Yankees Have a J.A. Happ Problem

The early return on the left-hander's three-year deal hasn't been bad, it's been awful

The Yankees had to have J.A. Happ. Not because he was the best pitcher available on the free-agent market, but because they passed on the best pitcher available on the free-agent market. Patrick Corbin was that best pitcher on the free-agent market and would have only cost money, and the Yankees chose to pass on the 29-year-old left-handed New York native and Yankees fan. They forced themselves into needing to have Happ.

Not only did they force themselves into a situation where they had to sign Happ, they had to do it on his terms. The Yankees only wanted to sign the 36-year-old to a two-year deal, but he wanted three, and once Corbin was off the board, the Yankees were in no position to hold on their stance, eventually caving to Happ’s third-year demand. I wanted Happ back, after the team passed on Corbin. I thought it made sense to bring Happ back, after the team passed on Corbin. He wasn’t the best free-agent option, he was the best option once the best option was no longer available.

At the time, I wrote, “I’m not scared of Happ’s age or the diminishing spin rate on his fastball (at least not yet).” Well, I am now.

Happ hasn’t been bad this season, he’s been awful. Luis Severino was bad for most of the second half of last season, Sonny Gray was awful last season. That’s the difference. I thought the Yankees ridded themselves of a Gray-like problem for 2019, but Happ has stepped up and filled in seamlessly for the former Yankee bust.

Monday’s night disastrous start in Baltimore was Happ’s fourth start against the last-place Orioles this season, and the third time he has failed to go even 4 2/3 innings against them. He lasted only 3 2/3 innings in his latest flop, allowing six earned runs on nine hits and walk, while striking out three and giving up another pair of home runs. His total line against the Orioles this season: 17 IP, 24 H, 15 R, 15 ER, 7 BB, 14 K, 7 HR, 7.94 ERA, 1.824 WHIP. Thankfully, the Yankees came back from a 6-1 deficit to win 10-7 and didn’t waste what should have been an easy win over a much inferior opponent, but that doesn’t change the fact that Happ is the first-place Yankees’ biggest problem.

Happ’s 5.16 ERA and 13 home runs allowed in 52 2/3 innings tells a lot of the story though not all of it. I hate the stat and term “quality start” because it rewards pitchers with a 4.50 ERA, but a 4.50 ERA right now for Happ would be welcome. In his 10 starts, only three of them have been “quality” as he has failed to pitch five innings in four of them and failed to pitch six innings in seven of them. Thanks to the opposition’s equally bad pitching in his starts, the Yankees are 7-3 though that record is more about the level of competition Happ has faced since only two of his starts were against teams .500 or better. He’s not only taking the team out of games and forcing the offense to pick him up, he’s destroying the bullpen and with each game tied to the next, a reliever might be unavailable one game because he had to step in and record outs for Happ the game before.

I don’t know where the guy the Yankees traded for at last season’s deadline is. Where is the Happ who went 7-0 in 11 starts with a 2.69 ERA and 1.052 WHIP? Where is the Happ who created a month-long conversation over whether or not he should pitch the one-game playoff instead of Severino? Where is the Happ who Yankees fans felt confident with every time it was his turn to pitch? The last time we saw that Happ was before Game 1 of the ALDS, before he went out and ruined that game just three batters in. Since then, Happ has looked every bit like a 36-year-old pitcher who relies on his low-90s fastball command to succeed, and when he doesn’t have it, there’s no finding it.

If this is the end of the road for this version of Happ then he has four-plus months to sit down with CC Sabathia and find out how to reinvent himself with breaking balls and offspeed pitches and avoid the type of career drought Sabathia endured when his fastball left him. I don’t think Happ will be afforded the endless chances Sabathia was given for three seasons, especially in the middle of a championship window and with the margin of error for winning the division over the Rays and Red Sox being so small.

The Yankees are stuck with Happ for this season and the next two. With Severino and James Paxton on the injured list and the pitching depth depleted with Jonathan Loaisiga also injured, there’s nowhere to turn and no answer to the Yankees’ worrisome pitching problem other than to have Happ turn it around.

“We won in spite of me tonight,” Happ said on Monday night, looking lost as he answered questions as to why he continues to get knocked around each time he takes the mound. “Tonight was just a tough one and I don’t know that I have an answer for it. They hit the bad pitches, they hit the good pitches, and I just got beat tonight. My plan is to get bitter and figure it out.”

The Yankees have won in spite of Happ a few times this season, though he’s right, he needs to figure it out. The Yankees don’t have any other options other than to give him the ball every five days and let him find the answer.

The Yankees need the J.A. Happ they traded for and the one they thought they were bringing back through free agency. Without him, avoiding the one-game playoff for the fourth time in five seasons is going to be impossible.


My book The Next Yankees Era: My Transition from the Core Four to the Baby Bombers is now available as an ebook!