J.A. Happ has to be feeling some serious whiplash right now. At the end of the 2019 season, he appeared to be nothing more than a spare part and it was widely assumed he’d be dealt during the offseason along with his $17 million salary. Then, just days into spring training, he was suddenly the presumptive number three starter after James Paxton had back surgery and Luis Severino’s elbow gave out. And now, things are as uncertain as they’ve ever been for Happ. We’re not even sure if there will be baseball in 2020, and Happ needed to throw at least 165 innings or start at least 27 games to earn another $17 million from the Steinbrenner coffers in 2021.
It’s an odd juncture in an odd saga. The Yankees traded for Happ at the 2018 deadline, and the move paid off as he pitched well down the stretch. Instead of thanking him for his service as a rental and waving farewell the following winter, they inked him to a head-scratching two-year deal (with that third-year vesting option) essentially in lieu of making a charge at Patrick Corbin. Happ tanked last season, and between his obviously declining performance and his exorbitant wages, it was always going to be difficult for Cashman and Co. to find a willing suitor – but a salary dump was assumed to be the desired result. When that didn’t happen, the organization didn’t add any pitching beyond Gerrit Cole, and Paxton and Severino went down, Happ went from expendable to indispensable.
Where does the 37-year-old go from here? There’s reason to believe that 2019’s rocket-powered baseball had something to do with his steep decline: Happ’s 18.3 percent home run to fly ball ratio was by far the highest of his career and fueled his comically high 5.22 FIP (112 FIP-). If he hopes to meet whatever the prorated option conditions end up being and lock in an additional season at a higher rate of pay than he’s likely to command on the open market, he’ll need to be much better. Can we expect Happ to rebound when the season finally begins? Or will the returns further diminish, facilitating another year of opener games and exhausted relievers?
It’s a tough question to answer. Happ was hit very, very hard for the first five months of last season. He surrendered an average exit velocity higher than 76 percent of all big league pitchers, and his hard-hit rate was ten percentage points higher than his own career average. And the home runs were a serious issue – Happ served up 34 bombs last year, seventh among pitchers with at least 150 innings. All too often, it seemed like he was working out of jams and running up his pitch count in the early innings.
But things changed in September. Happ pitched to an elite 1.65 ERA (3.10 FIP) in the season’s final month and allowed just two home runs. In four starts plus a long relief appearance of five innings, he notched 28 strikeouts; on September 1, he recorded an out in the seventh inning for just the second time since April. Mere luck over a small sample size, perhaps. Dig a little deeper, though, and there’s some interesting material to consider.
Happ was pretty tough on lefties all season, so let’s limit the discussion to his performance against righties. His September ERA was still a rock-solid 2.50 when accounting for the splits, so clearly he was doing something right – but what, if anything, was he doing differently?
Two things. First, his pitch selection changed. Happ’s four-seamer usage rate hovered in the upper 40s all season long, as he opted to complement his heater with a slider, sinker and changeup with more regularity than in seasons past. In September, he elected to go back to his bread and butter, especially against righties. According to Baseball Savant pitch tracking, Happ threw 35 sinkers to righties in June, 35 in July, 29 in August, and just four in September. He replaced the sinkers with four-seamers and his usage rates returned to career-normal levels.
Second, his command of those fastballs improved. Take a look at Happ’s four-seamer locations against righties between April and August.
You’ll notice he was leaving the pitch out over the heart of the plate. Compare that with the same chart for September:
Happ located his fastball away, painting the outside corner more often. And the results followed: the whiff rate on four-seamers ballooned to nearly 35 percent, from 22 percent the month prior and 16.5 percent in July.
With the small sample size caveat firmly in play, it’s hard to say whether Happ will be able to replicate those changes for longer stretches this season, whenever it begins. Given the condensed schedule, Severino’s absence, and the chance that Domingo Germán’s suspension keeps him out most of the year, he’s become one of the organizational x-factors. There’s more than a bit at stake for him personally, too – a strong performance means the difference between an extra year in pinstripes and very possibly the end of his career.