You have to love when a manager cites improvement among one of his own. You also have to love when the manager cites future improvement coming from a pitcher who has been relatively consistent in terms of final stats produced over his five seasons of work. In the case of J.A. Happ, he has been around the MLB for seven seasons, but didn’t shed the “Rookie” label until 2009. The point is, I do love doing a good fact check. In a follow up from Michael Wray’s article this morning, I decided to look into those mechanical changes Gibby claims were made to see if there’s truth with results.
When you look at Happ’s career stats, the thing that jumps out at you is the consistency by season’s end. With the exception of two injury seasons, one being freak accident (2013 line drive to the head) and the other an elbow injury (2010), he consistently throws around 150 innings each season. The problem is, he also makes 28 starts each season. Ideally, you want your starter to go six to seven innings each start. That means 168-196 IPs is the range you want to see from a guy making 28 starts. Happ consistently falls short of that range.
Paying attention to Happ over the years, when the Toronto Blue Jays traded for him in 2012, I knew Happ was another one of those pitchers that teases you. He’s consistently inconsistent over the course of a season, making him look very consistent by season’s end. Still following me? Some outings, he throws strikes. In other outings, he struggles with his control. The Blue Jays have a premium on consistently inconsistent pitchers. This helps explain the mediocre W-L records the team has had over the years. These types of pitchers are back of the rotation (#4-5 starter) guys.
Now while it’s true that some pitchers do find their way later in their career (Jamie Moyer is a classic example. Chris Carpenter is one that hits closer to home), it usually comes unexpectedly. It’s that epiphany moment for pitchers. Usually this becomes announced during the season, not the offseason. If this happened to Happ near the end of last season, why are Blue Jays shopping for two starters and saying they have a number of pitchers in the mix as starter candidates for this season?
Happ finding his way would possibly mean him being similar to that 12-4, 2.93 ERA facade of 2009. Ok, that was harsh. There’s no doubting Happ is a guy that works hard. Most pitchers have a difficult time coming back after a line drive to the head like the one he took. He made it back though and that’s a testament to how hard he works and determined he is. So let’s take a look at some of that work.
Gibbons said a slight mechanical change was made to Happ’s release point. As Wray pointed out, they lowered it, which would also push the release point out horizontally. So it’s important to have a basis of which to start from. The following graphics are courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net.
This was an unsuccessful start against the Boston Red Sox back in 2009. As you can see here, his release point is consistent at the vertical axis, released at 7-7.5 Ft. However, there is a wide range of release across the horizontal axis. This could be due to a couple of things. Usually, the biggest criminal is inconsistent arm slot combined with the type of pitch being thrown. Another possibility is a shift in placement on the rubber of the pitching mound. Without watching the start, it’s tough to tell which, but this start yielded 3 HRA, 6 BBs, and 7 Hs over 5.2 IP, so it is clear he was battling himself. Wait until you see the next chart.
Where to begin? This start was Happ’s CG SHO of the Colorado Rockies in August ’09. He only had two that season. The other being against the Blue Jays in June. As you can see, it looks like there is nothing consistent about this start, yet Happ was incredibly effective. Look deeper. With a couple of exceptions, his arm slot was incredibly consistent, where he mostly released the ball around 1.5 ft H-axis. With a few blips, he also released the ball around 7.5 ft V-axis. Sure, it looks a mess, but this is incredibly consistent. This is also a good start to start from. Let’s fast forward to 2013.
Here are two starts with varying results from late April, early May 2013. A couple of things to point out from these two starts. The start against the Baltimore Orioles was a good start where Happ went 6 IP, 0 ER, 4 H, 2 BB, 6 K facing 25 batters (TBF). The start against the Red Sox was a different story (3.2 IP, 2 ER, 3 H, 7 BB, 2 K, 20 TBF). The Red Sox are a notoriously patient team anyway, so Happ having difficulties with his release point only makes it so much worse. I did happen to watch this game and he struggled with his control throughout, with the second and fourth innings being the worst (61 pitches combined, 25 for strikes).
Looking at the two graphs, it’s obvious Happ is struggling to find his release point in the game against the Red Sox. Against Baltimore, his release point lines up at a mean of ~1.7 ft, ~6.85 ft with little change in any direction. You can pretty much eyeball it if you’re familiar to reading graphs. Against Boston, try eyeballing the averages. That’s 95 pitches right there spread out across both axes. The primary culprit? Inconsistent arm slot. The furthest blip on the left is very telling. Refer back to Happ’s ’09 start against Boston and you can see what I mean. They’re very similar starts with very similar results.
Now, to address Gibbons’ claims of changes Happ’s mechanics. I’ll let the graphics speak for themselves. Prep yourself.
Now I know there’s a lot here to take in all at once. To see results, you need to sometimes lay them all out. Happ returned from his injury Aug.7th. That start was brutal, but his next two starts seemed more promising. Then, on Aug.22nd, our starting point, the wheels fell off and he suffered through three straight rough starts.
Interestingly, in all three starts, his release point was similar to the failed start against Boston from May. The varying arm slots are evident. Also interesting is that in the start againt the Kansas City Royals. His vertical release point starts to come down. This is the beginning of the 3/4 release that Wray writes about in his article.
Another point of interest is Happ’s increased velocity in all of his pitches after making this change. His average FB goes from a shade under 91 MPH, to almost 93 MPH. His CRV experienced the biggest change as it sat around 75 MPH and now touches 80 MPH, with more sweeping action and less break.
Initially, the results against the Royals, Twins, and Los Angeles Angels were mixed as Happ’s arm slot continued to lower and move further away from his body. The positive to take from it was the increase in strike outs (~9.0 K/9) and the 1 HRA over the 14 IP. The negative was obviously the inconsistency and poor overall results.
For the remainder of September (NYY, CHW, and TB), Happ was much more consistent in release point and in results, with the start against the Yankees being the most promising. The Yankees had dominated Happ in back-to-back starts in August (10 IP, 10 H, 7 BB, 9 ER, 48 TBF). September was a different story (7 IP, 4 H, 3 BB, 1 ER, 27 TBF).
As far as this mechanical change being the medicine that cures Happ’s inconsistent woes, the famous line of “only time will tell” shall be used here. The results have been positive so far, but it could also be a gimmick. Given Happ’s track record, a bigger body of work with this experiment will obviously be more revealing. Until then, it is my assessment that while what Gibbons says is true about the mechanical changes, as there is an obvious lowering of his vertical release point, the improvement will not be there and Jays fans will continue to see more of the same up and down starts from Happ. Again, why would so many pitchers be in the mix for a rotation spot if Blue Jays brass is that confident in J.A. Happ?