CLEARWATER, Fla. — If J.A. Happ pitches as well in the cruel cold of April as he has under the comfortable Florida sun of March, the sting of being without Luis Severino and James Paxton will be significantly reduced for the Yankees.
Yes, there are two months in baseball that are wise to ignore: March and October.
Still, what goes on in spring training is the only sample to measure rookies and veterans and everything in between.
So what Happ has done in four outings can’t be totally ignored because he has been exceptional and said he is quite pleased with a mechanical change that has his lower body locked into going directly toward the plate instead of swinging.
In four innings on Monday against the Phillies at Spectrum Field, the 37-year-old lefty allowed one run, three hits, struck out five and didn’t issue a walk in a 3-1 Phillies victory.
“It feels better. I came out of it one time, but it is progressing,’’ Happ said. “It’s just a feel upon landing, I think. My direction is better.’’
It would be a colossal help for the Yankees if that direction continues to be on line when the games count starting March 26 in Baltimore when they open the first of three games against the Orioles at Camden Yards.
With Severino out for the season due to Tommy John surgery and Paxton (back surgery) not expected back until May at the earliest, Happ has a chance to pitch the finale of the Orioles series on March 29.
Gerrit Cole will pitch the first game and Masahiro Tanaka is a strong candidate to start the second. Happ could slot into the third game and Jordan Montgomery the fourth.
Happ, 37, started to turn around a disappointing 2019 season (12-8 with a 4.91 ERA in 31 games; 30 starts) in September when he went 5-3 with a 3.27 ERA in eight games (seven starts) and held hitters to a .201 batting average.
Happ began to work on his body direction before reporting to camp, and it has paid off in his four outings in which he has worked 13 innings, allowed seven hits, one earned run, struck out 16 and given up a homer.
“I think you start with the crispness of the fastball which was there, a little more sporadic, and definitely returned to some degree later in the year and that’s been there the whole time,’’ Aaron Boone said. “I think he is doing a better job with his secondary pitches — the changeup and slider a little more of a factor. I think his changeup has been a real factor for him and then his two-seamer [fastball]. You saw a couple of comeback pitches to the inside corner for called strikes to righties which he got away from last year. I feel like his pitch mix is a little tightened up. I think stuff wise, delivery wise and everything he is in a good spot.’’
Again, March can be very cruel to those evaluating a veteran pitcher because there are far more variables than during the regular season. Those hitters with No. 89 on their backs in March are headed back to Double-A. Early in March, pitchers are mainly building arm strength with fastballs. So far, very few teams have put all their regulars in the same lineup.
Yet, you can only evaluate what you see, and Happ is getting praise from inside the Yankees organization and outside.
“He was good, 88 to 93 [mph] and locked up two right-handers with fastballs, in which he has to do,’’ a scout on hand said. “He used the cutter and the big curveball — looked good.’’
“It can certainly give you confidence going into the season,’’ Happ said of a strong spring. “Flush it if it is going bad and take the time it is going well, but we do have two more weeks to go and the progression continues.’’