The next time J.A. Happ takes the ball for the Yankees, they will have passed the season’s halfway point. Which means it’s not too early to register an opinion on the veteran left-hander.
Which means, in turn, that it’s officially OK to be concerned about Happ and his contract.
The Yankees’ eight-game winning streak screeched to a halt in the form of a 9-4 bludgeoning at the hands of the Astros on Sunday afternoon at Yankee Stadium, souring the good vibes created by Mariano Rivera’s inside-the-park home run during Old-Timers’ Day. Happ’s third pitch of the main event, a slider to Jose Altuve, went over the fence in left field, and in all, the 36-year-old recorded only 12 outs and got hammered for eight runs in his worst start of the season, and his ERA now stands at 5.23.
Brian Cashman’s search for starting pitching help remains real even after an overall spectacular week.
“I just think I’ve been a little inconsistent,” Happ said. “That’s certainly fair to say. I felt good about some [starts], and I felt like I could’ve been a lot better in [others]. Over the last few years, I’ve been more consistent than I’ve been this year. I’m trying to nail that down and be more consistent for the team. Be somebody that we definitely can rely on.”
Happ’s recent track record — he tallied a 120 ERA+ in the four prior seasons, including the last two-plus months of 2018 with the Yankees — offers confidence that he can heal himself. It also explains why the Yankees committed $34 million over two years for his age-36 and -37 seasons. And while Happ has offered glimpses of his old self, as he asserted, too often he has made it difficult for the Yankees to prevail.
The southpaw has performed poorly relative to his own high standards. His 66 strikeouts in 84 ⅓ innings rank as his lowest strikeouts-per-nine-innings ratio (7.0) since he averaged 6.5 per nine in 2009. The 20 homers he has surrendered, including three on Sunday, give him a 2.1 per-nine ratio, the worst of his career excepting 2007, when he pitched in only one big-league game.
A key problem, clearly, has been a reduced effectiveness of Happ’s four-seam fastball, his bread-and-butter pitch. According to FanGraphs, its value has dropped precipitously, from 14.5 runs above average last year to just 0.5 heading into Sunday’s start. His hard contact allowed has increased dramatically, from 30.9 percent last year to over 40 percent before Sunday’s stinker.
“Fastball command,” Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez said, through an interpreter, when asked what he saw as the common theme to Happ’s struggles.
“If we don’t have that available, it’s just tougher.”
“A fly ball pitcher, the key for him is being precise,” Aaron Boone said. “That’s what he’s been good at throughout his career, and when he’s been good for us this year too. So when you miss a little bit or maybe like today you don’t have some kind of secondary to keep them off balance, those fly balls can hurt you when you make mistakes with it. …I think he’s been hurt a little bit by some balls here that have just gotten out.”
Thirteen of the 20 homers Happ has allowed were hit at hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium, and homers are up everywhere, of course, with much suspicion surrounding the baseballs.
“The last thing I’m going to do today is try to make an excuse about that,” Happ said of the balls. “I just think that stuff is what it is. Whether it’s true or not, I’ve got to deal with it either way.”
He did reveal some frustration with Sunday’s pitch selection, saying, “I’m out there trying to compete, and sometimes you’re trying to do some stuff that maybe not used to doing or maybe I tried to do some stuff to pitch to a report,” before backing off and falling on his sword again. Notably, Altuve’s homer came off a slider, and Tyler White’s fourth-inning, game-breaking grand slam off a two-seam fastball.
“I can execute better,” Happ said. “I know that much.”
Now it’s time to do what he knows, and to honor his paycheck with results.