The J.A. Happ from Last Season’s Second Half Has Returned

Although I’m a hardened cynic at heart thanks to my upbringing in the world of Philadelphia sports, even I can freely admit it’s always more fun to talk about a player who is doing well than one who is struggling. It’s even more fun to talk about a player who’s doing well and made a noticeable change prior to a stretch of success. Today, the player that fits that bill is Blue Jays left-hander J.A. Happ.

When Happ signed his three-year, $36 million deal with the Blue Jays this past winter, it raised a few eyebrows. You’d think we’d understand now that any player who can provide even moderate utility on a major-league roster is able to pull in spectacular amounts of money on the free-agent market. That said, the prospect of a 33-year-old pitcher who has rarely been more than a #4 during his career signing a multi-year deal of this magnitude still might require some getting used to. Any reflexive shock at all those zeros next to Happ’s name wore off pretty quickly, though. He was coming off a phenomenal second half with Pittsburgh and was exactly the sort of rotation stabilizer the Blue Jays needed.

Through the first three months of the season, Happ prevented runs at a reasonably efficient rate (3.70 ERA, 86 ERA-) but his peripherals depicted him as a more middling pitcher. His 16.9 strikeout and 7.6 walk rate — combined with a .270 BABIP — resulted in a slightly below league average 4.47 FIP (104 FIP-). It was difficult to find much optimism that Happ would be able to build upon his superficial success. But then something changed when the calendar flipped to July. Before we get to what’s different, let’s take a look at his numbers over his four starts this month:

J.A. Happ July 2016
Starts IP ERA K% BB% WHIP BABIP FIP
4 24.1 1.48 32.6% 6.3% 0.95 .286 1.99

That’ll do. It’s worth noting that these four starts weren’t against woefully inept offenses. His opponents were Cleveland, Detroit, Oakland, and Seattle. Oakland is clearly the weakest of those four and, for whatever it’s worth, he didn’t pad his numbers when he faced them. In fact, his outing against Oakland was his worst over this stretch by far.

But regardless of who the opponents were, those are obviously fantastic results for a starting pitcher. In his career, Happ has recorded a decent but uninspiring 19.8 K%. Now this month he’s striking out nearly one-in-three batters he’s faced?! Four starts could easily be a fluke, but four starts this strong at least merit a look to see whether there’s anything real to this mid-season surge. Plus, as I’ve alluded to twice now, something has undeniably changed for Happ.

He’s a fastball pitcher. He’s always been a fastball pitcher in large part because the biggest thing that’s prevented him from finding more success than he has over his big-league career has been the fact that his secondaries aren’t all that good. The fastball, though? He’s got that and he’s famously one of the few pitchers who has actually added velocity as he’s aged. He’s now throwing 2-3 mph faster than he did when he first came up to the majors in his mid-20s. The fastball is his meal ticket and he’s changed something about how he’s been using it over the past month:

Happ 2016 pitch usage

He has dramatically lessened his sinker usage in favor of his four-seamer. If this sounds familiar, congratulations, you have a great memory for J.A. Happ analysis. When he went to Pittsburgh at the trade deadline a year ago, Jeff Sullivan had this to say about the adjustments Happ made under the tutelage of Ray Searage:

The version of Happ the Mariners traded for had just thrown 72% fastballs for the Blue Jays. And that made sense, because Happ’s fastball just kept getting faster and faster. But the Mariners version cut back. According to our information, Happ threw 64% fastballs. According to Brooks Baseball, he threw… 64% fastballs. Since joining the Pirates, he’s back up at 73%. They’re almost all four-seamers, instead of the two-seamer Happ used to play with.

So as not to attribute credit where it doesn’t belong, it should be noted that Happ began to move away from the two-seamer in June 2015, before he arrived in Pittsburgh. Still, during his time with Pittsburgh, the four-seamer was his go-to fastball in a way that simply wasn’t true at the start of this season in Toronto. Despite the fact that he was finding some degree of success with his increased sinker usage, he has now returned to the pitch mix which was so successful for him in Pittsburgh a year ago, and the results have been nothing short of stellar.

Of the 85 starting pitchers to throw 500 or more four-seamers this season, only two (Rich Hill and Vince Velasquez) have a higher whiff-per-swing rate on the pitch than Happ per Baseball Prospectus. It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that leaning on the pitch heavily this past month has resulted in a spike in his ability to miss bats and, as already discussed, a corresponding spike in his strikeout rate.

Happ Rolling Average Contact% and K%

It’s encouraging that the trends he’s currently experiencing in contact and strikeout rates mirror ones from the second half of last season. Happ has returned to what worked a year ago and the results have been hard to deny. Combine his 11 starts in Pittsburgh at the end of last season with his four starts this month and the numbers are mind-boggling: 87.2 IP, 1.75 ERA, 29.1 K%. Is J.A. Happ truly an ace? I’m inclined to go out on a limb and say no — I am still a cynic by nature, after all — but he is doing a phenomenal impression of one right now.

Now that Happ is back to using the same pitch mix of a year ago, it will interesting to see how well the results do or don’t continue to match up with the numbers he posted with Pittsburgh. If he sustains this run, he could provide an unexpected and necessary boost to a Toronto team which is struggling to break out in the crowded standings atop the AL East.





Corinne Landrey writes for FanGraphs and MLB.com's Cut4 site. Follow her on Twitter @crashlandrey.

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Damaso
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Damaso

Yeah, he seemed pretty lucky for most of the year but lately he’s looked legit excellent.

I hated this signing but the crow tastes deelish.

CM52
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CM52

You’re a waste of skin.

Cheeseball
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Member
Cheeseball

Damaso’s comment was good humoured, and replying with a personal insult was totally uncalled for. Grow up, CM52.

Damaso
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Damaso

that escalated quickly.