Trusted with a rotation spot to begin the season, J.A. Happ, a well-respected veteran, failed to deliver what Yankees coaches and fans would have hoped out of him.
After being a 3-fWAR pitcher for four seasons between 2015 and 2018, J.A. Happ fell off a cliff in 2019 and put up a 1.3 fWAR this year. The primary culprit, not surprisingly, was the long ball. The southpaw was fifth in the American League in total home runs allowed with 34, easily a career-high.
2019 Statistics: 161.1 innings, 4.91 ERA, 140 strikeouts, 1.30 WHIP, 7.81 K/9, 2.73 BB/9, 5.22 FIP, 1.3 fWAR
2020 Contract Status: Signed though 2020 (AAV $17M) with a vesting option for 2021
His 1.90 HR/9 innings was the second worst mark among Major League pitchers with at least 160 innings pitched, only trailing unsuccessful Japanese import Yusei Kikuchi. Imagine giving up two home runs per each nine frames— that would mess up anybody’s ERA! Happ’s was 4.91, far from the 3.65 number he had last season and the 2.69 mark with the Bombers in 11 second-half starts after coming in via trade.
Looking for positives
There are a few silver linings in Happ’s 2019. He was good in September and didn’t fare too badly in October, outside of the home run he gave up to Carlos Correa to lose Game Two of the ALCS. That was actually the only run he conceded in 3.2 innings of postseason baseball this year.
In the last month of the regular season, he had a 1.65 ERA in 27.1 frames, holding opposing batters to a paltry .188 average and .245 wOBA. He did show some improvement, so there should be at least a glimmer of hope for what’s next.
Another thing to keep in mind is that his batted ball data, at least according to Statcast, wasn’t too different from 2018. His barrel percentage dipped slightly (8.8 to 8.3), and his exit velocity went up a little bit, but not in a drastic way (88.1 MPH to 88.9 MPH). Happ’s hard-hit rate of 37.4% was worse than the 34.0 mark he had last season, but in line with his performance in 2015 and 2016.
We don’t know which ball will be used next season, so there is an extra element of uncertainty about Happ’s performance in addition to his age (37 years old) and the fact that, you know, there is no way to predict the future.
Blaming the fastball
Happ’s struggles in 2019 could be explained, at least in part, by the dip in performance of his bread-and-butter pitch: the fastball.
Hitters really teed off his trademark pitch. After having a .203 average, a .410 slugging, and a .301 wOBA against Happ’s fastball in 2018, opposing batters raked to the tune of a .244 average, .561 slugging, and a whopping .373 wOBA versus his four-seamer, a pitch he threw almost half of the time, in 2019.
After his down 2019, Happ will surely be dropped in the pecking order when it comes to starting pitchers. Even if the Yankees don’t add another starter, he will have Luis Severino, James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka, Domingo German (depending on the outcome of the MLB investigation) and maybe even Jordan Montgomery in front of him. He could be blocked by even more pitchers because the team is likely to sign or trade for someone. There are talented minor leaguers on the way, too.
Happ needs to perform to keep his rotation spot, and it is unclear if he will begin next year with one. He has shown in the recent past that he can be a 3-fWAR kind of starter even in his thirties. Is he capable of returning to that level after a pitiful 2019?