In December of 2018, the New York Yankees signed left-hander J.A. Happ to a 2 year, 34 million dollar contract, a deal that Happ had earned with his performance between the Blue Jays and Yankees in 2018. Happ had pitched to a 3.65 ERA in 2018 to go along with a 1.13 WHIP and a 9.78 K/9, his best since 2014. However, the team had been connected to breakout FA left-hander Patrick Corbin almost all winter, and even at points during the 2018 season. Plenty of Yankees fans made the premature assumption that it was a “done deal”, and that the 30 year old would be in the Bronx within the first few weeks of the offseason. Alas, that didn’t happen, and Corbin signed a 6 year, 140 million dollar contract with the Washington Nationals just two weeks prior to the Yankees inking Happ. Whether about missing on Corbin or paying what they thought was too much for Happ, fans were highly upset with the sequence of events for the Yankees. Ultimately, though, the Yankees entered 2019 ready for Happ to boost the team just as he had in the months preceding his signing.
It hasn’t quite gone as planned.
Despite the Yankees sitting at 92-59, well on their way to an AL East title, J.A. Happ has had a horrendous season in 2019. In 27 games, he’s pitched to a 5.34 ERA, the second worst of his career. His advanced metrics aren’t pretty either: he has a 1.34 WHIP, a 5.56 xFIP, and a 4.86 SIERA, all career highs. Nobody, not even Happ, knows what exactly is the issue, but there are a few factors that could be contributing to his subpar 2019.
Fangraphs and Baseball Savant are the two sites that I used to try to pinpoint the issue, and one key metric stands out to me. FB% is the percentage of fastballs a pitcher throws out of all his pitches in a given year. In 2019, J.A. Happ’s FB% is 67.7%, the second most in baseball. This wouldn’t be problematic if he was still throwing 95-97 MPH, like he did with the Blue Jays and Astros during his time there, but now, Happ’s average fastball velocity is just 90.8 MPH, which sits at 50th out of 71 major league starters with at least 140 innings pitched. It is very possible to have success with low velocity. However, per Baseball Savant, both Happ’s fastball velocity and fastball spin are below average. Furthermore, his slider and curveball spin are below average as well. Without velocity, spin rate is an important component of making hitters miss, and Happ doesn’t have the spin this season either.
J.A. Happ is throwing a fastball with below average velocity and below average spin… with the second highest frequency of any pitcher in baseball (min. 140 innings), at the most hitter friendly park in baseball. Of course, that isn’t the whole story, but it’s definitely a key contributor to his 2019 woes.
The next topic is command. A pitcher’s command on a given day can be the difference between a good outing and a bad one. Command is another one of Happ’s outliers in 2019. Even by the eye test, Happ has struggled with command this year. There have been plenty of occasions where he misses spots, nibbles, and has high pitch counts that cause him to leave the game early. In his 27 starts, he’s averaging just 5.1 innings of work, and has yet to work into the 8th inning in 2019. Taking a look at his metrics again, he’s thrown 2343 pitches the season, and of those, over half (1272) have been out of the zone, and fewer than a third of those pitches out of the zone (403) have been swung at. Even after factoring in waste pitches, command has very clearly been an outlier in Happ’s struggles.
Before we wrap up, I’d like to swing back to the main topic here, which is his fastball. As I said, he throws it the second most in baseball, yet its been a below average pitch so far in 2019. Taking that information, and using Baseball Savant to see what the results of those fastballs are, gives us a better idea as to how the fastball contributes here. Below is a graph showing all the batted balls that J.A. Happ has given up off his fastball.
The dark red spot on the map is the average launch angle off his fastball in 2019. As you can see, a heavy dose of those batted balls are being hit in the 90-115 MPH range. You can put two and two together, but high launch angle+high exit velocity is usually no bueno. Just 4 of the 173 fastballs that have been hit in play this year have been hit for soft contact, while 41 have been hit for either hard contact or barreled up, a recipe for disaster especially in Yankee Stadium.
Ultimately, J.A. Happ’s fastball paired with his lack of spin/velo on other pitches has been a huge contributor to why he has struggled so much in 2019.
The graph above shows the pitch locations of all of the fastballs Happ has thrown down the “heart of the plate”, or the center of the plate. Thats 315 of his 1114 fastballs, sitting dead red, not moving, and certainly not blowing past hitters.
To go along with the high launch angle and exit velocity, per Baseball Savant, batters have swung at 1109 of his pitches this year, and missed on just 231 of them a rate of 20.1%. League average is 25.7%. He’s getting hit more frequently, and getting hit hard when he does.
To sum it all up, what has been an abysmal season can’t be attributed to just one metric, but there are key outliers. He throws his fastball the second most in baseball, despite it having below average velocity and RPM. He’s throwing those fastballs down the heart of the plate almost 35% of the time, and they’re being hit at an average exit velocity of 97.3 MPH. Being a fly ball pitcher that gives up hard contact and high launch angle in a hitter friendly ballpark is never a good sign.
Featured Photo: NY Daily News