How J.A. Happ Became the Pirates Best Second Half Pitcher

ST. LOUIS — It’s easy to make too much out of what J.A. Happ is doing right now. The left-hander was acquired by the Pirates at the trade deadline, at a time when he seemingly had no value. He made one start, had horrible results, then spent a week away from the rotation working on his mechanics. Since coming back, he has been fantastic, including tonight’s outing where he threw seven shutout innings against the St. Louis Cardinals, leading the Pirates to a 9-3 win.

When asked about the recent success from Happ, Clint Hurdle was quick to point out that he was successful early in the season.

“I think we continue to lose the fact of how he pitched in the first half,” Hurdle said. “We’re not paying any recognition the fact that the numbers the guy put up in that first half in the American League. As I said before, we wouldn’t have gotten him probably if he would have continued that trend.”

Happ did have some good numbers. He had a 2.98 ERA and a 3.64 xFIP in 45.1 innings through the middle of May. He struggled a bit after that, but ended up with a 3.97 xFIP at the All-Star break. He then got hammered in his next four outings, combining for an 8.31 ERA and a 5.37 xFIP in 13 innings before being traded away for Adrian Sampson. That bad stretch carried over to his first start with the Pirates. And that’s when the Pirates decided to skip him in the rotation and give him more time to focus on what was going wrong.

Happ said tonight that he felt good coming out of Spring Training, but that over time it seemed that a few bad habits formed, creating the need for him to revert back to his early season ways.

“Sometimes it’s just kind of a slow build, and you don’t recognize what’s going on,” Happ said of the bad habits. “Sometimes you know what’s going on, and it’s really hard to fix.”

Happ said that he felt the problem in Seattle, and was “struggling to correct it.” When he arrived in Pittsburgh, it was reinforced that he had developed a few bad habits after Ray Searage watched him throw a bullpen. As Pete Ellis wrote last month when Happ was taking time off, the key focus points were the landing, his elbow placement, and overall keeping his body moving toward home plate, rather than fading to the first base side.

Interestingly enough, Happ didn’t want the time off, but went along with the plan. He split the time working in bullpens and preparing for the possibility of being used as a reliever, so that time wasn’t 100% focused on mechanics. Still, it’s hard to argue with the results since that break. After tonight, Happ has put up an 0.60 ERA in 30 innings since getting skipped in the rotation.

HappLast5

Hurdle has constantly praised Happ’s mix of pitches, his command, and the downhill angle on his fastball, along with getting ahead of hitters. And if there was any doubt before tonight, it seems Happ has claimed a rotation spot for when A.J. Burnett returns.

“He’s come in and he’s put a foot down. He’s in that spot right there,” Hurdle said.

Happ said that it helped that the Pirates were a winning team, giving him a boost due to the change in scenery.

“A team that’s been winning games gives you some confidence too,” Happ said. “It’s fun to be on that kind of team. The atmosphere, it’s lighter. It’s more energy. You try to feed off those guys. Offense was really good tonight, staying on them the whole game and adding on at the end. Good teams do that.”

It’s probably unlikely that Happ continues pitching the way he’s been pitching lately. These kinds of numbers are insane, and shouldn’t be expected long-term for any pitcher. But the hope is that his transition to a good pitcher — the good pitcher he was at the start of the year — will be permanent this time around.

**Prior to the game, Clint Hurdle said he moved Starling Marte to the number five spot in the batting order in part due to the success Marte had in that spot. He came into the game with a .798 OPS in his career as a number five hitter. The goal this time around was to try and give Marte a change, allowing him to break out of a slump. It may have worked tonight, as he picked up three hits, including a big two-RBI double that gave the Pirates a 4-0 lead.

“That’s one of the challenges we’ve had here, is adding once we’ve scored,” Hurdle said. “Been a lot of close games that have gone their way, and we were able to continue to add throughout the evening.”

It didn’t stop there. The Pirates added four runs in the top of the ninth inning, giving some much-needed insurance. Some of that damage came from the bench, as Sean Rodriguez and Travis Snider both had big hits in the inning. A few innings earlier, Michael Morse came off the bench with a hit of his own.

“We’ve been on a nice roll off the bench for a while now,” Hurdle said. “Ishikawa gave us a shot in the arm initially. Morse is giving us a shot in the arm. Other guys have added to it. It’s good to see. We’ve got Snider back in play, and he’s got the ability to do that.”

Hurdle also noted before the game that Gregory Polanco has been hitting the ball hard, but hasn’t been getting many hits lately. I posted this graphic before the game to illustrate that this is true.

PolancoHardHit2

Tonight the bad luck continued. Polanco had three outs that were hit 96 MPH or harder. He even had a single — his lone hit in his last 26 at-bats — but even that was fluky. Polanco ripped a hard shot up the middle, which hit the second base umpire. This prevented a run from scoring, which ultimately didn’t cost the Pirates.

“He swung the bat well again,” Hurdle said. “It’s just been a tough stretch for him to get results.”

**Hurdle went to Jared Hughes in the ninth inning, despite an eight run lead. He said he did that to give Hughes some consistency, and gave the opinion that Hughes had his best sinker of the second half tonight.

  • Has anyone looked at starting pitcher performance after selection to the all star game the last four years. Every one has declined

  • What is thus lineuo today? Do we want to atlas appear like we want to win the division.

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    September 5, 2015 10:55 am

    I was very critical of the Pirates when they picked up Happ, but I was obviously wrong – as he has turned his year around 180 degrees. Who would have thought that he would be the Pirates best starter down the stretch – and their stopper? Who would of thought that a team that was embarrassingly swept in Milwaukee for the second time in two months, would turn around and beat up on the Cards in St Louis the following night?

    So, if the one game playoff against Chicago was tomorrow, who would start for the Pirates? It would be hard to say Cole, considering how he has been pitching – ditto for Liriano. Right now, you would have to say Happ.

    I don’t have a lot of faith in Morton, but we need a sweep in St Louis. 2 out of 3 doesn’t really help much. I don’t want to be in that one game playoff again, knowing who we may be facing.

  • Happ has been throwing inside like the Pirates want for several season now, just high in the zone, which is a bit atypical. Four-seamer high and tight, then slider(or cutter) away to RHH, everything away to lefties. Simple approach for some stellar results.

  • Tim, I know the Pirates have a ton of starting pitching talent that is about to make its way to the majors next season (Taillon, Kingham, Glasnow specifically), but is there any chance the Pirates try and bring back Happ next season?

    • I was thinking the same at first….but he’s probably earned himself a multI yr deal…and we’ll probably be looking at a vet for a 1 yr deal.
      But…that could be OK. Pitchers have to see Pittsburgh now as the place who can and will let you regain your value and move on.

    • I think it would depend on the cost. I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets a Volquez deal (2/$20 M). That wouldn’t be horrible, but at the same time, the Pirates have been able to find pitching talent for much less. They paid Liriano $13 M per year, and most of their reclamation projects have been paid in the $5-8 M per year range.

      So I think the question is whether they should even try to bring back Happ, or move on to the next guy? One factor is that they’ll need pitching at the start of the season, as the current rotation will include Liriano, Cole, Morton, and Locke. So they’ll need at least one starter before the minor league guys arrive.

      • I’d prefer keeping Happ over Morton and Locke, both of whom are horribly inconsistent and are beyond frustrating. Trade Morton and Locke in the off season which would free up the money for Happ and then bring up Glasnow for 2016. I’d also keep Morton and Locke off the offseason roster and use Burnett and one more position player.

  • Great game. Happ was dealin. Here’s hoping Ground Chuck does his normal “pitch well against good teams after looking horrible against a bad team” and that Gerrit Cole gets out of his little funk.

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