TAMPA, Fla. -- The results were turning for J.A. Happ late last season, when the left-hander’s tinkering seemed to translate into on-field results, yet the veteran witnessed nearly every pitch of the Yankees’ postseason run through a plexiglass bullpen window.
When Happ returned home after the American League Championship Series, he took a few weeks to absorb that difficult first full season in pinstripes, then vowed that the results would improve in 2020. Happ said he felt that difference on Saturday, as he fired two perfect innings in the Yanks’ 2-1 Grapefruit League loss to the Blue Jays, striking out three.
“I think the motivation is, I wasn’t here doing what I needed to do,” Happ said. “I want to do it for me and for my teammates and my family, and to represent who I am a little bit better -- or at least what I’m capable of.”
If the Yankees can uncover the 2018 version of Happ, a Trade Deadline acquisition who went 7-0 with a 2.69 ERA in 11 starts down the stretch, it would go a long way toward calming concerns about a rotation that is already weathering injury concerns to James Paxton (back surgery) and Luis Severino (right forearm soreness).
In 31 appearances (30 starts) last year, Happ was 12-8 with a 4.91 ERA, serving up a career-high 34 homers. On the positive side, he logged a 1.65 ERA in five September outings, a run that was attributed to a shift away from his sinker in favor of a heavier diet of four-seam fastballs.
“I don't think it was far off from what he's been [in his career],” manager Aaron Boone said. “I think there were some things that didn't go his way and the final couple of months, physically, I thought he was throwing the ball better. We were seeing that kind of return to J.A. Happ form, and I thought he threw the ball really well down the stretch for us.
“He worked really hard this offseason to make some little adjustments and got his body in a really good place. He came in here ahead of the game. I feel very confident that he's going to go out and have a very J.A. Happ-type season.”
Based on what catcher Kyle Higashioka was seeing through the bars of his mask on Saturday, that could more resemble 2018 than ’19.
“He looked really good, I thought,” Higashioka said. “He looked reminiscent of the year we traded for him; the fastball was really coming out good and all the secondary pitches looked really sharp. I thought his location was really good as well, so I thought today looked excellent.”
Happ’s name circulated in trade rumors frequently over the offseason, at one point prompting Happ to seek clarification from general manager Brian Cashman. While several teams expressed interest, Cashman said that Paxton’s developing injury situation encouraged the club to hold on to Happ, who now projects to be the Yankees' No. 3 starter to open the season.
That period of uncertainty did not adversely impact Happ’s preparation; instead, he said that he threw more frequently than in past offseasons, which may be why he was pumping 92-93 mph fastballs in to Toronto hitters on Saturday.
“Every emotion you could have, I had [over the winter], and I had a lot of those during the season,” Happ said. “The frustration was high at times, but I always tried to figure it out. That was a big motivator going in; you’ve got to do it because you want to do it. You don’t want to do it because somebody writes something that you don’t like.”