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Blue Jays In Focus: Inside J.A. Happ’s 2015 turnaround

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New Blue Jays signing J.A. Happ was a new man after the July 31st trade deadline, and it was all about the fastball

The Blue Jays are buying high on J.A. Happ, coming off a 3.3 WAR season in 2015 that saw him emerge as one of baseball’s best pitchers following a July 31st trade from the Seattle Mariners to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Toronto is betting on the latter half of Happ’s season being more than good fortune, and a closer look at his 2015 August and September indicate that his success was the product of improved mechanics and a more aggressive pitch selection.

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Happ was mediocre at best with the Mariners after arriving in the Michael Saunders deal, putting up a 4.64 ERA over 108.2 innings with a K/9 of 6.8 that was below average for the left-hander. Following the move to Pittsburgh, Happ posted a 7-2 record over 11 starts with a 1.85 ERA and 9.8 K/9, giving the Pirates the most savvy deadline addition in baseball.

Much of the blame for Happ’s success can go to Ray Searage, the Pirates pitching coach who continues to work magic and quickly re-establish the value of veteran pitchers that pass through his clubhouse. You can find some great reading here from Spencer Bingol of Beyond The Box Score on the magic Searage worked with Happ’s fastball, and some excellent optimism on the complex matter here from BJP’s Joshua Howsam. It’s also important to acknowledge ahead of the conversation that Happ was facing a weaker level of hitting competition after moving into the National League and seeing more lefty bats, but by no means does that account for the majority of his turnaround.

The most worrying scenario for Jays fans would be to look at Happ’s data and mechanics from the latter half of 2015 and see no obvious changes. This would indicate luck was at play, and suggest that Happ is due to regress to the level he’s spent much of his career at. While he’s obviously due for some level of regression from the Pittsburgh numbers, the conscious changes made by Happ and Searage provide optimism that 2016’s version of Happ can meet in the middle of new and old.

As you can see, Happ’s fourseam usage began the season curiously low at 39.1% in April and 45.7% in May. By September, that number had climbed to 66.8% under Shearer.

Happ and Shearer were able to quickly stabilize his mechanics and find a much more consistent release point that created a greater spin on his fastballs. This allowed Happ to pound the strike zone with greater consistency, an area that has long plagued him in the Major Leagues.

From opening day up until his trade out of Seattle, Happ threw a total of 908 fourseam fastballs according to Brooks Baseball data. Of those pitches, 31.4% were called balls while 31.8% were called strike and 5.5% went for ground balls. After moving to Pittsburgh, where he threw a total of 640 fourseam fastballs, the percentage of called balls dropped to 25.8% while the called strikes grew to 34.2% and ground ball rate increased to 6.9%. His fourseam also produced a higher rate of foul balls and an increased WHIFF%.

The adjustments made to Happ’s release point, most notably a slight increase and stabilization in the horizontal release point of his pitches, allowed for Happ to become much more consistent with his vertical fastball location. At the same time, this allowed Happ to find the zone with his cutter and changeup with greater frequency.

Happ’s changeup is a pitch to watch as he makes the transition to Toronto, and I’m very optimistic that if he can continue down this path with his fastball, the changeup will follow along with increased usage and effectiveness. Despite the raw speed of his fastball remaining relatively similar between Seattle and Pittsburgh, Happ’s changeup velocity took a beneficial step backwards.

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After opening 2015 by averaging 86.2 MPH with his changeup in April and eventually topping out at 86.8 MPH in July, Happ immediately cut 2+ MPH off the pitch in Pittsburgh. By the end of the season, he was averaging just over 84 MPH. We’re only left with a terribly small sample size to work with, but the early returns are encouraging.

Over 209 changeups thrown with the Mariners, Happ saw nearly 50% of them called for balls, 16.8% called strikes and a low WHIFF% of 6.2%. In Pittsburgh, however, Happ’s 44 changeups were called a ball 43.2% of the time, his strike rate nearly doubled to 29.6% and his WHIFF% took a jump to 18.2%.

I don’t see a noteworthy change in the movement of Happ’s changeup, but that drop in velocity creates a much more effective gap of ~8 MPH between fastball and changeup as opposed to the ~6 MPH he’d been working with previously. His location also improved with the pitch, but there’s room for further growth and usage as long as Happ’s fastball continues to carry the load.

Next: Our 2015-16 Offseason Tracker: Updated in real time!

At 33 years old, it’s difficult to say if these new tricks will stick. This does show, however, that his success should be attributed to something much more than luck and N.L. offenses. There was a conscious effort made by Happ on the mound to adjust his mechanics and pitches, and that effort was met with great success.

So while there’s still a unique level of unknown with the veteran Happ, it’s safe to believe that he will perform at a higher level than his career averages up to this point. The Blue Jays are betting on getting Pittsburgh Happ, but even if he’s able to perform at a midway point between his Pirates and Mariners numbers, the Jays will be receiving value that is just fine. And perhaps that what J.A. Happ is, and all that J.A. Happ needs to be. Just fine.

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