TAMPA — J.A. Happ had a bad 2019. Let’s get that out of the way upfront.
Because Happ also had a valuable season. Not every 4.91 ERA is created equal. The ability to pitch five innings and give up three or four runs does not mean the same on every team. On a club with perhaps the best offense and bullpen in the majors, three or four runs in five innings gave the Yankees a chance to win.
Over time we have devalued a pitcher’s won-loss record because it is beholden to many factors beyond the starter’s control. So ignore that Happ went 12-8. Focus on the Yankees going 20-10 when he started. You think that happens if the Yanks had to turn to a Chance Adams or David Hale or Luis Cessa for those starts?
And do the math: 20 plus 10 equals 30. Attendance also was valuable for a Yankees team that set the record for most players placed on the injured list, with every important member of the rotation except Happ and Masahiro Tanaka serving at least one stint.
James Paxton is more talented than Happ, so is Luis Severino. But as Happ returned to his locker Saturday in the aftermath of two perfect innings in the Yankees’ spring opener against Toronto, Paxton was talking to reporters about playing catch. In 10 days. All but assuring after back surgery that he will keep his perfect record of never starting 30 games in a season. Severino was readying for a Sunday flight to New York for a battery of tests to determine what is going on with his achy forearm.
“I do take pride in it,” said Happ, whose 149 starts over the past five years is 14th in the majors.
Attendance matters. There are too many games and innings for it not to. The analytics revolution has elevated rate stats over bulk, which for the most part is more revealing about a player’s skill. But bulk still matters. A lot. Because you really have to play the 162 games and cover roughly 1,450 innings.
The opener can work. But in how many rotation spots? And to what downside, as we saw relief pitching take a far greater hit last year with more exposure, and wear and tear.
“I completely agree with the [value of a durable starter],” said Tim Naehring, the Yankees’ VP of baseball operations. “Obviously, you want performance with it.”
To that end, Happ worked on his body feverishly this offseason, threw more frequently and had the look Saturday of someone ahead. His fastball was already up at 92-93 mph. He broke out a rarely used two-seamer to freeze Cavan Biggio in the first and closed the second by deploying the two-seamer consecutively to whiff Randal Grichuk after falling behind 3-1. It is a pitch he would like to use, particularly to lefties, to better open corridors for his bread-and-butter four-seamer up in the zone.
Happ did not have that fastball for more than half the season last year. He felt his lower half was not working in sync with his top half, which led to three dreadful starts to open the season. That brought tinkering that helped and hurt in near equal parts, and mainly left Happ confused, frustrated and the Yankees’ version of Edwin Diaz — if the ball went up in the air against him, it so often went out. In the year of the homer, Happ yielded 34, seven more than any previous season.
Happ locked in late. In his last six outings (five starts), he had a .177 batting average against and a 2.23 ERA over 32¹/₃ innings — lefties managed a MLB-low .078 batting average and .098 slugging percentage from Aug. 1 on. Still, the Yankees did not use him as a postseason starter, and for a period in the offseason dangled him in trade talks, in part wanting to save his $17 million. But they learned Domingo German would miss the first two months after being suspended under MLB’s domestic abuse protocols and they were monitoring the non-improving condition of Paxton’s back.
Happ, at 37, projects to be the second-oldest starter in the majors behind St. Louis’ Adam Wainwright — with teammate CC Sabathia retiring, Minnesota’s Rich Hill not physically ready to begin the year and Jason Vargas still unsigned. Still, even at his age, Happ’s durability remained vital. So he was kept and at this moment might be the No. 3 starter behind Gerrit Cole and Tanaka. He pitched at that level in 2018, particularly after being obtained from Toronto at the trade deadline.
“He came in here ahead of the game,” Boone said of Happ. “He’s going to go out and have a very J.A. Happ-type season.”
That means taking the ball every five days, week after week and — the Yanks believe — pitching more like the late 2019 version of Happ.