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What’s behind J.A. Happ's recent success?

The veteran southpaw’s sinker has become an above-average offering.

New York Yankees v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images

A Yankees starter has a a 2.59 ERA, 22 strikeouts, a .212 opponent’s batting average and .608 OPS against over his last four starts. It isn’t Gerrit Cole and it sure isn’t Jordan Montgomery. In fact, it’s not even Masahiro Tanaka. The best Yankees starter over the past month has been none other than J.A. Happ. You know, the same J.A. Happ who was abysmal in his first two starts, publicly feuded with the team about his role and was just about run out of town (again) by fans.

Now, it’s only been four starts, but when was the last time Happ put together four starts this good in a row for the Yankees? We might have to go back to when the team first acquired him back in 2018, when he went 7-0 with a 2.69 ERA in 11 starts down the stretch. Happ’s two-year, $34 million contract hasn’t gone as swimmingly, but a couple of changes over his last few starts could provide hope that he can at least be a solid No. 4 starter for the team when it desperately needs one.

It’s clear now that Happ at age-37 doesn’t have the stuff he used to. He was never a power pitcher, but Happ at his finest always used his four-seamer to finish hitters off. That is still very much part of his game, but with his velocity dipping and his control not what it used to be, Happ has changed up his approach a bit for the Yankees lately.

First off, he’s throwing his sinker more than usual, and more importantly, he’s locating it. When Happ struggled through his first two starts this year, his fastball location was not what a pitching coach would call ideal:

However, he’s sticking to the corners more now, especially with his sinker, which he’s throwing lower in the zone:

This hasn’t completely erased his issues with the long ball and with walks, but they have improved from his disastrous start. Happ doesn't really have the stuff to challenge hitters up in the zone anymore, so skewing away from that, as he has done recently, is a better approach.

Furthermore, the improvement on his sinker and slider has been significant from last year. Happ’s sinker is doing what it has to do – generating groun balls. The average launch angle on Happ’s sinker is -1 degree, opponent’s batting average is .125, and, as a bonus, he’s notched his most strikeouts (12) on that pitch. Last year, Happ only struck out 19 batters on the sinker the whole season, and opponents hit a more robust .254 off of it.

Happ is primarily using the pitch against left-handers, and has neutralized them with it. Lefties are only hitting .189 off of Happ, continuing a trend from last year. His slider, his best offspeed offering, isn’t a big strikeout pitch, but the whiff rate on it is up nine percent from last season. Like his sinker, it’s a pitch that’s been more effective against lefties than righties, so although Happ still has some issues with righties, at least he’s figured out a plan to keep southpaws in check.

Admittedly, Happ’s metrics don’t show dramatic improvement from last season. In fact, they’re all mostly pretty similar. However, there are definite signs of improvement over his last four starts, when he’s been confident and pitched deep into games. The Yankees don’t have many solid pitching options right now, but Happ has been their most reliable arm for the last few weeks. Who knows how much longer it will last, but it’s an encouraging sign for a player who has had his ups and downs in pinstripes.