DUNEDIN, Fla. – The conversation started out as a pep talk. Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons and pitching coach Pete Walker sensed J.A. Happ needed some type of pick-me-up after a 4-3 loss to the Los Angeles Angels last Sept. 12, during which the left-hander allowed four runs in 4.1 innings.
That outing was Happ’s eighth since his return from a knee injury suffered while collapsing after a line drive struck him on the head. His ERA was 5.36, his WHIP 1.51 and his record 2-4 over those starts. None of it made sense to him, because he thought he was throwing well. He was looking for answers.
“What do you think?” Happ remembers asking Walker. “What do you got?”
What Walker and Gibbons had in that conversation was a suggestion that Happ shift his arm slot down 4-5 inches from his usual over the top path. The early returns left the Blue Jays bullish on what the 31-year-old can deliver in the upcoming season, and they desperately need to be right on this one, given all the questions about their rotation.
"He’s got a world of ability, he’s got tremendous work ethic, and a great frame of mind to be a top-notch calibre major-league pitcher for a long time – it just seems to have evaded him a little bit," Walker said Tuesday, after Happ threw a bullpen session the pitching coach raved about. "He’d been trying to climb on top of his pitches, especially his breaking ball, over the past few years and it’s just so hard for him to repeat in that slot, it seemed like he was fighting himself.
"He fell in love with (the new arm slot) right away. It felt comfortable to him, it felt easier for him to throw his breaking ball, his changeup was better out of that slot and his fastball command was much better. … I’m very hopeful that adjustment makes a huge impact on his career."
Whether or not the shift unlocks what some feel is Happ’s potential to consistently win 13-14 games is far from certain.
The positive numbers from his three starts after the change (five runs over 19.1 innings with 16 strikeouts) are far too small a sample size from which to draw any definitive conclusions, but the way his stuff looked really captured the Blue Jays’ attention.
That’s partly why Happ begins this spring training pencilled into the rotation, unlike last year when the possibility of opening the season at triple-A Buffalo was a real one until he outpitched Ricky Romero to claim a spot on the staff.
Still, that’s a cold comfort for Happ, who understands the risk in any sort of complacency, even with a dearth of proven options around him.
"There’s still a ton of competition," he said, "but I feel good about my health and good about where everything is at right now. I feel confident going into the season."
That in itself is an achievement, given his state of mind that led to his talk with Gibbons and Walker.
"I was just frustrated," Happ said. "I felt like I was right there but (bad) things seemed to keep happening, and I was up for anything to make a change and get over the hump, whatever it was. The results weren’t matching the way I felt I was pitching, and I felt like wanted to switch something up to get the results, get a little more consistency."
While sometimes athletes can be reluctant to make changes, Happ embraced the suggestion. He and Walker watched video of other over the top pitchers and noticed that many of them came at things from a slight angle, as well. They also broke down his mechanics from his previous stops in Philadelphia and Houston, and what became clear was how consistently inconsistent his arm angle really was.
"A lot of inconsistencies in location, command, 100-pitch efforts in five innings were pretty much consistent with those organizations as well," Walker said. "It seemed like his arm wanted to come down a little bit into a more natural slot."
While initially the change seemed drastic to Happ – "it felt like I was throwing sidearm at the beginning," he said – there was an encouragement in sensing that "the ball was coming out a little easier."
Happ spent the off-season trying to lock in the new arm slot, and while not yet completely automatic, "I feel like I’m getting closer and closer."
"The toughest thing is off-speed, keeping that slot there for every pitch, not just your fastball," he continued. "I feel good about it, I feel like when I pick up the ball I’m pretty settled in. It’s definitely freed me up a little bit and I’m not fighting myself as much."
Fighting the opposition, of course, is hard enough without any inner struggle added to the mix. Happ is in a far better place from that standpoint, and with his knee much stronger (Tuesday’s bullpen session was his first without either a brace or supportive tape), he’s poised to take a step forward.
All that’s left now is the hard part – actually making it happen.