J.A. Happ is Giving the Pirates Exactly What They Need This Month

MIAMI — J.A. Happ has given the Pirates exactly what they needed in the month of August. After A.J. Burnett went down with an injury, and at a time when their most reliable starters have struggled, Happ has stepped up with some great outings.

The Pirates added Happ at the deadline a day after finding out A.J. Burnett was injured. His first outing was rough, and it was followed by a week of work with pitching coach Ray Searage. Since that point, Happ has given up one earned run in 17.1 innings, including his second straight six inning shutout performance in a row tonight to help lead the Pirates to a 5-2 victory over the Marlins. Meanwhile, Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano have struggled in the month of August, which makes Happ’s emergence very timely.

Pirates Starter

August ERA

August xFIP

Charlie Morton



J.A. Happ



Gerrit Cole



Francisco Liriano



Jeff Locke



At the time of the trade, I wrote that Happ looked like a typical reclamation project for the Pirates. He had a 4.64 ERA with Seattle, and a 4.10 xFIP. The results since the trade, even when you include his disastrous first outing, have been better than anyone would have expected. In fact, in a small sample size during the month of August, Happ has been one of the best performers out of all the starting pitchers who were traded at the deadline.


After Happ’s first outing, he got some time to work with Ray Searage, focusing on a few things with his delivery, but most importantly, getting ahead of hitters. Happ did a fantastic job of that tonight. He was 16-for-22 in first pitch strikes, continuing to show improvements since the trade. He has seen improvements in each of his last three starts in first pitch strikes, going from 56.5% to 61.9% to 72.7% tonight.

“The first half of the year I was doing the same thing,” Happ said of the recent success. “I went through a stretch like everybody goes through where I had a few bad ones. I’m getting back to trying to use the strike zone, be aggressive. I have to pitch that way. I have to be aggressive and get strike one, otherwise I’m not as effective.”

It’s not just getting ahead of hitters that worked for Happ tonight. He was very effective with the fastball, using both sides of the plate and changing speeds to keep an aggressive Marlins team off-balanced. Clint Hurdle praised Happ’s angle, his ability to repeat his delivery, and his usage of the two-seam fastball to right-handers.

“He threw all four pitches extremely well tonight,” Hurdle said. “Just peppered that sinker into right-handers.”

The Marlins rank 7th in both wOBA (.325) and wRC+ (104) against left-handers, so for Happ to shut them down the way he did was pretty special. He showed some deception with his arm angle, throwing from a high release point and working the bottom of the zone.

“He was able to reclaim that after his first start,” Hurdle said. “In his first start, if you look at the video tape, it’s not the same angle. All of the pitches are much more crisp. They’re all coming out of the same release point.”



As the images above show, Happ was much better with his release point tonight, and when you’ve got four pitches coming from the same arm slot, it can make things very difficult for opposing hitters.

Hurdle ended up pulling Happ after six innings with a 2-0 lead, despite Happ needing just 12 pitches to get through the final frame. Happ, who was at 94 pitches at the time, said he felt good and felt strong at the end of the frame.

“Felt like I could keep going, but when you have a bullpen like ours, I understand why we used them too,” Happ said.

Hurdle noted that the Pirates are looking for more confidence out of Happ, and that they’re starting to see that from him lately. With that approach in mind, it makes sense that Hurdle would opt to pull Happ potentially too early, rather than too late.

“J.A.’s working himself into a position of confidence,” Hurdle said. “It’s what we want to see. It’s what we believe we can help him find his way back to. We’ll see how it continues to play out. Right now he’s in a really good place on the mound.”

The Pirates capitalized on their outfield production early in the game, with Gregory Polanco hitting a single in the third, then moving to third base on a single from Starling Marte. Both runners scored on a double from Andrew McCutchen, giving the Pirates a 2-0 lead. They added one run in each of the final three innings, thanks to some poor control from the Miami bullpen. Their own bullpen shut things down, despite some struggles from Jared Hughes and Antonio Bastardo. The always reliable combo of Tony Watson and Mark Melancon both pitched scoreless innings to help wrap things up.

**The Marlins had six instances where they either hit a Pirates batter, or threw up and in. After Erik Cordier hit Sean Rodriguez with his second pitch, he was ejected by home plate umpire Jeff Kellogg. After the game, Clint Hurdle was asked if the inside pitching concerned the Pirates.

“It concerned the umpires enough to throw a guy out,” Hurdle said. “There’s a point in time when it just doesn’t look right. They handled it accordingly, and we’ll move on.”

Cordier’s hit by pitch came an inning after Brian Ellington hit Starling Marte with a pitch. Francisco Cervelli was buzzed twice in the game, Andrew McCutchen was almost hit by Ellington, and Scott McGough threw his first pitch up and inside to Jordy Mercer after Cordier was ejected. All of this seemed like poor control from a Miami bullpen that has been 7th worst in the second half with a 9.3% walk rate.

**J.A. Happ on what it has been like to play for the Pirates so far: “Day in and day out, looks like they’re having a lot of fun, and just playing good baseball. All around, doing a lot of little things right.”

**A.J. Burnett will throw a bullpen session tomorrow, which could go a long way to determining his health and eventual return.

**Andrew McCutchen played in his 1,000th career game tonight. He ranks first in the NL in hits (1,115) and doubles (230) since his MLB debut.

**Tonight was Gregory Polanco’s second game with four or more hits. The last one also came at Marlins Park, when he had five hits on June 13th, 2014. I’ll have more on Polanco tonight.

**Charlie Morton will take the mound tomorrow against Miami, going up against Brad Hand. I’ll have live coverage from Marlins Park.

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    August 25, 2015 10:20 am

    I have to admit, i was wrong about Happ and Blanton – they both have far exceeded my very lowly expectations of them. Kudos to the Pirates management for seeing something in these two, that so many did not obviously see.

  • Who knows what’ll happen the rest of the year for Happ but I’m optimistic. Burnett, Melancon and Liriano should’ve been enough but quite frankly when they fixed Volquez I learned to never question another pitching acquisition until it plays out. You’ll have the occasional Frieri in there but all head scratching moves like Happ deserve real patience with Ray, Jim and company.

  • After the deadline I seem to remember an article from Tim talking about trusting the front office…I’m too lazy to find a link or anything, but yeah….

  • Ray Searage is very good at what he does but can someone explain to me why Locke hasn’t awoken from his deep sleep? Is he beyond help? Where is his improvement?

    • Everyone’s ceiling is different. It’s possible that Locke has reached his. Some reach it at AAAA. Others go a little beyond that, like Locke. Very few make it to the Hall of Fame.

      • This is the money point behind all these reclamation efforts.

        Searage/Benedict haven’t once taken a middling AAAA pitcher and created something special. Each and every time, they were given an arm with higher upside than their recent performance suggested and were able to get the most out of it.

        At this point, Jeff Locke is what he is. There’s nothing left to wring out of him, and that’s no fault of either Searage/Benedict or Jeff Locke, for that matter.

        • Well said! I wish Locke’s ceiling was higher, but in all reality his long term future might be long relief if some of the rising talent can replace him as early as next year.

  • Can’t let this go w/o a mention… one of the preferred target deadline acquisitions – Shark – is having the second worst August of any SP in MLB.

    Fwiw, as bad as Locke’s August has been, Scherzer and King Felix have done worse. Not that I want to defend Locke, because I don’t.

  • I’ll submit…I panned it.

    I’m an idiot.

    • I did too. I’m glad it’s working out.

      But I think skepticism is okay. They are not going to be able to fix every guy. And I hope they don’t become guilty of going to the well too many times.

      The worst thing that could happen here is expecting them to flip pitchers all the time. I mean, they did almost sign McCarthy till the Dodgers stepped in and overpaid.

      • I would submit they know what to look for and have a pretty good idea about whether or not a guy is “fixable” before they acquire him. At least it seems that way to me.

        • Even then, the “fix” may have a ceiling or a shelf life.

          My point is, someday I’d like to see them pick up a guy who’s pitching well in his prime. Reclamations aren’t always going to work or last.

          • I definitely agree with the sentiment, but on the flip side, acquiring a guy doing well in his prime is also not always going to work out or last. ..I would be bold enough to say that indeed the majority of high profile deals don’t work out well for the buying team…

          • Guys that are pitching well in their prime who reach FA are always overpriced. Market value for pitchers is stupid high. Extending your guys makes more sense, like liriano

          • You mean like when they resigned Francisco Liriano? Yeah, I liked that move, too.

            • I’m not getting into a battle about $ and NUTTING!!!

              I just think you can only get so much out of Kevin Corrieas, Mcdonalds,Worleys, Happs ect.

              Do they deserve credit for turnarounds? Absolutely. But lets not forget there will behas beenfailures too.

              • I understand your sentiment…but the Bucs did good work with Volquez, Liriano, and Worley…as well as Burnett…I’m actually more worried about our in house options like Jeff Locke.

              • Who is forgetting that? It looks like you’re having an argument with yourself.

                • 😉 Typical yinzer, I know.

                  • Nah, only if said among friends and not in the demeaning way. I’m a proud yinzer, but you better not call me a Yinzer.

                  • Anyways, sorry if I was snippy, but this is a conversation that’s been had on this site year in and year out for the long timers. I like your comments and you’re far from the first to feel this way, so please don’t let me stop you from continuing on with anyone else who’d like to discuss.

              • Right, admit there have been failures…but admit that its been like a 4:1 ratio of success to fail.

                Its nice when the fails spend minimal time here and were only around because shit broke bad and forced the hand.

          • Scott Kliesen
            August 25, 2015 4:14 pm

            Much more likely those type Pitchers will be developed internally than acquired via trade or FA.

    • Where’s my boy Foo!! 😉

  • Release point plots make me positively giddy. 🙂

  • Do Pirates have Happ for next year as well?

    • No, he’s a free agent at the end of the year.

      • I know the perfect reclamation project for Searage this offseason… Doug Fister.

        • Lost velo on all his pitches, they’d have to be certain thats not a trend. His lack of velo makes it tough for him to be effective even with a tweak.

          Seems like a typical reclamation guy has some stuff but trouble mechanically. Fister doesnt have the stuff as much anymore.

  • That ERA and xFIP graphic should be sitting on NH’s wall so he can laugh hysterically at random points this coming offseason while remembering this season. Cole Hamels? That Cueto guy? Nah fuck it, we got Happ.

    Its to the point you do have to defer to them when getting these low buy “huh” options and never assume the worst. Because holy crap is the success rate stupid high. Even in a SSS, Happ’s last two starts were basically best case scenario when we acquired him.

    • Also, a note that the chart was wrong when I first uploaded it. I gave Sean the wrong stats. The updated one actually has better results for Happ.