So far J.A. Happ‘s return to the Toronto Blue Jays has not only been successful, it’s also a feel-good story.
The tale goes like this: A solid back-end starter finds himself under the tutelage of Pittsburgh Pirates pitching coach, and noted guru, Ray Searage and rises to prominence. Then he gets himself a handsome free-agent deal with his former team and brings his game-changing adjustments home.
It’s an appealing narrative, and Happ’s early results seem to back it up. The southpaw is currently sitting on 3-0 record and 2.42 ERA. A little beneath the surface though, lurks evidence that it’s not quite that simple.
For one, Happ isn’t so sure a pitching sage was required to get him on track.
“I’d certainly would like to think I’d have figured things out [myself],” he says slyly. “But I had a great experience in Pittsburgh and I’ve got nothing but great things to say about Ray Searage.”
While he’s posting similar results to his Pittsburgh days, the peripherals are very different. Happ’s strikeouts are down, but he’s pitching more efficiently.
The 2016 sample is small, but considering how quickly strikeout rate tends to stabilize, it’s fair to assume Happ is going for more of a pitch-to-contact approach this year.
The decline in whiffs is not something the 33-year-old is losing sleep over.
“I’m just trying to be aggressive in general,” he says. “I like to get strikeouts in big situations, but it’s just not that important unless the situation calls for it.”
This mindset is consistent within a Blue Jays rotation that currently ranks ninth in the American League in punch outs, but third in innings pitched and fourth in ground ball percentage.
“We’re just trying to stay away from the walks, have hitters put the ball in play to this defence and get these guys back in the dugout so they can do their thing on the offensive end,” Happ says.
Another notable difference in Happ’s approach is a shakeup of his pitch mix. With the Pirates he leaned heavily on his four-seam fastball and ultimately recorded 101 of his 151 strikeouts on the pitch. This year, gone away from it a bit and gotten back to using his two-seamer.
“In the spring I was feeling pretty good with the two-seamer,” Happ says. “I’m just taking that into the season. But that can change. It’s a feel thing, last year I was having more success with the four-seamer.”
While it’s perfectly normal for a veteran pitcher to engage in some tinkering, it serves as evidence that Happ didn’t flip some switch with the Pirates that permanently took his game to another level. If he had everything figured out there would be no need to experiment.
Just four starts in, it’s impossible to make any bold proclamations about what Happ’s adjustments will do for him this season. He looks more aggressive and efficient than he was during his last stay in Toronto, but if he can’t improve his strikeout rate too many balls in play could lead to death by a thousand cuts.
Happ isn’t the guy he was in Pittsburgh, or in Seattle, or Toronto before that. As a strong believer in “going with what’s working that day”, he may always be a hard pitcher to pin down.
At the moment, opposing hitters are certainly having trouble with it.