The juiced ball did JA Happ no favors [2019 Season Review]

Here’s the pitcher we’re all interested in discussing today, right? The Yankees announced and introduced Gerrit Cole in a press conference at Yankee Stadium yesterday, so naturally, I have a review of JA Happ’s 2019 season ready to go the day after.

After a strong post-acquisition run with the Yankees in 2018, Happ re-signed with the team. He was supposed to be a reliable middle of the rotation starter, but instead, he struggled mightily this season. In 31 games (30 starts), Happ threw 161 1/3 innings of 4.91 ERA ball. After having an ERA between 14 percent and 24 percent better than league average in each of the last three seasons (all in the AL East!), Happ’s ERA- jumped to 107 this season. It was a frustrating start to a two-year (potentially three) deal.

A victim of the juiced ball?

Unfortunately, Happ was the type of pitcher who could least afford 2019’s rocket ball. Already fly ball dominant, Happ gave up his fair share of homers in years prior. In 2018, the veteran southpaw surrendered 27 dingers in 177 2/3 innings and had a 40.1 percent fly ball rate. This year, his home run total ballooned to 34 in 161 1/3 innings.

Remarkably, Happ’s home run increase came in spite of a number of other metrics remaining steady. His 39.8 percent fly ball rate was right in line with his career norm, opposing hitters’ average launch angle was lower, and average exit velocity against wasn’t remarkably higher than the past. But because of the juiced ball, Happ gave up more homers than ever on a career-worst 18.3 percent home run to fly ball rate.

An adjustment that didn’t take

Although Happ isn’t a hard thrower, his fastball velocity was down at the beginning of the season. Per Statcast, he was down from roughly 92 miles per hour to 91 in April. Perhaps this dip in conjunction with the juiced ball led to a rough first month of the year during which Happ had a 4.68 ERA and 5.33 FIP in 32 2/3 frames.

Happ’s always been a fastball-reliant pitcher, but early this year, the lefty started tinkering with a sinker. He increased his ground ball rate by roughly ten percent from April to May through June, but it didn’t benefit Happ’s overall results. In those two months, Happ recorded a 5.57 ERA and 5.65 FIP and coughed up 13 dingers in 51 2/3 innings.

Happ didn’t scrap the sinker going forward, but he relied on it less often as the season went on. Its usage maxed out at a quarter of the time in May but fell under ten percent in September.

Trying something new was worth a shot for the struggling then-36 now-37 year-old, particularly with the fastball velocity dip. Sinking and cutting a fastball had worked for teammate CC Sabathia, too. Fortunately for Happ, he regained his fastball velocity as the season went on, getting back to the 92 to 93 MPH range over the summer. Granted, the heater uptick didn’t lead to better results immediately. He was awful in July and August: Happ had a 6.16 ERA and 5.89 FIP in just under 50 innings pitched. However, Happ did have one last gasp in him…

A strong finish

I have a feeling most of us don’t remember that Happ pitched well in September. In five games, including a relief appearance as the bulk guy for opener Jonathan Loaisiga, Happ allowed just five runs in 27 1/3 innings (1.65 ERA and 3.10 FIP). He also allowed just two homers, a far cry from the issues that plagued him all season.

It’s not like Happ faced a bunch of bad teams, either. Oddly enough, his worst performance came against a putrid Tigers team. The other outings were against Oakland, Boston, Toronto, and Tampa Bay. Those aren’t slouches.

So what changed? The lefty went back to his bread and butter: his four-seamer. With a fastball that sat at 93.5 miles per hour per Brooks Baseball, he ramped up its usage to 56 percent. He hadn’t thrown it more than 48 percent of the time in any other month in 2019 (March was just one start and doesn’t count here).

Perhaps Happ should have stuck to his guns all along. When the Yankees acquired him last year, he pitched to a 2.69 ERA and 4.21 FIP down the stretch while throwing his heater more than 70 percent of the time. Granted, his fastball velocity wasn’t down in the same way it was early in 2019, but still. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Happ backed off his fastball just four starts just four starts into this season.

A minor postseason role

We all unfortunately remember Happ’s dud in the 2018 postseason against Boston. This time around, he’d already pitched his way out of the playoff rotation even with a good September. Happ was used exclusively in relief this October.

In the ALDS, Happ entered pitched the 8th inning of a Yankees’ Game 1 laugher against the Twins. He walked one, gave up a hit, and struck out two in a scoreless inning.

If there’s anything stuck in our collective memories about Happ and this year’s playoffs, sadly it’s Game 2. After the Yankees had already used eight pitchers and the game tied at two, Aaron Boone summoned Happ in relief for the 11th inning. He retired the first two he faced, but Carlos Correa hit a walkoff homer immediately after to end the game and even the series. Nope, not sharing that video again.

Happ resurfaced in Game 6 in relief of opener Chad Green. Green put the Yankees in a 3-0 hole in the first, though the Yankees struck for one in the top half of the second. Enter Happ, who was tasked with keeping the Yankees close. Certainly seemed like a tenuous position with the season on the line. Nonetheless, Happ didn’t allow a run in two innings.

What’s next?

Happ’s immediate future is unclear. Though he’s under contract for at least one more season (more on that in a moment), the Yankees are reportedly trying to offload him. Part of the reason the Yankees are shopping Happ is because of his poor 2019, but that’s not everything. The Yankees are up against the highest luxury tax tier, if not already over, so moving Happ and his $17 million salary would save ownership some coin.

$17 million is a lot to dump on another team, so the Yankees will need to sweeten the pot in order to get a deal done. Think prospect(s) to get a deal done. But to further complicate things, Happ has a 2021 vesting option with 27 starts or 165 innings pitched in 2020. That also factors into any trade equation.

If the Yankees can’t find a taker, Happ slots in as the Yankees’ fifth starter next season. As bad as Happ was this year, the Bombers could do a lot worse every fifth day. Especially if September or a de-juiced ball portend better things to come.

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8 Comments

  1. Mungo

    It makes sense to hold onto Happ for season long depth in a world where the Yankees aren’t focused on the $248 luxury tax level. He’d be perfectly fine as the 5th starter with even a moderate come back and/or a reduction in the rocket ball. Problem is the Yankees are focused on the $248 level. The vesting option is going to complicate any trade. Oddly, the Yankees are one of the few teams best positioned to use Happ while also preventing the vesting option from kicking in. The 5th starter on most teams has little chance of getting 27 starts or pitching 165 innings. On the Yankees that would be a near zero chance with German, Montgomery and others getting starts throughout the season. On another team, however, Happ might be pushed into a #3 slot and the vesting option becomes quite real. Paying real money to pay down the deal, or attaching a prospect is a waste of resources. The best plan is for the Yankees to accept they’ll be over the third luxury tax level in 2020, hold the depth, and even add another piece or two.

    • chip56

      Mungo, there is another piece to consider:

      The Yankees need to know what they have in Montgomery, King, Garcia and even guys like Schmidt and Medina. With Pax and Tank free agents after 2020, the development of those guys goes a long way towards future plans.

      Also I don’t think Happ would out perform them.

  2. JG (Ben Francisco)

    “I have a feeling most of us don’t remember that Happ pitched well in September.”

    I do, which is why I’m not crazy about trading him

    • chip56

      So, you’re going to ignore the majority of the season because he was good against a bunch of September Callups?

  3. Chris

    Do you think it would be worthwhile to start the season with Happ assuming the ball is de-juiced? If he starts off well, you could trade him without giving up a prospect maybe.

    • chip56

      The longer you hold Hapo, the closer he gets to his vesting option, the harder it is to trade him.

    • Mungo

      Yes. I addressed that above, but I don’t see it happening.

  4. chip56

    JA Happ was an awful signing from the minute he signed. The Yankees, who are as smart an organization as there is, for some reason chose to ignore all the data about Happ that suggested he was due for a massive regression and gave him a contract anyway.

    They honestly would have been better off keeping Sonny Gray for his final year under arbitration and trying to salvage something out of him than giving Happ a contract. I’m not even saying that in hindsight based on what Gray did. Even if Gray stunk, he wouldn’t have been any worse than Happ and he would be off the books right now.

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