New York Yankee Profiles: J.A. Happ and the possible rebirth of an ace

William Parlee
New York Yankees, J.A. Happ
May 9, 2019; Bronx, NY, USA; New York Yankees starting pitcher J.A. Happ (34) throws the ball against the Seattle Mariners during the second inning at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

James Anthony Happ is the youngest of three Happ children; the other two are older sisters. He was born in Peru, Illinois, and attended St. Bede Academy, where he played baseball and basketball. He was a four-letter winner at the school in both sports. In his last year of high school, he was county Athlete of the year.

Happ played baseball for the Northwest Wildcats while attending Northwestern University. He made the All-Big ten conference in his first three years. In his last year, he compiled a 16-11 record with an ERA of 2.88 with 251 strikeouts compared to ninety walks. Happ decided to skip his senior year when he was drafted in the third round by the Phillies. Happ was a relatively average minor league type pitcher during his years with the Phillies. Midseason 2010 he was traded to the Houston Astros. He made a total of thirteen starts with the Astros in 2010. He went 5-4 with an ERA of 3.45. The following season was the worst of his career, posting a 6-15 record. In 2012 he improved some to a 7-9 record but was again traded, this time to the Toronto Blue Jays.

During the 2012 season, he appeared in only ten games due to a fractured foot, which set him down for the remainder of the season. On May 7, 2013, he was hit in the head with a line drive, collapsing immediately and laid on the mound for over ten minutes before being removed to the hospital. He was released the next day but put on the 60 day DL with a head contusion and laceration of the left ear. That year he made a total of eighteen starts and posted a 5-7 record. Other than getting hit in the head, Happ’s time with the Jays was unremarkable as well. After the season, he was again traded, this time to the Seattle Mariners. In 20 starts, he was 4-6, again unremarkable.

In the middle of the 2015 season he was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates, where a mysteriously new Happ appeared, he went 7-2 in eleven starts posting an ERA of 1.85. During the winter, the Blue Jays wanted him back. The Jays paid him a bunch of money, and he won eleven wins before the All-Star break, the first to do that since Roy Halladay. In August of 2016, he tied Steven Strasburg for the most wins in the MLB. In 2017 he was named to the All-Star game.

During 2018 the Jays desperate for a third baseman, traded Happ to the New York Yankees for Brandon Drury. Happ ended the season 17-6 with both teams and 7-0 while with the New York Yankees. The Yankees resigned Happ through the 2020 season. Unfortunately, Happ’s 2019 season was not what the New York Yankees had hoped for as he rarely pitched deep into games and had a 12-8 record with a high ERA of 4.91. When Happ is hot, he can be lights out.
Interestingly, Happ is a Red Sox killer; he won all four of his starts against the Boston team.  The Yankees still have hope that he can return to the pitcher he was in 2018.  In September of 2019, he briefly did just that with a 1.65 ERA, 3.10 FIP, and an excellent K-BB%. The only noticeable change was that he relied upon his four-seamer more,  going from around 45% of all pitches to 56% in September.  With his newfound success, he went 3.2 innings in the postseason while giving up just one run in relief.

This year the New York Yankees have their rotation pretty well set ahead of spring training.  Newly acquired superstar Gerrit Cole will lead off a rotation of  Masahiro Tanaka,  J.A. Happ, Jordan Mongomery, and a yet to be determined fifth starter since the injuries and surgeries to Luis Severino and James Paxton.  If Happ can get 27 starts or pitch in 165 innings, he will be vested for the 2021 season.   Since 2016 Happ has been better than the average pitcher, and if he pitches well this season, he will remain in that third spot, at least until Domingo German returns from his suspension, or Paxton returns from back surgery.

Happ has the necessary stuff to be a successful pitcher, he is a five-pitch pitcher, and he uses all of them against right-hand hitters.  A four-seam fastball (89–95 mph), a two-seam fastball (89-93mph), a slider/cutter (83–86mph), a curveball (76–79mph), and a changeup (82-84mph).  He does not use the changeup against lefty hitters.  J.A. in his career is 121-90 with an ERA of 3.99 with 1,497 strikeouts.

During the offseason, Happ made some minor adjustments to his delivery and he also worked with the new Yankee pitching coach Matt Blake to hopefully allow fewer home runs than he gave up during the 2019 season.  He also worked on his mechanics with a special focus on his kinetic chain.  So far in this postseason, although it is still early, Happ is nothing short of ace material  He has pitched in three games for a total of nine innings.  In the span, he has allowed only one run, one walk, and four hits while striking out eleven players for a three-game ERA of 1.00.

Happ 37,  is married to his high school sweetheart wife Morgan who is a year younger and was also an Athlete in her days as a Lady Bruin.  The couple lives in their birthplace of Peru, Illinois.  They have three children, a son J.J., a daughter Bella and they gave birth to another child this past August. Happ has been successful in keeping himself far from rumors and controversies in his personal and professional life.