J.A. Happ finds his groove in latest spring start with Saltalamacchia

Blue Jays president Mark talks about the expectations for the Toronto Blue Jays and how spring training helps the front office assemble a roster.

DUNEDIN, Fla. — Jarrod Saltalamacchia arrived at the ballpark Monday morning with a mission: don’t talk to J.A. Happ.

Let’s explain. Before Happ’s first outing of the spring, Saltalamacchia sat down with him to discuss his pitches, how he wanted to use them, what he liked to do against different hitters—the usual stuff. The ensuing start went all right. Not bad, but not great either.

Before Happ’s next appearance, Saltalamacchia sat down with him again to talk about what the Blue Jays starter wanted to work on in that outing. There were a few pitches and locations he wanted to get to. That start couldn’t have gone much worse, as Happ struggled mightily with his command and lasted only 1.1 innings before being lifted.

So, come Monday, with Happ scheduled to make his third appearance of spring with Saltalamacchia handling him, the Blue Jays backup catcher stayed as far away from the left-hander as he could.

“What do they say? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it? Well, if it’s broke, you better fix it quick,” Saltalamacchia said. “Hey, it didn’t work the last two times. This outing I figured let’s just go out there and pitch.”

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Well, now Saltalamacchia can’t talk to Happ at all on his start days because the lefty was terrific Monday against the Boston Red Sox, allowing a run on three hits over four innings.

He was dominant through his first three, retiring all nine batters he faced—five on the ground, three in the air, and one via strikeout. He ran into some trouble in his fourth inning, allowing his lone run to score on three singles and a sacrifice fly. But none of the contact was particularly strong and Happ’s stuff looked fantastic, as he pounded the zone with fastballs all over the plate, throwing more than 70 per cent of his 60 pitches for strikes.

“I definitely felt a lot better than last time,” Happ said. “I was just a lot more consistent. We were able to use all my pitches. That’s what getting ahead in the count does. That’s big for me.”

In Happ’s most recent outing, he struggled to establish his fastballs, a four-seamer and two-seamer that he threw nearly 75 per cent of the time in 2016. Without the command of those pitches, Happ wasn’t able to properly work on his secondary offerings—a curveball, change-up and cutter—either. The result was a start he was eager to wash from his memory.

Monday, however, was the polar opposite. Happ attacked the plate with his fastballs and then used his other offerings to put hitters away in deeper counts. Four-seamers on the edges; sinkers in on lefties and away to righties; cutters on the hands—Happ threw it all and looked very much like the guy who holds a 3.38 ERA in 64 outings since the beginning of 2015.

For Saltalamacchia, it all starts with those fastballs. And although he avoided his starter before he took the mound, that doesn’t mean he didn’t go out there with a plan.

“I thought, ‘all right, I’m going to go heater, heater, heater until he establishes it and I know he feels good, and then we can mix in the other stuff,’” Saltalamacchia said. “Establishing that pitch is key for him. Getting to that fastball early and often. And getting ahead. That’s when he’s at his best.”

Saltalamacchia is still learning how best to call Happ’s games, but the progress has been quick. It hasn’t taken him long to realize just how effective Happ’s fastball-heavy approach can be.

“It’s that angle he gets. He’s a big guy so he gets good angle on his fastball,” Saltalamacchia says. “He’s got so much deception. The ball goes down, it goes this way, it goes that way. It’s not easy to hit. He’s not your normal fastball pitcher that just grooves it right in there. He keeps hitters honest. Hitters have to just pick a side and hope that he misses.”

Another key for Happ on Monday was his tempo, which he felt betrayed him in his most recent outing. Happ credits part of his early-30s renaissance to working quicker, an adjustment he made in 2015 with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

“I feel like when you’re searching a little bit you tend to take a little more time out here,” Happ said. “But I wanted to get the ball and throw today. See the sign, feel it, and keep a consistent tempo. I think I’m better when I work a little quicker like that.”

The final focus for Happ Monday was what pitchers call extension—letting the ball come naturally off his finger tips and do all the work, instead of yanking his pitches and overthrowing. It’s a very subtle thing and extremely difficult to pick up with a casual eye. But when it doesn’t feel right for a pitcher on the mound, they know.

Happ felt himself falling into bad habits in his last outing, and worked hard to improve his execution coming into this one. He also felt better physically Monday, which never hurts. His pitches clearly had more life on them, and he said he felt them jumping out of his hand.

While Monday’s outing is a good one to build on, Happ will actually soon be looking to slow things down from here. After throwing a career high 205 innings between the regular season and playoffs in 2016—his previous high was 172—the Blue Jays won’t be pushing Happ too far this spring. He’d ideally like to get up to 75 or 80 pitches in an outing before tapering down and resting his arm for the season.

“I just want to save a few innings,” Happ said. “Normally, I go a little higher. But this time I’m trying to do a slower build.”

Considering how he pitched Monday, Happ probably wouldn’t mind going into the season tomorrow. It was an encouraging afternoon, especially considering how lost he felt during last week’s poor outing.

Of course, if things can go from bad to good, they can also go from good to bad. That isn’t lost on Happ, a calm, quiet presence who’s always trying to keep things in perspective, whether his catcher talks to him or not.

“Today’s outing does a lot. But at the same time, none of this honestly matters until you go out there and perform,” Happ said. “But it feels good. I felt confident out there. I felt a lot more like myself today. It’s the way I should feel when I’m out there attacking hitters. That’s where I want to be.”