It’s been a whirlwind of a career for J.A. Happ that seems to have come full circle as he enters his second season in his second stint with the Toronto Blue Jays.
Happ came back to Toronto when he signed with the team in 2015. The wrath of many Jays fans that didn’t pay attention to Happ with the Pittsburgh Pirates and focused only on his first tenure was strong, but nearly everyone was quickly shut-up as Happ started strong and never looked back.
J.A. Happ finished his 2016 campaign with a 20-4 season. Pitching records are an extremely flawed measure to analyze how good a pitcher is, but a 20 win season is very, very good. He had an ERA of 3.18 which was good for 16th out of 73 qualified MLB starters. Narrow it down to the AL, and Happ had the 6th best ERA.
When you look past the 20 wins and the 3.18 ERA, there are many who see a potential steep regression for Happ. That would be because he is able to consistently outperform his peripherals as evidenced by a 3.96 FIP and 4.18 xFIP. He is quite similar to Marco Estrada in this regard.
Now, I don’t think anyone is expecting Happ to go out and win another 20 games or even post an ERA under 3.20 again, but there’s no reason to expect he can’t be as effective as he was in 2016.
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To start, he has the ability to control hitters from each side of the plate. In 2016, the splits for batters against Happ looked as follows:
- vs. Lefties: .242/.304/.347
- vs. Righties: .227/.292/.377
Happ’s ability to be so effective as a southpaw against right-handed hitters is quite remarkable. His ability to mix his pitches so effectively combined with good command of his fastball coming inside to right-handers would be a large part of that. Against right-handers with two strikes, Happ went to his fastball 52% of the time compared to just 43% of the time against left-handers.
Another interesting note on this is the fact he did not throw a single changeup against lefties in 2016 compared to 8% against right-handers. This could be due to the fact that lefties are often much better low ball hitters than right-handers. The trend of very little changeups against lefties went back to 2015 when he had a 3.4 fWAR season between the Seattle Mariners and the Pirates, the team that fixed Happ with the help of pitching coach Ray Searage.
One of the things that the Pirates helped Happ fix is the arm angle at which Happ releases his pitches. The difference in arm angle allowed for the fastball to experience a slight uptick in velocity and a much better spin rate. You can see the difference in Happ’s release point below.
A clear mechanical adjustment to Happ’s delivery made his fastball much more effective. This graph is from 2015 with the Mariners to 2015 with the Pirates. With the Pirates, Happ’s strikeout rate increased dramatically and he walked less opposing hitters.
The Blue Jays banked on that mechanical adjustment that Happ made with Pittsburgh and it’s paid off. However, the biggest adjustment Happ has made to his game is his own mindset. While I love analytics and learning more stats and how to properly use them, there is still the human element in the game of baseball that cannot be ignored.
Before Happ went to Pittsburgh, he often only went 5.0-6.0 innings and left with pitch counts in the high 90’s to 100’s. He simply was not efficient. That was because he over analyzed every pitch. He has gone on record to say he was trying to be too fine and didn’t trust his stuff. Now, it’s completely different. He trusts his stuff and it shows. A base hit doesn’t bother him like it used too. He simply goes out and throws what is put down by his catcher and hits the target.
A lot of trusting his stuff is evidenced by his pitch usage. His best pitch by far is his fastball, which he threw 73.5% of the time in 2016. He mixed in his off-speed stuff effectively by throwing off-speed 26.6% of the time.
While Happ isn’t flashy, he is very reliable. He consistently gives you 6.0-7.0 innings per start. It’s subtle differences like his own mindset, his arm angle, and his pitch usage that will continue to allow Happ to be effective in 2017. Fastball after fastball is what you will see from Happ in 2017 and don’t expect that to stop.