PITTSBURGH — I don’t think anyone expected J.A. Happ to be as good as he’s been for the Pittsburgh Pirates. The lefty came to the Pirates with a 4.64 ERA and a 4.16 xFIP with Seattle. His addition was last-minute, with a sudden need for a starter after A.J. Burnett went down with an injury. His first start was rough, leading many to not want to see him make another start with the Pirates.
Happ turned things around, putting up a 1.53 ERA and a 2.84 xFIP in his next nine outings, heading into today’s game with the Reds. In the process, he turned many into a believer in his abilities and that the recent success was real. For Clint Hurdle, the “is Happ for real?” question was answered early.
“Probably [his] third consecutive start, established start, consistent start, with all the same staples and indicators in play,” Hurdle said on when he started believing in Happ. “The first time was a nice step back from where he was, the second start, OK, good. The third time, I’m in. His fourth outing here.”
As for whether this type of early acceptance is normal, Happ said that it depends on the person, noting that some might still not trust the lefty.
“There might be people here that still haven’t bought in, I don’t know,” Hurdle said. “Everybody’s wired different on what they see. There’s also a recency bias that can be contended with for everybody, that they remember the last start the best, and that can negate what they saw [in] maybe the first three starts, and vice versa. You believe in what you believe in. You watch swings, you watch him following the glove. You watch the quality of the pitches. That tells you. Things that spoke of a great value so far for us: an overall consistency in all these starts has been way past interesting. It’s been fun to watch.”
How much the Pirates believe in Happ might be shown this off-season. They’ve had a history of going after reclamation projects, and Happ was the biggest example of that this year. But they also showed with Francisco Liriano last year that they’re willing to bring a guy back at market rate if they believe he can continue his success. Neal Huntington didn’t specifically say if they’d try to bring back Happ, but did say there’s interest.
“We’ve got a number of free agents. I think by far the largest group of free agents that we’ve had since we’ve been here,” Huntington said. “In some way, shape, or form, each one of them could play a role for us as we go forward if they want to return. J.A. has thrown outstanding since coming in here. There’s interest. It’s just a matter of how it all comes together, how it works for him, how it works for us.”
As for the immediate future with Happ, and whether he could pitch in the post-season, Huntington may have let it slip that Happ is in the plans for the NLDS rotation.
“He certainly has thrown the ball about as well as we could have expected and hoped for,” Huntington said. “We’re not done yet, and we’re hoping he’s got a handful of more gems out there for us to help us win the World Series.”
It would make sense to put Happ in the rotation, especially since he’s been the best starter on the team since the deadline. The alternatives would be Jeff Locke and Charlie Morton, and there’s no question Happ would be the better choice. He also has previous post-season experience to draw from, which is an advantage.
If today is Happ’s last start of the season — and it could be if they lose the Wild Card game — then he would have provided the best story of the year, in my personal opinion. It’s tough to make a call on a multi-year contract based on less than a dozen starts, but everything Happ has shown so far says that he’d be worth the consideration.
**Neal Huntington said before the game that Jung-ho Kang is doing great in his rehab.
“He wants to be out here with his teammates,” Huntington said. “He’s recovering as well as you can recover. It’s still early. He came out and visited his teammates, and they kept him engaged. He’s doing tremendously well. He’s frustrated. He’s anxious. He can’t wait to get back doing things again.”
The Pirates are still working through whether Kang will join the team on Wednesday for the Wild Card game, although that could be a challenge, depending on his health.
“He’s wanted to be here, it’s just a matter of does it make sense for him health-wise and medically,” Huntington said.
There is also the issue of Kang going home to Korea over the off-season, versus staying in Pittsburgh for his rehab. Huntington said that they’ll find time for him to go home, but that this would be another challenge, as each step of the rehab process provides different areas to work on.
**Huntington didn’t tip his hand on the off-season work, but did say that the team has a good core in place, which will lead to some challenging decisions.
“We still love the core,” Huntington said. “We’re going to have some challenging decisions to make this off-season, as we had last off-season, as I hope every off-season that we’re here. We do like our core, and we believe that we can continue to progress.”
**Today all of the games started at 3:05 PM EST, which means that no team had an advantage of knowing ahead of time whether their game would matter for the playoffs. In the Pirates’ case, they need a win or a Cubs loss to clinch home field in the Wild Card game. The Cubs went up early, taking a 3-0 lead, while the Pirates went up 1-0 in the first inning, with Happ dealing a strong frame.
“I think playing every game at the same time puts us all on even footing,” Huntington said. “The Cubs can go about it differently if they played now or later than we did.”
**Clint Hurdle on Bobby LaFromboise, and what he’s done differently this year:
“I think getting an opportunity, getting out of an organization where opportunity left, getting a new opportunity. Getting involved last year helped his confidence. Pitched a few games at this level, had some challenges in the offseason, and the spring wasn’t what he wanted, but he kept a good mindset about it, about working and getting better. And he had a very solid Triple-A campaign. Command got a little bit better. Tightness and the spin of the slider got a little bit better. Started to throw his changeup more to right-handers, that got a little bit better. So the combination of experience, maybe want, desire, and knowing that he scratched the surface and got a foot in the door, wanted to get more, I’ve seen it happen with players before.”