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No clear path: JA Happ and his uncertain future

JA Happ isn’t a tough pitcher to figure. At least, he wasn’t in the past.

Happ carved out a spot in several big league rotations by throwing his four-seam fastball over and over. He didn’t throw especially hard — between 92 and 94 MPH, usually — but Happ’s ability to move the fastball around the zone kept hitters off-balance. He had to walk a tightrope, yes, but it worked. Last season he proved vital for a Yankee rotation that wilted over the summer: 63 innings, 2.69 ERA.

I supported the Yankees’ choice to bring Happ back this offseason, even with the third year option added on the end. Once the front office passed on offering what it would take to secure Patrick Corbin, Happ was perhaps the best of the meh options on the market. He had been consistently good. The Yanks needed him to be okay-ish, not great.

But Happ is an older, mild-velocity lefty. That left arm has thrown a lot of pitches, and as we know — Luis Severino, Dellin Betances, Jordan Montgomery, James Paxton, etc. — pitchers get hurt. They get hurt a lot. Sometimes they just fall apart. It doesn’t always make sense.

Happ’s bread and butter is his four-seamer. Last season, it was a good pitch. Hitters managed only a .203 batting average off it, which Happ threw nearly 60 percent of the time. This season, it’s batting practice. Hitters are slugging an absurd .701 off his fastball; Happ has thrown it less, and for good reason, but it’s still his most-used offering (about 47 percent).

Just for a bit of clarity, the dracarys-hot Cody Bellinger is slugging .791. No one can survive pitching like this for long. Happ’s ERA is 5.71. His strikeout rate has plummeted eight percent from 2018 and he’s given up a whopping 13 homers in 10 starts. You’ll be shocked to learn that ten of those blasts came against the four-seamer.

Happ’s no fool. He recognizes something isn’t right. Pete Caldera of NorthJersey.com has the quote:

“I don’t know that I (have) an answer for it,’’ Happ said of that trend, adding that the homers against him have been on good and bad pitches. “I just got beat tonight. My plan is to get better and figure that out,’’ said Happ, who feels physically fine; it’s just that things were “kind of snowballing’’ against him on Monday.

Happ did not get into any specifics, offering that “anything else would be an excuse, I think. Definitely wasn’t my night.’’

Chris Sale gave similar quotes earlier this season during his extended struggle. Working through a mechanical issue, as was the case with Sale and could be the case with Happ, is a complicated, messy process. Pitching is a complex, kinetic movement. It can be exceedingly difficult to analyze film and apply it to an act so dependent upon feel. It’s also far, far too easy to make things worse.

Happ’s quote is one of exasperation. He’s been searching for the answer since late March but he hasn’t found it yet. That doesn’t mean he won’t. But, again, that doesn’t mean it can be found, either. Happ isn’t Sale — he doesn’t have a recent history of blistering success — and he might not be CC Sabathia or Andy Pettitte, who both added a new dimension to their arsenals that extended their runs (a cutter). Happ has adjusted a bit, throwing a sinker more than last year, but the sinker has hardly been exceptional: .408 slugging.

The Yankees don’t have many better in-house options at the moment. Once Paxton returns, perhaps they can evaluate some things. If Severino makes it back this season and Happ is still struggling, the Yankees would have to make a move. Happ deserves some runway, both because of his history and his multi-year contract, but it only goes so far.

 

Adam Adkins also writes about baseball at AdkinsOnSports.com. His most recent Ode to a Pitcher breakdown covered Domingo German.

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