TAMPA, Fla. — There were 6,776 home runs in 2019, far and away the most ever in a Major League Baseball season.
Yankees lefthander J.A. Happ allowed 34 of them — the most in his 13-year career — in only 161 1/3 innings.
In the offseason, MLB, accused of intentionally juicing the baseballs to drive fan interest, released a report on a study conducted by outside experts that essentially said the balls indeed were a bit livelier — which pitchers had been saying since spring training.
“No evidence was found that changes in baseball performance were due to anything intentional on the part of Rawlings [which makes MLB’s official game balls] or MLB and were likely due to manufacturing variability,” part of the 27-page report read.
Did Happ feel even a bit better about his disappointing 2019 season, one in which he went 12-8 with a 4.91 ERA, upon seeing the results?
“I don’t like to make excuses, so I think any answer other than ‘I need to be better’ is not the right answer,” he said. “I do need to be better and I plan on being better.”
Rumors swirled throughout the offseason regarding the 37-year-old Happ, entering the second year of a two-year, $34 million deal. After the signing of Gerrit Cole, general manager Brian Cashman received a slew of calls from teams interested in making a deal for Happ.
Cashman told those teams he wasn’t interested in moving Happ because he wanted extra rotation depth as a result of the uncertainty surrounding James Paxton’s back. That decision paid off when Paxton underwent surgery early last week, a procedure that will keep him out through April at least.
Happ, who reported weeks ago to the Yankees’ minor-league complex to get a head start on things, was aware of the speculation he might be dealt during the offseason. He even joked about it with Cole, a teammate for a brief time in 2015 when they were both with the Pirates, via text after the ace signed his nine-year, $324 million deal in December.
“I think I sent him a message right away saying ‘I hope we’ll be teammates again,’ ‘’ Happ said. “Obviously, congratulations to him. Obviously, we’re excited to have him. Anybody would be excited to have a guy like that on your staff. But you know, we’re here now. Hopefully we’ll move forward from that [trade] talk.”
While his season overall wasn’t very good, Happ did see some improvement down the stretch, going 2-0 with a 2.23 ERA in his last six outings (five starts). Pitching out of the bullpen in the postseason, he posted a 2.45 ERA in three appearances.
“Just the way I was using my body, I think,” he said of what helped him improve his numbers toward the end. “I was struggling for a large part [of the year] to kind of put it together. And I was struggling to understand why. And I think we just got to a point where it started clicking a little bit better. I was able to use my legs a little bit better, my hips a little bit better.”
Aaron Boone said he has no doubt that Happ, 121-90 with a 3.99 ERA in 13 major league seasons, will rebound in 2020.
“One, track record,” Boone said. “Two, I think when we do a little bit of digging [into the analytics], and this is something we tried to communicate with J.A. also, the results weren’t as good as we feel like he threw the ball last year. We obviously feel like he threw the ball well down the stretch for us and even in the playoffs. Feel like the work he’s done this winter has put him in a good position and he comes in in a really good place, so I fully expect him to be the J.A. Happ we’ve seen most of his career.”