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Why J.A. Happ is still an important part of the Yankees’ bullpen

Whether you like it or not, J.A. Happ has a role to play in the Yankees’ bullpen for the duration of the postseason

MLB: ALCS-New York Yankees at Houston Astros Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

J.A. Happ took the loss on Sunday when Carlos Correa blasted a walk-off home run to lead off the bottom of the 11th inning. He also took much of the criticism after the game. It’s been a tough season for the 36-year-old left-hander, who signed a two-year contract worth $34 million this past offseason. When Happ made his decision to return to the Yankees, he cited his desire to pitch in big games and help the Yankees chase a title. That didn’t quite go as planned in 2019, as Happ scuffled to a 4.91 ERA in 30 starts and found himself relegated to a bullpen role as the playoffs rolled around. Regardless of Happ’s struggles in the regular season and his loss on Sunday night, the veteran lefty still remains an important piece of the Yankees bullpen and a potential contributor as they pursue their 28th World Series title.

Everyone’s going to remember the Correa home run that sent the Yankees back to the Bronx with the series tied, and for good reason, but it’s also easy to forget that Happ came into a tight spot and kept the Yankees alive in the bottom of the 10th. After CC Sabathia got Michael Brantley to ground out, Jonathan Loaisiga quickly walked Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman, leaving J.A. Happ to face Yordan Alvarez and Yuli Gurriel with the game on the line.

According to Baseball Reference, Bregman’s walk raised the Astros’ win probability to 72%, their highest of the game until Correa’s home run an inning later. Happ struck out the dangerous Alvarez and forced Gurriel to fly out, giving the Yankees’ offense another chance against Houston’s bullpen. Yes, Happ is responsible for the game winning home run, but it’s not as if he melted down to put himself in that spot.

Sunday night’s performance aside, Happ can be something of a swiss army knife for Aaron Boone and the Yankees bullpen as they get deeper into the playoffs and pitch counts become a factor. As deep and talented as New York’s bullpen is, they lack long relief options and lefty specialists, both roles Happ can prove capable of filling. Sabathia’s shoulder issues probably take him out of the long relief discussion and Chad Green’s more likely to be used as an opener or a middle-to-late innings reliever at this point in the postseason. That leaves Happ and Luis Cessa as the only long relief options to eat innings in a blowout scenario, and Happ might be a better option than you think.

Since September 1, Happ owns a 1.86 ERA in 29.0 IP. It’s unclear if Happ was battling an injury early in the season, but his fastball velocity increased later in the season and he started getting swings and misses on fastballs in the strike zone at a much higher rate down the stretch. Happ threw six fastballs to retire Gurriel on Sunday, five of which registered at 94 mph, a few ticks higher than his season average of 91.3 mph.

Happ also made some changes to his repertoire that have made him an attractive option against left-handed batters. Over the final month of the regular season Happ pitched 9.1 innings against lefties and the results were eye popping. In those 9.1 innings Happ surrendered 3 hits and zero walks, facing only one batter over the minimum during that time. Beginning in August, Happ gave up on throwing his tailing two-seam fastball/sinker to righties and started to feature it heavily against lefties. Over the final two months of the regular season, left-handers went 1-for-24 with 11 strikeouts against that pitch, giving Happ a signature weapon to utilize in the postseason.

There’s no denying it has been a long season for J.A. Happ, and it didn’t get any easier on Sunday night. However, he still has a chance to play a key role in the bullpen and justify his decision to return to New York in pursuit of a second World Series ring.