When the Toronto Blue Jays stepped off the field for the MLB All-Star Break, starter J.A. Happ stood at a cross-roads. With an ERA of 4.91, a WHIP of 1.545, and a xFIP of 4.30, the left-hander was seen as the weakest link in the Blue Jays rotation and the most obvious to be replaced at the trade deadline.
Whether it was making his final appearance of the first half out of the bullpen that put it all into perspective for him or not, Happ came back from the All-Star break as a man on a mission. That mission: don’t lose my job.
With a $6.7 million team option after this season, the 31-year-old Happ needed to step up and make a change and he’s done just that. In second half starts, Happ has been outstanding, posting a 1.71 ERA, a 0.949 WHIP, and a xFIP of 3.63. Additionally, Happ has reduced his wOBA from .351 to .274, and his batting average on balls in play from .328 to .239.
All of that has left Happ with the tidy record of 8-6 with a 4.09 ERA, a 4.13 xFIP, and a 7.8 K/9 ratio, easily his best marks in a Blue Jays uniform. So where have the improvements come?
Happ has been steadily solid against left-handed hitters during his career (.238/.316/.393), something you’d expect against like-handed hitters. However, he’s seen a sizable difference against right-handers in his career, as they’ve reached him for a .252/.336/.430 slash. That had to be the area of improvement, so that’s where we went.
First, I thought we’d take a look at location. According to Brooks Baseball, Happ has basically become a three-pitch pitcher against right-handed hitters since the All-Star break, relying on his fastball, sinker, and curve ball almost exclusively during that time, accounting for more than 90% of the pitches thrown to righties. However, more important than the mix of pitches has been the location of said pitches.
As you can see by the heat chart above (again courtesy of Brooks Baseball), Happ has been making his bones with his fastball by staying off the plate or on the edges against right-handers. Particularly, he’s been working heavily inside and up in the zone, keeping right-handers from extending on the fastball.
On the other hand, Happ has been working his breaking pitches down and away, as seen in the graph below. That said, with over 70% of his pitches being fastballs and on the inner half of the plate or up in the zone, Happ has a perfect opportunity to counter with the breaking pitches outside, changing the plane of view for the hitter and making his mix more effective.
Now, with the mix creating different views and looks against right-handed hitters, Happ has experience some much needed success against the opposite side. When staying in on hitters, the contact right-handers are making against Happ is generally pretty weak. However, when he leaves the ball out and over the plate, hitters are reaching him for higher marks, as seen below.
However, as seen in the following graph, Happ is doing a much better job of reducing contact after the break. As alluded to in Thursday’s broadcast, Happ’s done a great job of working the top of the strike-zone with his fastball and hitters are having a tough time putting the bat on balls at the letters or higher, with Happ getting whiffs on 26% of fastballs thrown up and in. Additionally, he’s had huge success on the outer half of the plate and down and in on right-handers.
That all said, while none of this may help fans feel any better about the Blue Jays lack of moves at the trade deadline, at least in the sense of adding a pitcher, it should help quell some of the complaints in that department.
Happ has morphed into a very serviceable starter for the Blue Jays over the course of the last 4 starts, putting up game scores of 61, 51, 71, and 75 respectively. Now granted, this has to come with the caveat of being a small sample size. It could also be further qualified by comparing it to the 5-game stretch in May when he jumped into the rotation and put up a 4-1 record with a 3.20 ERA before the wheels completely fell off in June.
Granted, it would be nice to see this recent string of strong starts get coupled with a strong run for the team, as the May stretch did, but it is nice to see a solid return on investment once in a while.
Now, if we could just get some timely hitting to couple with some of these strong pitching performances, the Blue Jays may have something to look forward to for the rest of August.