He started Game 1 of the 2018 ALDS.
He was a long-relief option in the 2019 playoffs.
Things change. Just ask J.A. Happ. I’ll be totally honest, I supported the Yankees re-signing Happ last winter. I was fine with the vesting option on the deal, too. Happ had been quite good for the 2018 Yankees, a reliable and productive innings-eater. Don’t forget, as Luis Severino went into a tailspin, Happ, acquired from Toronto, added quite a lot of stability. They needed him.
But, the 2019 Yankees weren’t as fortunate. Happ, frankly, was bad.
I’m a little surprised it wasn’t worse. So, what happened? Happ is interesting in his simplicity. He throws fastballs. And then he throws more fastballs. They aren’t terribly hard (92 MPH) and the spin rate isn’t impressive, but it works. It just works. Happ’s successful 2018 was bolstered by stingy walk rates and a relatively solid homer rate.
The latter is what changed in 2019.
That 18 percent number was 12th worst among pitchers with at least 120 innings pitched. There are some heavy hitters in his range, though, including Clayton Kershaw and Chris Sale. Giving up a lot of homers isn’t a guarantee of failure; Justin Verlander gave up a ton of blasts this year. Unfortunately, a relatively one-note pitcher like Happ can’t survive such a drastic change, and that jump in blasts was crushing for him.
Here’s the thing. How much of it was Happ’s fault? The baseball used during the 2019 regular season was messed up. The seams caused issues for Masahiro Tanaka; the aerodynamics of the ball led to an unbelievably ridiculous jump in homers. It was embarrassing for the sport, driven further by the predictable flubbing of the response by the Commissioner’s Office. Once it became clear that the ball had changed for the postseason — and the bombs slowed down — it called into question what kind of situation the baseballs will be in for 2020.
The state of the ball affects every single player and should be a massive concern for MLB, but it really affects Happ and as a result, what the Yankees can expect from him in 2020.
How do you make a projection on Happ without knowing what kind of playing environment he’ll be in? If the league manages to get the 2019 postseason or 2018 regular season ball back, Happ might be a league-average hurler again. Every team needs a guy to munch some innings — anyone remember LAIMs? — and Happ could slot into that role for the 2020 Bombers. But if the league fails to do that, if the 2019 regular season ball is the new normal or relatively normal, does Happ have a role?
Tough decisions for Brian Cashman and the Yankees front office made all the more difficult and frustrating by facets well outside of team control. A struggling Happ is nothing some cash can’t fix, but given the Yankees new normal, nothing is for sure.