that role for peanuts. Is it the optimal deployment of his talent? Maybe not, but maybe it actually is. We'll have to wait and see, frankly.
Love the impetus for competition though.


They are absolutely sold on Happ for the rotation. I'm good with that, because I actually think they know more than I do.
Paxton was the unstated #4 lock--I'm great with that, too.
Spring training may decide Elias vs. Walker, but if Elias is truly over the arm issue, I think they would like him to have the job.
To me, the most interesting takeaway was the apparent disinterest in adding a right-handed first baseman...either for the MLB or Tacoma rosters. Montero, Kivlehan and Romero (!) were implied as potential replacements. But Morrison isn't going to play 162 games even if he is wonderfully healthy...and it's kind of sad to think that Willie is his caddy. So the minor league guys better be ready, or a considerable amount of money/prospects will be leaving to fill that spot.

Lonnie of MC's picture

Veddy nice summary, meeester Jonez.


Nor has he used 70% overhand fastballs before.
Nor has he walked only 1.9 per 9 innings in any stint before.
You do realize that pitchers jump plateaus all the time in baseball and at almost any age. Moyer jumped a plateau at age 33, for example.

Taro's picture

Yup, Ms will also want to see if hes good enough for a QO. Ser no harm in it. The 2nd half is either real or it isnt. You find out and the weak link works the kinks out in AAA.


Meaning, a discussion that probably should be first principles.  SSI Pitching 101:
1) Hitters very rarely leap plateaus in a dramatic fashion.  But pitchers hold the ball.  They'll learn a new pitch, straighten out their motions, get healed up, whatever.
2) Moyer is exceptional specifically -- in terms of taking an 87 MPH fastball, not improving his stuff or mechanics, and simply figuring out the game after age 30 ... but for pitchers generally to have the light go on, there's nothing unusual about that.  Randy Johnson, one day, just stopped leaning back during the windup, and went from "meatball" to "inner circle HOF'er."
Check baseball history and you'll find all kinds of pitching stars who became "overnight successes" after 8 years of toiling in obscurity ... in 1997, the Mariners had 1-2-3 of them at the front of their rotation.  Unit, Jeff Fassero who'd been a bullpen guy forever, and Jamie Moyer.
3) It isn't Happ's statistics that are pivotal going into 2015.  It's an assessment of how he is throwing the ball differently.  If we want to wait until after he's won 17 games three times, we're going to get on his bandwagon just when his shoulder goes out.  :- )  Major league GM's need to call the shot BEFORE the last sabermetrician is satisfied about Joe Shlabotnik turning the corner.
Personally, I give Happ maybe 30%, 40% chances of being an impact pitcher in 2015 (which is lower than I give Elias, Taijuan, or Paxton).  That 30-40% will change radically if Happ's first three starts in April show the goods (again).  If Happ carries his improvement across the winter, great.

bpj's picture

Personally, rather than just give him away, I hope to see Erasmo have a good spring training and force Elias and Walker to AAA with Hultzen. To me, if Ramirez can pitch well through spring training- even if only for a little while to delay some service time- it's worth giving him a final shot...

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