First Pitch: Is J.A. Happ’s Work With Ray Searage Already Showing Results?

Last week, Pete Ellis talked with J.A. Happ and Ray Searage about the adjustments Happ was making since coming over to the Pirates. I had pointed out that Happ looked a lot like other reclamation projects the Pirates had added in the past, and Pete followed up by seeing just how much Happ had to work on in order to get on track.

The big takeaway from the article was that Happ needed to do a better job getting ahead of hitters. He’s got some impressive stuff for a lefty, with a fastball that averages 92 MPH and can touch 94, and a nice slider that has been his most effective pitch this year. Searage noted that being ahead in the count makes these pitches more effective.

“Being behind in the count, you have to use a little bit of different kind of sequences and stuff that way,” Searage told Pete Ellis last week. “I think when he does get ahead of the count, he’s able to use his pitches more effectively and be able to keep hitters off-balance. So I mean first pitch strikes is very key with him.”

Armed with and a spreadsheet, I watched Happ tonight, tracking his first pitch strikes and his pitch usage tonight. The first pitch strikes weren’t great, at 56%. Happ’s career average is 59%, and the league average this year is 61%. However, after a rough first two innings, which saw 42 pitches total, Happ settled down and threw first pitch strikes in 71.4% of plate appearances.

What was even better tonight was how many at-bats ended in either three pitches or less, or saw Happ get to two strikes in the first three pitches. That number was 78.3% on the evening, and after the first two innings, Happ jumped that number to 92.9% of plate appearances. In fact, 16 of Happ’s final 18 batters on the night were either retired on three pitches or less, or saw him get two strikes in the first three pitches. The two exceptions led to a walk and the home run in the sixth, which came on a 2-2 count on the sixth pitch of the at-bat after Happ battled back from 2-0.

The big issue tonight was the amount of hits that Happ allowed. He gave up five in the first three innings, with two of those coming to lead off the third inning. He settled down after that to retire nine batters in a row, before giving up the homer in the sixth inning. It’s a small sample size for Happ with the Pirates, but his BABIP has been very high in his first two outings. He was at .533 in his first start, and .429 tonight. His career average is .293, and he was at .319 with the Mariners this year.

One encouraging sign there is that he doesn’t allow a lot of hard-hit balls. In fact, he rated well in an update today from ESPN’s Mark Simon on starting pitchers who allow the least amount of hard-hit contact.

Another small sample size has seen Happ get a lot of strikeouts in his first two starts with the Pirates. He has now struck out 13 in 9.2 innings over two starts. That’s probably not going to continue, although he seems to be doing well with his slider. Tonight he threw his fastball 66.7% of the time, while relying on the slider 16.7% of the time. He threw the changeup and curveball seven times each.

In Pete’s update last week, he quoted Happ as saying he needed to use his changeup more, and get away from the slider, which had been over 20% in a lot of his recent outings. Last time out with the Pirates he threw the fastball 70.7% of the time, and the slider 25.3%. That left just 4% for his curve and changeup. The fact that he decreased the slider usage tonight, and increased the curve and changeup to a combined 16.7% shows that he could be moving in that direction to use all of his pitches.

As I noted last week, the slider has been Happ’s best pitch this year, with a .561 OPS against. However, it probably loses its effectiveness if he uses it a quarter of the time. Mixing in other pitches will probably allow the pitch to remain effective going forward.

The Pirates took a risk at the deadline, going a familiar route by adding a reclamation project, while having a very limited amount of time to fix what was wrong with Happ. As Pete noted last week, the Pirates and Searage believe that Happ can be fixed with very small adjustments that don’t take a lot of time to implement. He was skipped a start to work on this, and the first results after that work were very encouraging. If he continues to build on this work, and does turn things around the final two months, then it might be time for a Ray Searage statue outside of PNC Park to HAPPen.

**Prospect Watch: Waddell Strong in Second Start, Brault Has Solid Start Spoiled. Suddenly the Pirates have some interesting left-handed pitching prospects in their system.

**Pirates Trade Edward Salcedo to Royals. Minor move here, and it seems that this will help the playing time situation in Altoona. They’ve got a lot of infielders playing well, and Salcedo wasn’t one of them.

**Josh Harrison Sees Time at Second Base in Latest Rehab Appearance. Ryan Palencer with the latest rehab update on Harrison and Jordy Mercer, after their outings on Thursday night. They both had a schedule day off today.

**Pirates Ranked as Sixth Best Farm System. The farm system continues getting strong rankings.

**Morning Report: The Gap in Talent Between the DSL and GCL. John Dreker takes a look at the tough jump to the US.


  • Another good sign is a swinging strike rate of 11.5% and a resultant contact rate of ~75% in his first two Pirate starts. On the year those numbers are 7.6% and 87.5% (including those last 2 starts)

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    August 15, 2015 12:32 pm

    Although the similarities do not extend to their career results obviously, Happ’s pitching motion kind of reminds me of John Smiley…

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    August 15, 2015 11:59 am

    I have to take my hat off to JA Happ – although he was hit hard at times, he persevered and pitched a very good game last night against a very hot team. After one bad start, followed by a good start, I am not ready to proclaim that he is now a competent member of the rotation just yet, but last night definitely earned him more opportunities. I just hope it wasn’t just a one night fluke.

    Hitting wise, I was disappointed we did not do more with Colon – he seems to have the Pirates number. He had been getting hit a lot lately, so I was counting on the Pirates scoring more than one run against him.

    A good team win – which was needed since the Cards and Cubs just seem to keep rolling along. Tonight’s game is key to the series, since Harvey pitches tomorrow.

  • I wouldn’t get overly excited at this point, even with the trade deadline additions the Mets offense is projected to below average rest of season, and ranks in the bottom half of the NL.

    I agree with the early pieces that with a bit of after the fact reasoning Happ seems to look like some of other pitchers the Pirates have brought in. He dropped his arm slot in 2014 and is much more 3/4s than over top like he was with Philadelphia and Houston. His walks also dropped with change. He throws a two-seamer that has a nice ground ball rate but doesn’t appear to be very good overall.

    The issue is he doesn’t seem to have much swing and miss stuff with any of off speed/breaking offerings, that four-seamer up in the zone looked like his best chance at whiffs.

    If Ray Searge’s adjustments are truly taking I’d expect to see more two-seamers on the inner half. Happ would be interesting to watch if this was April, in August it is a little different.

    • Over 7 K/9 isnt amazing swing and miss stuff, but its decent. He keeps that rate and he’s got enough swing and miss in his game to be effective.

      • But he is getting the majority of swing and misses by four seamers up in the zone, thin margins for error when doing that.

        • Eh, that seems pretty unsubstantiated. Pitching up in the zone is effective when you are working your scheme well. Getting Ks up in the zone isnt always luck. He’s got good enough stuff to keep his K rate above 7 as he has for years.

          • Throwing fastball’s up in the zone, produce swing and misses, it also produces fly balls. Fly balls can become extra base hits. When fastballs up in the zone is about the only way a pitcher can generate whiffs it can become a problem.

            • I agree that him throwing up in the zone can produce more FBs, but he’s not throwing exclusively up. Last night he would get ahead, and go for the out pitch up at times. His 1st pitch strikes were down as much as up.

              • My whole point was that despite average or slightly below K rates and now an above average walk rate, there is a reason Happ was closed to being DFA’d and is a reclamation project.

                He no longer has a quality secondary offering, he can still get strike outs, but relying on the fastball means he gives up more hits and a greater percentage of these hits are for extra bases.

                If the Pirates see something to work with, great, it is just going to take more than one good start to convince me.

  • Getting out of the runners on 2nd and 3rd jam in the 3rd inning had to be HUGE for his confidence. Especially considering it came agaIndy heart of the order.

  • Loved the comment about Ray Searage getting his own statue at PNC! Searage to the peerage!

    Interesting that Jeff Locke (11.9%) ranked 28 on the % hard contact list, not far below Jon Lester (11.7%). Third best Pirate after Liriano and Cole. If only Jeff could avoid giving up as many walks as he does. They lead to the BIG INNING. I think he still doesn’t believe in his stuff enough to risk throwing a pich with a bias towards being just on the plate instead of just off the plate. Look at Colon’s performance tonight for the Mets, 42 years old and still getting guys out by throwing strikes and changing speed and location. But the key was that he was filling up the zone. May Locke take a lesson.

    • Yes, and Morton at 38th was one spot ahead of Greinke. Pretty impressive that we have five guys in the top 52.

  • Very impressed with Caminero lately. Nice that he seems to be trying to be more than a fireballer

  • Had a feeling Happ would do better. Still only a back end guy, but if he can keep Bucs in games into the 6th, that should do. Glad to see Hurdle with the proactive hook. Wish he’d done that with Locke last start. I hear he does, too.

    Nice work by the pen “B” team.

    A lot of bad ABs tonight by Bucs offense though.

    • Very well stated and I almost fully agree except I didn’t think Happ would do better. But glad he did. He could be a huge pickup if he continues doing as well.

      When I was looking over the boxscore last night, I thought the “B’ bullpen guys were in too. But they did very well. Quite a change lately.

    • Well stated, and Clint made sure he got out with almost all positives out of this start – that is something he can build on. Thinking about what if the Pirates need a SP – would they pick somebody from AAA (Liz) or would they go down to get either Chad Kuhl or Steven Brault from AA? If ‘toona was not fighting for the playoffs, I would think both of them would be at AAA already.

      • There’s plenty of other AAA options in the depth chart that they would almost certainly go to before a AA guy. Which, in my opinion, is probably something like: Liz, Boscon/Volstad, Angel Sanchez. Not that they are all legitimate options, but the Pirates would probably even use Brad Lincoln before they would go to AA. I am excited about Brault’s future though.