'That's Not Characteristic of Me': Why a Struggling J.A. Happ Believes He Can Turn His Season Around

Max Goodman

After surrendering his first hit of the ball game in the second inning on Wednesday in Philadelphia, J.A. Happ buckled down, burying a perfectly-executed slider for his first strikeout of the afternoon in the following at-bat.

That 2-2 pitch, drawing a swing and miss from Phillies' outfielder Roman Quinn, was Happ's 1,500th punch out of his 14-year career. For a moment, after the left-hander's shaky regular-season debut last week, it seemed the veteran was poised for a bounce-back performance.

One inning later, however, any prospect of Happ turning it around at Citizens Bank Park was a distant memory. 

In his third and final frame, the Phillies batted around as Happ surrendered a two-run home run to Bryce Harper and issued the fourth, fifth and sixth walks of his outing. The bullpen unraveled after Happ's premature exit as seven more runs scored in an 11-7 loss for New York, snapping the club's seven-game winning streak.

"Certainly frustration today, that's not characteristic of me with the walks," Happ explained. I think it's just getting back to staying aggressive. I thought I was very close a lot of the time but I wasn't able to get back into the counts. Little things happened but really I just hurt myself today."

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Happ's numbers through two starts are certainly not what he or his manager Aaron Boone were hoping to see. The 37-year-old has allowed eight runs through seven innings pitched — good for an ERA of 10.29. His eight walks are more than double the trio of strikeouts he's tallied thus far.

In an attempt to pinpoint exactly what is preventing Happ from getting outs thus far in 2020, Boone singled out Happ's command. 

"Just seemed like he had a hard time getting it to the arm side," Boone said. "I thought his mix of pitches and stuff looked crisp enough as far as his fastball. I thought the slider and changeup were alright. Tough to tell from the side but it looked like he had a hard time getting to the arm side with command. Nibbling a couple times thinking when he needed to get back in the zone he could, but obviously that was the difference."

Boone's evaluation was spot on. The left-hander threw 66 pitches in his start on Wednesday afternoon — of his 34 balls thrown, 29 of them can above the zone or outside to right-handed hitters. 

Happ, in retrospect, felt that some of the calls didn't go his way, but recognized that if the backdoor pitches on the outside corner aren't being called, he needed to adjust and wasn't able to. 

"Well I did hit some and didn't get [calls]. That's just the fact," Happ explained. "But that happens, that's part of the game and I've got to move on. After that I've got to get back into the zone and continue to make pitches. Normally I take pride in being able to do that and today I didn't."

So, where does Happ go from here? 

In a 60-game season, no team can afford to throw away games and if Happ is going to continue to struggle, eventually the Yankees may elect to give another arm an opportunity to occupy his spot in the rotation. Perhaps a phenom patiently waiting at the club's alternate site in Scranton.

Then again, Happ knows that his pair of poor performances to kick off the 2020 campaign are not indicative of his abilities on the mound. 

In his eyes, it's not necessarily just a mechanical issue. Similar to what's ailing James Paxton and catalyzing his struggles, this is "more the mentality."

"Knowing what I know and what I feel, I don't think it was that far off," Happ said. "I know that sounds silly, to see six walks, but really I think that can be cleaned up. It's a little more mindset and continuing to be aggressive and pound the zone and just keeping that aggressiveness. I was trying to get some breaking balls in there early and maybe just not finishing them. I think it's just cleaning that up, that'll be my plan."

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Happ had worked hard this offseason to prepare himself for a step back in the right direction, starting by keeping the ball in the ballpark. The southpaw gave up 34 long balls a year ago — tied for the sixth-most in all of baseball. He's already given up three through his first two starts of 2020.

If he can throw strikes, Boone is confident the Yankees will get the good version of J.A. Happ moving forward, something the skipper believes the left-hander is capable of and simply needs to continue to build toward.

"The stuff is coming out fine, even the secondaries the changeup and slider were good today, you're just not going to have those days where a J.A. Happ loses the strike zone like that and walks guys," Boone said. "Can't have that but we try to take a little solace in that the ball is coming out well."

Unprecedented circumstances presented by the truncated season aside, Happ confirmed he'll continue working his tail off to get back on track. Even just moments after his second-consecutive outing with four runs allowed, he knows what he's still capable of while toeing the slab.

"I put in a lot of work to be ready regardless of the situation and we're doing the best we can," Happ said. "I know I can do better than I did today and I look forward to improving in that."

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