His Yankees debut on July 29 -- a 6-3 win over the Kansas City Royals -- could best be described as a workmanlike performance for J.A. Happ. The southpaw didn't quite dominate. He competed and won, allowing one run over six innings with Salvador Perez's solo home run accounting for the only blemish on his afternoon.
Happ effortlessly located his four-seam fastball -- down and away to righties, up in the zone, in on both lefties and right-handed batters -- and got ahead of hitters. Again, nothing flashy. A 12-year veteran, Happ isn't a must-see attraction on the mound the way some other hurlers are. He doesn't hit triple-digits on the radar gun like Luis Severino. He's not Masahiro Tanaka, a wizard moonlighting as a starting pitcher who can make the baseball dip, dive and bend at will. And he doesn't carry the prestige and pedigree that Carsten Sabathia brings to the hill each time out. J.A. Happ is a capital-P Professional. Assured. A man with a plan.
"The thing about him is that he knows what he wants to do and is very confident in how he wants to do it," says Neil Walker, Happ's teammate with the Pirates in 2015 and now again in the Bronx following the July 26 deal that brought the left-hander to New York in exchange for infielder Brandon Drury and outfielder Billy McKinney.
A word about Happ's confidence: After arriving a day late in New York due to a delayed flight out of Chicago, Happ met with catcher Austin Romine and pitching coach Larry Rothschild on the morning of his debut. To prepare for the meeting, Romine watched video from Happ's final start with the Blue Jays. He also looked back at his own at-bats against Happ; Romine had gone 2-for-9 with one strikeout against the Peru, Illinois, native.
Romine prefers getting to know his pitchers before working together. He likes learning about their mindset. "Who they are and how they like to pitch and what they like to do," the catcher says. "A lot of times, you have to figure out how they think so you can call a game to their strengths." The CliffsNotes version of his scouting report would read: pinpoint control and "sneaky" fast with a 93-94 mph fastball that plays like 95-96 due to a smooth delivery. But when it came time to devise a game plan, Romine didn't offer much input. He just listened to his new batterymate.
Happ remembers the meeting as such: "We sat down in the conference room, and I just briefly said, 'Hey, this is how I like to do things and what I'd like you to trust in.'"
Like Walker said, J.A. Happ knows what he wants to do and is very confident in how he wants to do it.
Doing it his way has worked out just fine for Happ, who turns 36 this month. As of mid-September, he was 6-0 with a 2.70 ERA and 1.01 WHIP in eight starts since arriving in New York and 16-6 with a 3.75 overall on the season. During a time when injuries and inconsistencies plagued the Yankees' pitching staff, Happ emerged as the team's most effective starter even as he navigated his way around a strange clubhouse and a big, unfamiliar city. Then again, midseason moves are nothing new for Happ; 2018 was the fourth time in nine seasons that he was traded at or near the deadline.
It's the off-the-field stuff, Happ says, that makes relocating difficult. He's a husband and a dad now. Family takes precedent. "Gotta worry about them," he says. "If they are going to be comfortable where we live, how they are going to get to and from the game, stuff like that. Those are the stressful parts of it."
Happ didn't take it so well the first time he was traded. The Phillies drafted Happ in 2004 and he rose through the ranks of the organization, making his big league debut on June 30, 2007, at Citizens Bank Park in an 8-3 loss to the Mets. Paul Lo Duca and David Wright took him deep in the top of the first. A Carlos Beltran home run ended Happ's day in the fifth inning as he departed to an ugly line: five earned runs in four innings. Welcome to The Show, rook. He wouldn't throw another inning for the Phillies that season.
But Happ would contribute to the Phillies' 2008 World Series title run and was a member of the vaunted rotation that carried the team back to the Fall Classic in 2009, when the Phillies fell to the Yankees in six games. Philadelphia had become his home, and so it hurt when he was traded to the Houston Astros on July 29, 2010, the main chip in a package that netted Roy Oswalt, a three-time All-Star who finished in the top five in National League Cy Young Award voting five times.
"It was emotional," Happ says of leaving Philadelphia. "That's all I had known. I had gone to two World Series with them. That's where I wanted to be. That was emotional, but with each subsequent [trade] you start to understand the business part of it. You just kind of move on, and now it's a little bit easier to handle."
From Houston, he was shipped to Toronto near the 2012 Trade Deadline, and then on to Seattle following the 2014 season. A midseason trade to the Pirates in 2015 would turn his career around. With Pittsburgh, he focused on two pitches: the fastball down and away to righties and the breaking ball to lefties. He also eliminated the arch from his delivery, simplifying it in order to consistently repeat the same motion.
Happ was Pittsburgh's best pitcher down the stretch, going 7-2 with a 1.85 ERA in 11 starts and leading the Pirates to the NL Wild Card Game, which they lost to the Cubs. "He was huge for us," Walker says. "He came in and took the proverbial bull by the horns and gave us a chance every single time he went out there. Obviously, his numbers showed that. It's just a shame we weren't able to go farther [in the postseason] because it would have been a lot of fun seeing him go."
After signing with Toronto following the 2015 season, Happ flourished north of the border. He helped lead the Blue Jays to the ALCS in 2016, going 20-4 with a 3.18 ERA and finishing sixth in the AL Cy Young Award voting. In 2018, he was named to the American League All-Star team, a first time All-Star at the age of 35. But with Toronto struggling this season -- and Happ's impending free agency -- the southpaw was the subject of trade rumors throughout the spring. Happ's performance suffered as the scuttlebutt grew, and he posted a 6.03 ERA in his final six starts with Toronto. In the Blue Jays' 8-5 loss to the Yankees on July 7, Happ allowed six earned runs in 22⁄3 innings.
"He pitched against us up there, and I was just like, man, that's hard when you know you are going to be traded and you're waiting for it to happen," Sabathia says. "That weighs on you more than anything. It's hard to pitch like that. I wasn't worried about him coming here with his numbers struggling before."
Happ, however, insists that the trade rumors didn't affect him. "I don't really know how to pinpoint it," Happ says. "Sometimes you are just the victim of circumstances in a game -- and that's not to deflect any results. I own the results. But crazy stuff happens in this game. I don't feel it was indicative of the way I was throwing."
Yankees general manager Brian Cashman and the front office agreed and traded for the impending free agent in hopes he would stabilize their rotation. He did that, and more.
With the trade, Happ stepped into a familiar atmosphere: the heat of a pennant race. And when he took the mound for the Yankees on July 29 against the Royals, he felt the difference. "It's fun to have that little extra bit," he says. "We are prepared and ready regardless. It's still our job. It's fun and we love doing it, but when you have that little bit of extra energy from the Stadium, from the crowd, just the reality of what these games mean, that's stuff that can lift you up a bit."
Happ officially earned his pinstripes after the 6-3 win when Didi Gregorius used a personalized emoji to refer to Happ in his postgame victory tweet. Gregorius selected the bull's-eye for Happ. "I like it," Happ says, stroking his chin upon learning of the emblem. "I didn't know that, but I like it."
And if you listen to the people who know best, the emoji is, well, on target.
"Oh, he throws the ball wherever he wants," Sabathia says.
"Catching him, I was pleasantly surprised with how well he locates the ball," Romine says. "I figured out a lot that first game. I figured out how he liked to pitch, where his misses are, what he likes to do late in counts, stuff like that. He's an easy pitcher [to catch]. He knows how to pitch. He knows where to put the ball. He knows how to get guys out."
A bout with hand, foot and mouth disease, a children's virus characterized by sores around the mouth and a rash on the hands and feet, then landed Happ on the 10-day disabled list. Highly contagious, he was quarantined from the club and his family, confined to a hotel room in Manhattan. "It was boring," Happ says. "A lot of room service and bumming around during the afternoon."
But he showed no ill-effects from the virus upon rejoining the club. Happ went six strong innings for the win in his return from the disabled list and would go on to become the first Yankees pitcher to start and win his first five appearances with the team since "Bullet" Bob Turley in 1955.
With the Yankees closing in on an American League Wild Card berth, Happ turned his eye toward October once again. He got his first taste of postseason baseball as a rookie in Game 3 of the 2008 NLCS, pitching three innings in relief and allowing one run in the Phillies' 7-2 loss to the Dodgers. Philadelphia would eliminate Los Angeles in five games and then defeat the Tampa Bay Rays in the World Series, although Happ did not pitch in the Fall Classic. He allowed one earned run in two relief appearances against the Yankees the following year, a lasting experience even in defeat.
"I was so lucky to go to two World Series during my first two years," Happ says. In 10 postseason appearances, including three starts, Happ is 1-1 with a 3.72 ERA. "All the veterans on the team were like, 'You need to realize how rare this is and how special this is. People go their whole career without making it to a playoff game.' Ever since then, I've realized how hard this is. Having the opportunity to be in the hunt is exciting."
And so, as the Yankees enter the stretch run, Happ will take the ball and give his team a chance to win. He will compete, turning each at-bat into a one-on-one clash with personal stakes attached to it. And in the midst of battle, he will throw that sneaky fast four-seamer either chest high, low-and-away or up and in, wherever he darn well pleases. More often than not, it will hit the bull's-eye.