The end of JA Happ in pinstripes [2020 Season Review]

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JA Happ wasn’t supposed to be on the Yankees this season. The team reportedly shopped him in the winter after a terrible 2019 campaign but never wound up trading him. As it turns out, holding onto him mostly paid off. He may have been disgruntled with how he was handled, but nonetheless, the lefty was a key figure in the rotation over the final month of the regular season. The narrative quickly changed come the ALDS, but all told, Happ was a net positive for the Yankees in 2020.

Vesting option saga

Before COVID-19 altered the season for good, Happ needed to make 27 starts or throw 165 innings in order to have his 2021 $17 million option picked up. Instead, as a result of a shortened season, those triggers were prorated to 10 starts and 61 1/3 innings. Or, so we thought. Happ was excluded from that rule and actually had to either have his vesting option renegotiated or arbitrated. We’re still awaiting word on a solution.

The Yankees wound up skipping Happ’s turn in the rotation a couple of times in August. After his second start of the season on August 5th, after which he had a 10.29 ERA in 7 innings, the Yankees didn’t bring the veteran back to the mound until August 16th. But even after pitching well that day (one out short of six innings pitched, one run allowed), the Yankees passed over him once more. He didn’t start again until August 29th against the Mets. Happ was none too pleased:

The Yankees didn’t skip Happ again for the rest of the season. The big reason? Happ was great over the final month of the year, which I’ll touch upon shortly. But even if he struggled, the Yankees may not have overlooked him anyway because of James Paxton’s absence. In the end, Happ tallied 9 starts and 49 1/3 innings this year, short of the prorated figures we thought he’d have to hit initially.

Now, I can’t say I’m sympathetic to Happ’s gripes earlier in the year. It’s one thing if he pitched well out of the gate, but he didn’t. Those two rough starts plus a dreadful 2019 made skipping him a no brainer. Brian Cashman basically said as much. Had he pitched well from the get go, it might have been a different story.

Late season resurgence

Happ’s full season numbers look pretty darn good. The lefty completed 2020 with a 3.47 ERA and 4.57 FIP, mainly driven by the last six starts of the season. From August 29th and onward, when he took regular rotation turns, Happ threw 36 2/3 innings and posted a 2.45 ERA and 3.14 FIP. He also allowed just four homers. Remember, the long ball absolutely destroyed Happ in 2019. He gave up 34 bombs in 161 1/3 frames a season ago.

Happ earned his performance this season. It wasn’t like the 37 year-old lucked his way out of surrendering homers.

Exit Velocity (MPH)89.288.1
Barrel %8.35.1
Hard Hit %37.634.3
Meatball %6.45.0

As you can see, Statcast has him improving across the board in batted ball metrics. He also simply avoided throwing as many meatballs as last year which makes a difference. Throwing fewer meatballs probably helped suppress hard contact, but I’d also like to point out a big adjustment he made when he returned to the rotation for good.

Pitch %First three startsFinal six starts

Happ remained a four-seam dominant pitcher down the stretch, but he also emphasized his sinker. Opponents wound up with a .135 batting average and .250 slugging percentage against it and rarely struck it well (86.6 MPH exit velocity). Happ did this by consistently getting the sinker away from righties and in on lefties. Take a look:

Early in the season, it looked like Happ was on his way to a minor league deal for 2021. Now, another team might be willing to give him a backend rotation spot next season. Small sample size caveats must be acknowledged, but he did show in those final six starts that he could adjust without his old good four-seamer.

Frankly, Happ was a real life savior for the Yankees rotation during the regular season. Didn’t expect that, did you?

An unfortunate postseason appearance

Of course, the review on Happ’s season isn’t all roses. Much of the goodwill he built toward the end of the regular season will probably be forgotten thanks to his performance in Game 2 of the ALDS. Happ allowed four runs in 2 2/3 innings against the Rays, including homers to Mike Zunino and Manuel Margot.

I’m pretty tired of talking about Game 2 at this point, but as a refresher, Happ came into this game in relief of Deivi García. The purpose was to gain the platoon advantage against Tampa Bay’s lefties in the starting lineup. After the game, Happ sounded off on the plan.

Here’s an excerpt: “They know how I felt about it. Ultimately, I pitch when I pitch. You got me. There was no hesitation and no dwelling on what was going on. I was focused on trying to perform. I wish I would have done a better job…Having said that, and this is important, I want to repeat, when I’m in there you’ve got 100 percent of me.”

Meanwhile, Aaron Boone indicated that the team had Happ’s buy-in before the game. So did Cashman. Breakups don’t end pretty, do they?

What’s next?

Happ’s going to be a free agent. I wouldn’t be concerned about a settlement on his vesting option resulting in him back in pinstripes next year. I think it’s pretty clear from Cashman’s and Happ’s statements to the media that both sides are ready to move on.


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  1. Tom Stanley

    He made almost $90M in 14 seasons. I think he’ll be okay.

  2. Yanks317

    Happ will be an interesting case study in this offseason. He’s the type of guy that might find himself scrambling for a job. Then again, he’s banked decent money and teams are probably going to come at him with some offers he’d rather pass on. These mildly boring veterans that teams can squint and envision their league minimum guys potentially outperforming… Are some of them just gonna hang it up this year a little prematurely?

  3. Mungo

    He was never owed the $17 million vesting option. He not only had to remain healthy, he had to pitch effectively to keep his job in order for the option to vest. Did the Yankees ensure that it didn’t vest? Sure, but for good reasons. He was one of the worst starters in MLB in 2019, and his 2020 started off equally as bad, if not worse. He was the logical to skip in the rotation.

    I can understand his frustration, but he had full control over that option vesting. He needed to pitch well, and he didn’t in 2019 and at the start of 2020. I liked Happ. Was fine when they signed him, although I would have preferred they went more high end and targeted Corbin. The yearly AAV wasn’t that much more and Corbin might have made a significant difference the last two postseasons.

    For Happ? It’s good that he pitched well overall this season. Considering how thin the starting pitching market is, he’ll likely get another deal for a season or two, although nowhere near a $17M AAV.

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