Here are two pitchers to compare, just using their stat lines.
Pitcher A – 4.64 ERA, 4.05 xFIP, 108.2 IP, 6.79 K/9, 2.65 BB/9, 1.08 HR/9, .319 BABIP, 70.9% LOB, 11.1% HR/FB
Pitcher B – 5.06 ERA, 4.04 xFIP, 115.2 IP, 7.55 K/9, 2.80 BB/9, 1.40 HR/9, .299 BABIP, 70.6% LOB, 14.0% HR/FB
In each case, the pitcher has been struggling, but has advanced metrics that say the pitcher should be doing better. The strikeout and walk rations are good in each case, and the xFIP numbers are almost identical, in the 4.05 range, which would be a solid number four starter. There are signs of bad luck with each pitcher — the .319 BABIP for Player A, and both have a high HR/FB rate, although Player B is more extreme.
Player A is J.A. Happ, who the Pirates acquired at the trade deadline to replace A.J. Burnett in the rotation. Player B is Jeremy Hellickson, who, according to Jon Heyman, the Pirates targeted at the deadline as well.
Now let’s take a look at a few more pitchers.
Pitcher C – 5.15 ERA, 3.86 xFIP, 190.1 IP, 8.18 K/9, 3.92 BB/9, 1.47 HR/9, .294 BABIP, 70.0% LOB, 17.0% HR/FB
Pitcher D – 5.34 ERA, 4.14 xFIP, 156.2 IP, 9.59 K/9, 5.00 BB/9, 1.09 HR/9, .300 BABIP, 66.5% LOB, 12.9% HR/FB
Pitcher E – 5.71 ERA, 4.07 xFIP, 170.1 IP, 7.50 K/9, 4.07 BB/9, 1.00 HR/9, .325 BABIP, 64.5% LOB, 11.9% HR/FB
There are some differences here — all of these pitchers had poor control numbers for one — but the overall result is the same. They’re pitchers who have horrible ERAs, but advanced metrics that say they should be better. You may be ahead of me here, knowing who these players are, so I’ll give them to you in order: A.J. Burnett in 2011, Francisco Liriano in 2012, and Edinson Volquez in 2013. Or, in other words, the numbers each starter put up the year before they became reclamation projects for the Pirates.
Looking at the numbers, it’s clear that the Pirates took a similar approach at the deadline as they did in previous years in trades and free agency: find a guy putting up some of the worst numbers in baseball with advanced metrics that say they should be performing better. Then have Ray Searage work with those pitchers to fix their mechanics, change their approach to pounding the strike zone and focusing on more ground balls, and play into the PNC Park factors and the Pirates’ defense.
The only problem with this approach mid-season is that you need immediate results. In some of the previous cases, the results came instantly. In others, especially with Volquez, the results took some time, needing about a month or more for the results to show up. The Pirates don’t have that kind of time right now with Happ.
Fortunately, the low walk totals suggest that this transition should be a lot easier. Happ doesn’t have a big control problem to fix, which means there probably wouldn’t be a big overhaul needed for his mechanics. But that doesn’t mean it will be simple, as we saw with his first start this week, where he was bounced in the fifth inning, giving up four earned runs on eight hits, with two walks and six strikeouts.
It’s hard to take much away from one start, but Happ definitely had a change in his approach from his time with Seattle. He was throwing his four-seam fastball 62.6% of the time, up from 51.5% with Seattle. The two-seamer saw a slight drop, going from 11.4% to 9.1%. The biggest difference was that he saw a massive increase in his slider (12.3% to 25.3%), while almost completely eliminating his curve and changeup (1% and 2% respectively).
Again, it’s tough to make too much out of one start. This approach could have just been team specific. But it would make a lot of sense for the Pirates to have Happ focus more on the slider and less on the curve and changeup. His slider has been his best pitch this year, with a .561 OPS against. No other pitch is below .722. His fastballs haven’t been as effective, with a .797 OPS on the four-seam, and an .838 OPS on the two-seam (which saw a slight drop in usage with the Pirates).
Unfortunately, if the fastball remains easy to hit, then there’s not much that Happ can do to benefit from the slider being more effective. It’s not like he can just stop throwing the fastball. But if the Pirates can just focus on fixing that one pitch, then Happ would have an effective two pitch combo to work with. And that’s where we get to another recent trend with another Pirates starter.
Gerrit Cole is currently throwing his fastball just as often as he has in the previous two years, relying on the pitch 67.1% of the time (there could be a difference in the usage of two-seam and four-seam, but Pitch F/X has been horrible classifying Cole’s pitches, and that’s not unlike all of the minor league pitchers who watch him pitch at Pirate City, then go up to him at the end of an inning and ask for clarification on what pitch he just threw). A big change this year is that he’s leaning heavily on the slider, seeing a jump from 12.1% to 22.8%. That has taken away from his curve and changeup.
Now Happ is not Gerrit Cole in any way. Happ might have a good slider that isn’t getting hit much, but Cole’s is barely getting hit at all, with a .449 OPS against. And Cole also has great numbers from his fastball. That’s why he’s an ace. But the approach is interesting, because after just one game it seems the Pirates are putting Happ on the Cole route, where he’d pitch off the fastball, combined with heavy slider usage. Again, this approach requires him to start getting better results with the fastball, and the Pirates need those results quickly.
I don’t know if the results will come quickly for Happ, and if they don’t, then this experiment won’t end up working for the Pirates. But just looking at the comparisons to previous reclamation projects, and comparing the pitch usage after one outing, it appears the Pirates are using some familiar approaches in order to try and make Happ a successful reclamation project on the fly.
UPDATE: Happ is getting skipped in the rotation. More details in that article. It will be interesting to see whether he gets some work in with Ray Searage during his time away from the rotation.