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The J.A. Happ of old is back for the Yankees

After a beginning to forget, Happ has made some corrections and appears to be back on track.

MLB: New York Yankees at San Francisco Giants Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees made it through April with a winning record, despite being forced to get creative with their roster. Of course, they benefited from an easy schedule to begin the year. Nevertheless, it was impressive to see this team not only reach .500, but run right through it. One constant that aided much of their success has been their starting rotation. They rank fourth in BABIP at .270, sixth in WHIP at 1.15, and seventh with a strikeout-per-walk percentage at 16.8 compared to the rest of the majors.

While most of the starting pitchers began the season on the right foot, there is one player who struggled early: J.A. Happ. After the southpaw completed his first three starts, I decided to dive into differences compared to his second-half with Yankees last season. Happ was having difficulty locating his fastball, which he threw 63% of the time. He also struggled to locate the rest of his pitches towards the right half of the plate. Happ was catching much more of the middle of the plate, and that helped raise both the exit velocity and launch angle on his fastball.

Happ’s first six starts to 2019

Starts Innings BABIP LOB% ERA K/9 BB/9
Starts Innings BABIP LOB% ERA K/9 BB/9
1-3 12.1 0.395 65.2 8.76 9.49 3.65
4-6 20.1 0.186 93.8 2.21 4.87 1.33

Now with six starts under his belt for 2019, Happ has seen his performances bring entirely different results. Not only did he slash his BABIP in half, he also lowered his walks by half as well. He also upped his left-on-base percentage to 93.8 over his last three starts. The only stat that one might have wanted Happ to keep consistent or improve on is his strikeout rate, which decreased in half. These are just a few of the results of the changes Happ has made over the last three games.

Happ’s change in pitch usage

Pitch Count (Starts 1-3) Usage% Count (Starts 4-6) Usage%
Pitch Count (Starts 1-3) Usage% Count (Starts 4-6) Usage%
Fourseam 160 63.75 92 34.72
Sinker 18 7.17 96 36.23
Change 28 11.16 27 10.19
Slider 40 15.94 50 18.87

As noted in the previous article, Happ really likes to throw fastballs. It makes sense that after lowering the usage of his four-seam fastball, he quickly decided to raise his sinking-fastball usage almost 30%. His changeup and slider hardly saw any difference in the three following starts.

Why might Happ have made the decision to start throwing his sinker more often after just throwing it 18 times in three starts? It looks like a decision of choosing between different evils. The truth is all of his pitches were being hit well, with all sporting a BABIP of .333 or higher. The one difference the sinker had over the rest was that it was only pitch not allowing extra-base hits while the rest were.

Since making the sinker his primary pitch in the following three starts, it has not failed him. His pitching line has gone from .333/.333/.333 (batting average, slugging, BABIP) to .174/.174/.191. With batting average and slugging matching again, it lets us know that even with increased usage, his sinker still isn’t being hit for extra bases.

BrooksBaseball and BrooksBaseball

The Yankees were hoping Happ would right the ship with his location, and he has. Over his last few starts, Happ’s location looks similar to last season, and has drastically changed from the beginning of the season when he was leaving pitches in the middle of the plate. He has also improved his fastball location.

BrooksBaseball and BrooksBaseball

Happ has been able to get his fastball closer towards the upper-left side of the plate and away from the middle. The results have been glaring. His four-seamer had a line of .313/.813/.333 (batting average, slugging, BABIP) for his first 160 fastballs, and improved to .166/.400/.105 in the 91 four-seamers after.

The reason that Happ’s Zone Profile has shifted towards the right side of the plate while he throws his four-seamer to the left side of the plate has to do with the remainder of his arsenal. Happ focuses on throwing his sinker and changeup to the right, and with the increase in sinker usage replacing the four-seamer, we see the effect. The slider is the only other pitch Happ tends to use on the left side, and his goal when he does that is to keep it in the lower part of the strike zone.

He had an ugly start to the season, but the veteran seems to have made the necessary corrections. Now that Happ has righted the ship, hopefully we’ll see him turn back into the pitcher who showed up for the Yankees down the stretch last season.