The Yankees got more than they bargained for when they acquired J.A. Happ in July 2018. The front office brought in the southpaw to stabilize the rotation, and he repaid them by delivering an ace-like performance down the stretch. Happ made nine regular-season starts for the Yankees in 2018, pitching to a 157 ERA+ in the process. That success made the club comfortable with handing Happ a two-year contract worth $34 million, plus a third-year vesting option to max the deal out at $51 million, in December—even if we had reservations.
Happ didn’t need to pitch like a frontline starter to help the Yankees. He just had to live up to his reputation as a steady, reliable contributor towards the back of the rotation. If he went on a run like he did in the summer of 2018, the Yankees would gladly take it. Instead, he turned in 90 ERA+ clunker of a season.
Consider where the left-hander ranked, in a variety of categories, among the 70 starters with a minimum of 150 innings pitched:
ERA: 5.01 (66th)
FIP: 5.34 (69th)
HR/9: 1.96 (69th)
K-BB%: 13.1% (50th)
Hard%: 39.8% (50th)
The nicest thing I can say about those numbers? At least he didn’t finish at the very bottom.
Happ got off to a poor start, posting a 4.68 ERA (5.27 FIP) in March and April, and things only went downhill from there. He followed up a terrible May with an absolutely disastrous June. For those interested, Happ owned a 140 ERA- in June, which is so bad that it’s kind of impressive. If it weren’t for injuries and the team’s inactivity at the trade deadline, Happ would have likely found himself demoted to the bullpen.
To his credit, Happ bounced back to deliver a strong September. He made five appearances, four starts, and pitched to a 1.65 ERA (3.10 FIP) on the month. The southpaw made the Yankees’ postseason roster, but pitched out of the bullpen in three appearances. Happ surrendered a walk-off home run to Carlos Correa in Game Two of the ALCS, but tossed two scoreless frames in Game Six. At least he finished the year on a somewhat positive note.
From a WAR perspective, other Yankees had lesser seasons than Happ’s 1.3 mark. Didi Gregorius comes to mind on the position player side, but at least he spent the first part of the year on the injured list. Others such as Giancarlo Stanton or Jacoby Ellsbury didn’t play enough—or at all—to earn consideration. My general rule is that if a player doesn’t have enough of a sample to be in our most valuable player conversation, it’s not fair to consider him for the least valuable title.
Maybe Happ builds on the success he found in September. Or perhaps the Yankees find a way to dump his contract, a la Chase Headley two Decembers ago. What ever happens with Happ next year, he would be hard pressed to turn in a worse performance than he did in 2019.