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Thinking About the 5th Starter

Jordan Montgomery - Photo Courtesy of AP

Jordan Montgomery – Photo Courtesy of AP

Many of us have assumed that the Yankees planned to deal JA Happ for the purpose of Luxury Tax relief prior to the start of Spring Training. We are now a couple of weeks from pitchers and catchers reporting to Tampa, and a trade has not happened. In fact, Brian Cashman noted last week that the plan is for JA Happ to open the season as the Yankees’ 5th starter. Surely, as much as many Yankee fans were upset with Happ’s performance as a starter in 2019, particularly in light of his $17 million salary, worse starters have pitched every 5th day as a team’s worst starting pitcher in its rotation. But does Happ make the most sense in that role to open the 2020 season?

On the one hand, Happ’s 2019 season represented one of the worst performances he has shown since 2015, so the only reason to expect him to continue to regress would be diminished stuff. As of right now, there is little evidence that Happ’s stuff has begun to regress. Happ’s fastball spin rate was only in the 52nd percentile last season despite ranking significantly better in 2018, but that is mostly due to the fact that the Yankees attempted to tweak Happ’s pitch mix, forcing him to throw more two-seam fastballs, which spin less than four-seam fastballs. Per Baseball Savant, Happ’s velocity remained relatively similar to previous seasons:

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JA Happ Average Pitch Velocity, Courtesy of Baseball Savant

JA Happ Average Pitch Velocity, Courtesy of Baseball Savant

The same goes for Happ’s average spin rate:

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JA Happ Spin Rate, Courtesy of Baseball Savant

JA Happ Spin Rate, Courtesy of Baseball Savant

Happ’s four-seam fastball spin rate is down a touch, but not enough to say that his stuff was diminished as compared to previous years. At the end of the day, Happ was pretty similar to who he has always been as a pitcher. Happ’s pitch mix fluctuated throughout the year, but he seemed far closer to the guy the Yankees signed at the end of the year. Most of the publicly available projection systems think that Happ will bounce back some this season, and I think that is likely based on the fact that his stuff is relatively intact when compared to the rest of his career.

However, the Yankees also have Jordan Montgomery, a pitcher who was excellent as a rookie in 2017, who has spent the better part of 2 seasons unavailable due to an elbow injury that eventually required Tommy John Surgery. Hindsight is 20/20, but it’s pretty easy to see now that something wasn’t quite right with Monty in 2018. Check out his average pitch velocity over the last 3 seasons:

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Jordan Montgomery Average Pitch Velocity, Courtesy of Baseball Savant

Jordan Montgomery Average Pitch Velocity, Courtesy of Baseball Savant

Monty had a very noticeable velocity drop early in 2018 prior to landing on the Injured List with elbow trouble. A couple of weekends ago, he basically confirmed that the elbow had been bothering him prior to tearing to the point of requiring surgical intervention. More importantly, Monty noted that his mechanics had slipped as he tried any way he could to get his arm through the zone, telling MLB Network Radio, “My mechanics were pretty rough that year…I was doing anything I could to get my arm through, really contort my body to get it through because that was kind of the spot where it didn’t hurt.”

Monty noted that he feels totally healthy heading into Spring Training this year, telling MLB Network, “Now I can just let my arm through and keep my posture and use my thighs a bit more now, which I’m excited about. Clean everything up the best I can and be simple and smooth is what I’m going for.” While the results in his cameo appearance in September of 2019 weren’t great, Montgomery proved his health, showing increased velocity and similar stuff to his rookie season. Monty was worth 2.9 bWAR in his rookie season, far better than I think anyone could reasonably expect Happ to perform this season even if you wear rose colored glasses.

I admit that I am not the biggest Happ fan. I also have to admit that Montgomery was one of my favorite sleeper prospects prior to his MLB arrival in 2017, so I am a bit biased when comparing the two pitchers. However, we know what Happ is at this point. At his absolute best, Happ might be able to replicate average performance, which is certainly valuable in the 5th starter spot. However, he is costly, and I think that is likely that Happ is a lot closer to a 1-1.5 bWAR type of pitcher at this stage of his career. Monty, on the other hand, is in his prime; fully healthy following Tommy John Surgery; has regained his mechanics and stuff; and has shown that he is capable of above-average performance. Happ is the safe choice, but Monty could be significantly more valuable in the same role.

It is possible that Cashman has verbally shown confidence in Happ’s role to increase his trade value, and things can still change over the next couple of weeks. From a pure baseball perspective though, I think that Monty should enter the season as the 5th starter.


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