J.A. Happ isn't having the best start to his 2019 season.
His 5.09 ERA is the second-worst mark of his career, he's allowed the sixth-most home runs in the MLB, and his strikeout rate is at its lowest mark since 2016.
Why, then, do the Yankees have total confidence throwing him out there against the Red Sox in one of the most important games of the season on Friday night? Well, this is what the Yankees acquired Happ to do.
The 36-year-old southpaw is 8-4 with a 3.05 ERA against the Red Sox in his career. He has more victories against Boston than he does against any other team (save the Yankees), including a 1.99 ERA in four starts against the Red Sox last season.
Of course, Boston finally got to him last year in the ALDS, when Happ gave up five runs over two innings in a crucial Game 1 loss. Still, he has already beaten them once this season.
For Happ to beat the Red Sox again and turn his season around, he needs to re-harness his top option: the four-seam fastball. Happ relies on his fastball and sinker over 70 percent of the time. His sinker is more of a ground-ball pitch, but Happ likes to use his four-seamer in all situations, including to put hitters away.
This year, though, hitters are squaring up on the pitch. Batters hit just .203 off the four-seamer last year, but are hitting .265 off it this year. He's allowed 11 home runs on the pitch as well, good for a whopping .657 slugging percentage.
The root of Happ's problems is a little concerning. He has lost velocity on all of his pitches, which is likely the reason for his strikeouts going down and his hard contact going up. Take a look at Happ's velocity chart below, with his four-seamer in red and his sinker in orange:
All of his pitches are trending down, but his fastballs are trailing the quickest. He has lost almost 1.5 mph on those pitches, which could be caused by anything from injury to aging to typical early-season velocity loss.
If Happ's velocity doesn't return, he may need to change his approach a little bit, like his teammate CC Sabathia has. The longer the season goes on and hitters keep mashing his fastball, the more critical it'll become for Happ to make a change.
Despite the velocity loss, Happ has generally pitched better lately, striking out more hitters and allowing less hits (the home run is still an issue, though). Thus, the Red Sox mark a good test for Happ tonight. They are a team loaded with power hitters that love to hit fastballs, but they are also a team that Happ has handled before.
It creates an interesting push-pull dynamic, especially when you consider his opponent, Chris Sale. Sale is just 1-6 this season, but has a stellar 1.87 ERA against the Yankees over his career. Like Happ for the Yankees, there isn't anyone they'd rather send out against their rivals than Sale, despite his 2019 struggles. It all adds up to a must-see pitcher's duel on a Friday night rivalry game.
The Yankees acquired Happ to beat the Red Sox, no matter the circumstances. For the Yankees to win, and subsequently bury the Red Sox 8.5 games back of the AL East lead, he'll need to be at the top of his game.