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Yankees 2020 Season Preview: J.A. Happ

The veteran left-hander will try to extend his September success and forget the memory of his final numbers in 2019.

MLB: Spring Training-Philadelphia Phillies at New York Yankees John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

If you look at his final numbers in 2019, it’s understandable why the Yankees shopped J.A. Happ around this offseason. However, considering Happ was an above-average pitcher as recently as 2018, and also finished last season on a high note, then there’s reason to be optimistic that Happ remains with the team — especially now that the injury bug is biting seemingly everybody.

Happ will be a member of the Yankees’ rotation. He is expected to eat innings in the middle of the staff, keeping the team in the game for as long as he can and hopefully recapture his 2018 form, when he had a 3.65 ERA in 177.2 frames.

2019 Statistics: 161.1 IP, 4.91 ERA, 5.22 FIP, 1.30 WHIP, 7.81 K/9, 2.73 BB/9, 1.90 HR/9, 1.3 fWAR

2020 Fangraphs Depth Chart Projections: 139 IP, 4.59 ERA, 4.70 FIP, 1.31 WHIP, 8.29 K/9, 2.93 BB/9, 1.56 HR/9, 1.8 fWAR

The Yankees need Happ to be healthy and effective, as the team’s overall pitching depth has recently taken a huge hit. Luis Severino was lost for the year with an elbow injury, James Paxton is currently on the shelf with a back issue, and Domingo German remains suspended.

But as it turns out, there is hope for a rebound season in 2020, even though Happ is 37 years old. He had a 1.65 ERA in 27.1 innings last September, with a 3.10 FIP and a 3.11 K-BB%.

In 2019’s last month, Happ had a 9.22 K/9 and a 2.96 BB/9 mark, improving his HR/9 register to just 0.66. So what changed? He decided to somewhat ditch his sinker and increase his four-seamer usage from 45 to 56 percent.

The sinker wasn’t necessarily bad, as he allowed a .312 xwOBA on it for the season. But when he threw it less often, he found that its effectiveness increased. The pitch achieved a lot of weak contact, which is natural when hitters don’t expect it.

As our own Joshua Diemert points out, the xwOBA on the sinker declined steadily from July to September. That could be a recipe for success in 2020: less sinkers, more fastballs (cleverly located) and mixing in his breaking stuff.

When you think about it, Happ is no sinkerballer. However, it is good that opposing batters think like that because when he offers them one to hit, the result will likely be a soft ground ball.

Lowering his home run output

On a wider scope, one of the keys for Happ in 2020 will be limiting the long ball. In 2019, he allowed 1.90 homers per nine innings, which was the second worst mark among Major League pitchers with at least 160 innings pitched. Only the MarinersYusei Kikuchi was worse.

However, the league as a whole experienced a weird surge in home runs that has been attributed, mostly, to the ball. The situation should change somewhat in 2020, although Happ isn’t probably a true-talent 0.66 HR/9 guy. In the last four seasons, he averaged between 11 and 13 HR/FB, and last season the number was 18.3%. That should go down somewhat.

Right now, Happ seems to be in a good place. He is dominating in spring training, to the tune of a 1.00 ERA in nine innings, with just four hits and one walk. He has struck out eleven hitters. That isn’t a large enough sample-size to make much of yet, but it’s been encouraging to see him quickly get into game shape.

All in all, Happ seems to have the goods to show a level somewhere in between his lousy first five months of 2019 and his stellar September. He is not as bad as you may think he is, but he’s not 1.65-ERA good either. I think he can quietly deliver a 3.90-4.10 ERA in 160+ frames, which would make the Yankees — and fans — extremely happy given the current state of the rotation.