Veteran lefty J.A. Happ is off to an awful start in 2019. The New York Yankees need him to right himself fast.
Why, you ask? Well, that’s a good question. The tall and lanky lefty who pitched against the Chicago White Sox on Friday certainly looked like Happ. He even had Happ’s windup. This man had the same bald pate as J.A. Happ and was even introduced as him.
And despite all that, the J.A. Happ who took the mound Friday was a shell of the veteran lefty who arrived last year. The fastball remained flat over the plate. The longball was a problem. Again.
Cut to a rain-shortened 9-6 loss, and the injury-riddled Yankees’ struggles continued. It only being mid-April aside, this is unacceptable. The roster is banged up to the point where pitching is key, and Happ’s performance thus far won’t cut it.
Wherever the real J.A. Happ is, it’d be nice if he showed up on the field and helped turn around the Yankees’ slow start.
New York's hired gun
J.A. Happ came to the Yankees from the Toronto Blue Jays at last year’s trade deadline. He pitched well enough to earn a new two-year, $34 million deal, not bad for a 36-year-old.
Now, before we go any further, let’s put this tale of two Happs in context. In 2018, in 11 starts in pinstripes, he was 7-0 with a 2.69 ERA. He was the best hired arm the Yankees landed at the trade deadline since David Cone back in 1995. His bad playoff start versus the Boston Red Sox aside, Happ looked a lot like this in the Bronx:
Yes, Yankees fans. Just like The Man With No Name, Happ was a master marksman. He located his fastball well and fooled hitters thanks to perceived velocity. He threw 63.2 innings as a Yankee and allowed just ten home runs. Though far from it from a traditional standpoint, he looked like an ace.
This year, however, has been the exact opposite. Happ couldn’t hold the lead Friday and lasted just four innings, failing to complete the fifth again. He gave up six runs, all earned, on nine hits. His record fell to 0-2, his ERA ballooned to an uncharacteristic 8.76, and he gave up another home run. That gives him four allowed in 12.1 innings, plus 12 runs allowed. All in all, his pitching abilities look more like this:
For those who don’t get to the movies much, that’s Gene Wilder as the Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles. He’s a great gunslinger but has been shaky as of late.
Such has been the case with Happ. Sure, Waco came through in the clutch but for the Yankees’ sake, Happ needs to be more Eastwood on the mound than Wilder.
What's the problem?
To be fair, Friday’s shoddy performance can’t be blamed entirely on J.A. Happ. Sure, he struggled with his location, but he also wasn’t pitching under ideal conditions. It was cold, damp, rainy, and just plain gross outside. Both he and White Sox starter Lucas Giolito clearly had trouble getting a good grip on the ball. Bad finish aside, Happ actually looked strong at points early in the game.
But then the wheels fell off and, per usual, the answer is in the analytics.
Look at it this way. J.A. Happ is a fastball pitcher. He threw that pitch 73.4 percent of the time last year with an average velocity of 92 miles per hour. This year, he has thrown it 69.3 percent of the time, but the velocity has fallen to 91.2 miles per hour per Fangraphs.
Some other metrics suddenly start to make sense, now that the small dip in velocity has been established. Happ’s flyball rate (FB%) is sitting at 50 percent, up from 42.4 percent in 2018.
Meanwhile, Happ’s O-Swing%, or percentage of swings opposing hitters take out of the strike zone against him, is also down. It currently stands at 28.6 percent, down from 31.7 percent last season. That isn’t much of a drop, but it implies a pitch location problem. In the hard-hitting American League, and in an era where power reigns supreme, that small drop might as well be Godzilla-sized.
What to do?
As to solutions for how J.A. Happ can fix himself, there really isn’t one. He’s 36 years old and his velocity will continue dropping as he ages. That means the best thing he can do is look at the metrics, adjust accordingly, and hold himself accountable when he’s off. Thankfully, Happ and your favorite Yankees columnist appear to be on the same page.
J.A. Happ: “We should have had that game. I let it slip away. I’ve got to find a way to get better results.”
— Bryan Hoch (@BryanHoch) April 13, 2019
And find better results he will, assuming manager Aaron Boone’s assessment is right.
Aaron Boone's take on J.A. Happ: "Stuff-wise, he's fine. I think it's coming out correct. We've got to get him to where he's really confident driving pitches where they need to go."
— Bryan Hoch (@BryanHoch) April 13, 2019
Three words, folks. Location, location, and location. Happ is a fastball pitcher, so it’s just a matter of commanding the corners and deceiving hitters like he did last year. His primary pitch’s flat delivery now is probably just a combination of age, offseason rust, and declined velocity. Those can be fixed with proper adjustments.
However, those changes need to happen sooner rather than later. Friday’s loss to the lowly ChiSox dropped the Yankees to 5-8, not a good look for a team which won 100 games last year. Even with the plethora of injuries, Happ and the Yankees need to get better. Injuries aside, bad luck doesn’t excuse the team’s play.
The Yankees as a whole need to get better, and having J.A. Happ back in top form would be a huge first step.