J.A. Happ David Cone
Bruno Rouby, ESNY Graphics, Getty Images

Other than the arm for which each features, New York Yankees starting pitcher J.A. Happ can be the new David Cone. 

Josh Benjamin

Over the summer, I penned a piece on how the New York Yankees landing J.A. Happ drew an interesting parallel to the David Cone trade in 1995. Today, I am here to tell you he can be New York’s second coming of Cone.

Happ answered the bell and then some once he put on the pinstripes. He went 7-0 with a 2.57 ERA in 11 starts, finishing the year with an overall record of 17-6 with a 3.65 ERA. He faltered in the playoffs, allowing five runs in two innings against the Boston Red Sox in Game 1 of the American League Division Series.

But that’s just one start, disheartening as it was given Happ’s usual dominance of Boston. He turns 36 on Friday and isn’t getting any younger, but often pitches as though he’s 26.

Make no mistake, Yankees fans. J.A. Happ is the new David Cone and needs to be re-signed. If similar results are achieved compared to Cone’s Yankee tenure, that’s already a win.

David Cone revisited

Before we go any further with Happ, let’s revisit the trade that brought Cone to New York. The Yankees acquired him from the Toronto Blue Jays at the 1995 trade deadline in exchange for three minor leaguers. Cone was 9-6 with a 3.38 ERA at the time and was everything the Yankees hoped he would be the moment he put on the uniform. The reigning AL Cy Young winner finished the year 9-2 with a 3.82 ERA and finished fourth in voting for the trophy.

Cone then hit free agency and signed a three-year contract to stay with the Yankees, and the rest is history. He helped lead New York to two World Series championships over the life of that deal and led MLB with 20 wins in 1998. He stayed in the Bronx for another two years, won two more rings, and even threw a perfect game in 1999.

Offseason shoulder surgery robbed Cone of his effectiveness in 2000, but his contributions to the Yankees speak for themselves. Like teammate Andy Pettitte, he could be counted on in a big game. He went 6-1 with a 3.85 ERA in the postseason. When that splitter was biting, any hitter in a two-strike count was a dead duck.

Granted, Cone was a lot younger, 32 years old, than J.A. Happ was when he first joined the Yankees, but the similarities are there. Both men came on as hired guns to help drive the team towards a playoff berth, and Cone wound up sticking around. There is zero reason Happ should not travel the same path.

From hired gun to happy family

On top of being a solid pitcher, J.A. Happ needs to stay in New York for one reason. Save for the playoffs this year, he dominates the hated Boston Red Sox. Happ is 8-4 with a 2.98 ERA in 20 career starts against Boston. In four starts this season, he posted a 1.99 ERA. Considering the Red Sox led MLB in runs scored this season, that’s impressive. If Boston is Superman, Happ may as well be Lex Luthor driving a blimp full of kryptonite over Fenway Park. He’s just that good against Boston.

In that regard, Happ is actually better than Cone, who was 7-4 with a 3.21 ERA in 15 career starts versus Boston. That isn’t bad by any stretch, but Happ dominates Boston whereas Cone more controlled the Red Sox.

This is exactly why Happ should be re-signed. Like Cone was in the ’90s, he is in a position to be part of several championship-caliber Yankees teams. Look at it this way. Boston proved this year their bats can take over a game, and the Yankees will need an arm they know can shut down the Red Sox when called upon.

Happ’s track record for Boston speaks for itself. That playoff game is an outlier. Given the state of New York’s starting rotation, there is no reason a fair deal can be agreed upon and he can stay in pinstripes.

Is the price right?

As with everything regarding free agency, J.A. Happ staying in the confines of Yankee Stadium is going to come down to money. He earned $13 million in 2018 and will probably want a deal worth more than that this time, at least in terms of dollars.

That said, Happ’s age is going to keep him from a $100 million payday. Moreover, it’s hard to justify giving him $20 million a year when, despite his effectiveness, he’s already on the wrong side of 30. Sure, he’s good now, but what if his pitching takes a sudden dip? Fangraphs lists his average fastball velocity at 92 mph, which isn’t bad, but what if he loses that? We all saw what happened when CC Sabathia lost his velocity, and it took him a couple of years to reinvent himself. This means whichever team Happ is on in 2019, Yankees or not, is taking that risk.

And the Yankees should have no problem assuming that risk. The tall lefty stranded nearly 75 percent of baserunners in 2018 and has for most of his career. Nearly a third of all hitters he faced swung at pitches he threw out of the strike zone. In his age-35 season, he saw his K/9 jump from 8.79 to 9.78. His BB/9 dipped ever so slightly from 2.85 to 2.58. In the hard-hitting AL East, that’s a big deal.

Seeing as how Cone too had a career strand rate of nearly 75 percent (74.7, to be exact) and relied more on control than velocity, it’s easy to see why Happ is a great match for re-signing.

Final thoughts

The Yankees have some big decisions to make regarding the rotation next season, but this one should be a no-brainer. J.A. Happ excelled in a Yankee uniform and no current stats suggest a major regression is coming. It’s still early to talk about free agency, but re-signing Happ should be one of the major items on general manager Brian Cashman’s to-do list.

Thus, if Happ is made a priority, a three-year deal worth $52 million should be more than enough to retain him. Maybe adding a fourth-year option for $12 million can seal the deal, but numbers are irrelevant at this point.

The point is Happ was great as a Yankee the same way Cone was when he first arrived in the Bronx. Cone re-signed and the rest is history.

Happ can be the second coming of such an arm, so it’s time for New York to pay up at the first opportunity.


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