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It’s pretty obvious that J.A. Happ has had a rough 2019 season. His ERA has spiked from 3.65 in 2018 to 5.10, his WHIP from 1.13 to 1.30 and his home runs from 27 to 32. Last year’s workhorse arm turned into a major liability, someone who stayed in the rotation only because other starters found themselves on the injured list. If not for that, a demotion probably would have been in order over the summer.
For much of the season, it would have been painful to suggest Happ has earned a spot on the postseason roster. However, try this stat from the YES Network’s Jack Curry on for size:
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In Happ’s last 6 starts, including today, left-handed batters are 1 for 29 against him. Cora referenced the numbers before the game, but still elected to start 4 LHBs. He noted how Happ gets RHBs to chase. So far, the Red Sox LHB are 0 for 4.
4:56 AM – Sep 8, 2019
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Yes, it’s a small sample size, but Happ has been mowing down lefties lately. It was prominent enough to get rival manager Alex Cora to comment about it, so there must be something there. Maybe Happ’s not effective enough to start a postseason game, but he might be just useful enough to come out of the bullpen.
Happ’s repertoire could serve him well as a reliever. He’s a fastball-first guy who rarely messes around with offspeed pitches. It’s unclear if he’d be able to adapt to the life of a reliever after starting almost his entire career, but I’m sure Happ would be willing to take on any role that involves him on the postseason roster at this point.
To further that point on Happ’s fastball, here’s more from YES statistician James Smyth:
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Red Sox against Happ’s four-seamer today
1-for-10, BB, 5 K
J.A. Happ Fastball Last 5 Starts
BA .067 (3/45)
K% 38.9 (21/54)
HR 1 (Khris Davis 8/21 at OAK)
(Prev 23 GS: .280 BA, 20.9 K% 22 HR) https://twitter.com/JamesSmyth621/status/1170454774543728640 …
J.A. Happ doing a great job with high fastballs today. 5 scoreless innings so far, with 5 of his 6 strikeouts coming on fastballs above the zone (from Baseball Savant):
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6:16 AM – Sep 8, 2019
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Happ is at his best when he’s getting right-handed hitters to chase on his heater, and he’s been able to do that in his last handful of starts. He’s not throwing it harder or with more spin rate over that stretch, and there’s only a slight difference in his heatmaps:
The second one is concentrated a little bit higher and more on the corners, but it’s also not a drastic difference. The only other thing that looks different with Happ’s fastball is his release point. Both his horizontal and vertical release points have lowered, which may just be a coincidence, or it may be a catalyst for the increased whiffs.
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The final hypothesis on Happ’s sharper fastball is part of a bigger picture. Happ has increased the use of his four-seamer and slider and lowered his usage of his sinker and changeup, which may just be a last-ditch effort by a pitcher to use more of his best pitches and less of his worse offerings. Whatever the reason, batters are whiffing more against Happ, and that’s put him back in the conversation for a postseason roster spot.
I think we can all agree that one good stretch from Happ after a season of inconsistency has not vaulted him back into the postseason rotation, but he could definitely snag a spot in the bullpen. Last year’s postseason lefty specialist was Stephen Tarpley, and that’s definitely a level that Happ can surpass when he’s right.
If the Yankees went with a postseason rotation of Tanaka-Paxton-Opener (featuring Severino)-German, Happ could still play a big role. If he continues to pitch like this, he might be a better option than a 38-year-old CC Sabathia with an ailing knee who has struggled with the long ball this year. The recent matchup numbers that Curry mentioned also hold up over a full season; Happ has been far better against lefties this season than righties.
I never thought I’d be saying this, but I’m intrigued with the idea of J.A. Happ as a postseason lefty specialist. There’s always one starter who succeeds out of the bullpen every playoffs (Madison Bumgarner, Nathan Eovaldi, 2000 David Cone vs. Mike Piazza). Why can’t Happ be this year’s success story?
J.A. Happ has flourished in his last three starts and the Yankees are hopeful this continues. He’s 2-0, with a 1.56 ERA and struck out 19 batters in 17-and-a-third innings. Happ’s also allowed just five hits and has held batters to a .093 BAA.
Let’s flashback for a moment. Entering play on August 26, the Yankees left-hander was 10-8, with a 5.58 ERA in 25 starts. He had allowed 31 home runs and 140 hits in 129 innings—a .274 BAA. His 5.58 ERA was second-worst in the majors among 83 pitchers with at least 120 innings.
Worst ERA in MLB, entering play on August 26
Aaron Sanchez: 5.89
J.A. Happ: 5.58
Rick Porcello: 5.49
Think about it. Just two weeks ago, Happ might’ve not made the Yankees’ postseason roster. And now, he’s emerged as one of their best starters.
So, that begs the question. What “happ-ened” with Happ?
The answer: His four-seam fastball has returned.
Happ throws his four-seamer 47.6 percent of the time this season. That’s by far the pitch he uses most. His next most often thrown pitch is the sinker, which he throws 18.4 percent of the time. Prior to his August 26 outing, batters were hitting .264 against his four-seamer. That’s 58 hits in 220 at-bats. By comparison, opposing batters hit just .203 against the pitch last season, having compiled 36 hits in 354 at-bats.
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Since the start of play on August 26, batters have just one hit in 25 at-bats against his fastball—a batting average of .040! That’s the lowest batting average against any four-seamer in the majors during that span. His teammate James Paxton is right behind him at .045.
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The speed on his four-seamer has climbed during that span. He averaged 91.8 miles per hour on the pitch through his first 25 starts of the year. Happ’s averaged 92.3 miles per hour on the fastball in his last three outings. A difference of half-a-mile an hour might seem minuscule, but it’s just enough to disrupt a batter’s timing.
It’s obvious he has confidence in the pitch. He’s throwing it 55.1 percent of the time over his last three starts. That’s nearly nine percent higher than what his season average was prior to August 26 (46.5 percent).
Just take a look below. The numbers prove Happ’s four-seamer is the secret to his success. The peanut butter to his jelly, as it were. If J.A. can continue his dominance deep into October, then Yankee fans will be very “happ-y” with him.
NEXT: Luis Severino nearing his return off the IL
J.A. Happ’s Four-Seam Fastball, first 25 starts compared to his last three
First 25 Last Three
AVG Velo: 91.8 MPH 92.3 MPH
Pitch Percentage: 46.5% 55.1
BAA: .264 .040
Opp. SLG %: .627% .040%