The 37 year old Happ has been quite the journeyman. After being drafted in the 3rd round in 2004 by the Phillies, Happ has pitched for the Phillies, Astros (ew), Blue Jays, Mariners, Pirates, and Blue Jays again before being traded to the Yankees in 2018 for Brandon Drury and Billy McKinney. Happ was an incredibly solid mid-rotation option from 2015-2018 – recording between 2.8-3.1 fWAR in each season before struggling last year.
2019 was rough for Happ. I suppose we can start with the good news. He made 30 starts and threw over 160 innings. With an injury-prone rotation like the Yankees’ there is value in someone who can take the ball every five days even if they won’t be the best starts. The other good news is Happ ended the year STRONG. In 5 appearances in September/October, he pitched to a 1.65 ERA with a .988 WHIP and a 55 sOPS+ (means he was 45% better than the average pitcher).
The rest of the year was not so great, and brought his full season stats down to a 4.91 ERA, 5.22 FIP, 4.78 xFIP, and 4.72 SIERA with a 7.81 K/9, all of which are poor for Happ. His biggest issue was the homerun ball. He gave up 34 last year, which was among the highest in the league with a 1.90 HR/9 and an 18.3 HR/FB%. He gave up 40% hard contact, which was 10% more than 2018. Happ got hit hard, and when he got hit, the ball flew out of the yard. The main reason Happ was successful in September was because he limited the homeruns, only giving up 2 the entire month.
What made him more successful at the end of the year? It’s hard to say. Happ’s velocity and spin rates didn’t change throughout the year. The biggest difference is he stopped throwing his sinker as much and upped his four-seamer usage.
He also started throwing his off-speed pitches in the zone more frequently. His slider, changeup, and curve, were all thrown in the zone more often in September than the rest of the year. Possibly as a result, the chase % on each of those pitches went up. According to Lindsey Adler of The Athletic, the changes were more mental than physical with Happ. He said “I think I’m in a better place mentally…I don’t think it’s that dissimilar from how I’ve been throwing the ball, but getting strike one has been huge.” Indeed, Happ’s first pitch strike % was lower in 2019 than it had been in years, and perhaps he changed that in September which explains the other results. He went on to say he was “being aggressive but executing.”
Being aggressive and executing paid off big-time for him. This chart below shows you that in the later part of last season, Happ’s hard hit %, HR/FB%, ERA, and xFIP all decreased dramatically.
Hopefully that mindset shift carries over into this season.
That’s a lot of blue when you want to see red. Crucially, this is more a matter of the league catching up to Happ. His velocity and spin rates have decreased over the past few season like any aging pitcher’s would, but not by that much. However, his percentiles have decreased dramatically because the game has shifted to high velocity and high-spin pitchers growing on trees. As a result, Happ’s stuff is no longer as impressive as it used to be. That percentile difference combined with the gopher ball and general aging explain why Happ was putrid last year.
Plan for this year
After initial trade rumors, Happ has become an integral member of the rotation with the injuries to Luis Severino and Masahiro Tanaka. Hopefully Happ can build off his late-season success. To help with that, he put in a ton of work during the offseason with new Yankee pitching coordinator Sam Briend to improve what he called “whippyness.” Basically, Happ felt his mechanics were out of whack last year and he wanted to focus on his kinetic chain so that his momentum was carrying him forward properly. Happ has the strange distinction of having posture that is too good (don’t we wish we were all so lucky), which made it difficult for him to drive downhill. By focusing on propelling his momentum forward as his front leg lands, hopefully the stuff comes back as well. Pitching coach Matt Blake said “the velocity was up a bit, ride on his fastball was up.” Those elements are what I’m going to be looking for with Happ this season. While he won’t be an ace, he doesn’t have to be. His role is to provide a solid start every 5 days and keep the team in the ballgame so the bats can win it. Anything extra is gravy.