Last week, Pete Ellis talked with J.A. Happ and Ray Searage about the adjustments Happ was making since coming over to the Pirates. I had pointed out that Happ looked a lot like other reclamation projects the Pirates had added in the past, and Pete followed up by seeing just how much Happ had to work on in order to get on track.
The big takeaway from the article was that Happ needed to do a better job getting ahead of hitters. He’s got some impressive stuff for a lefty, with a fastball that averages 92 MPH and can touch 94, and a nice slider that has been his most effective pitch this year. Searage noted that being ahead in the count makes these pitches more effective.
“Being behind in the count, you have to use a little bit of different kind of sequences and stuff that way,” Searage told Pete Ellis last week. “I think when he does get ahead of the count, he’s able to use his pitches more effectively and be able to keep hitters off-balance. So I mean first pitch strikes is very key with him.”
Armed with MLB.tv and a spreadsheet, I watched Happ tonight, tracking his first pitch strikes and his pitch usage tonight. The first pitch strikes weren’t great, at 56%. Happ’s career average is 59%, and the league average this year is 61%. However, after a rough first two innings, which saw 42 pitches total, Happ settled down and threw first pitch strikes in 71.4% of plate appearances.
What was even better tonight was how many at-bats ended in either three pitches or less, or saw Happ get to two strikes in the first three pitches. That number was 78.3% on the evening, and after the first two innings, Happ jumped that number to 92.9% of plate appearances. In fact, 16 of Happ’s final 18 batters on the night were either retired on three pitches or less, or saw him get two strikes in the first three pitches. The two exceptions led to a walk and the home run in the sixth, which came on a 2-2 count on the sixth pitch of the at-bat after Happ battled back from 2-0.
The big issue tonight was the amount of hits that Happ allowed. He gave up five in the first three innings, with two of those coming to lead off the third inning. He settled down after that to retire nine batters in a row, before giving up the homer in the sixth inning. It’s a small sample size for Happ with the Pirates, but his BABIP has been very high in his first two outings. He was at .533 in his first start, and .429 tonight. His career average is .293, and he was at .319 with the Mariners this year.
One encouraging sign there is that he doesn’t allow a lot of hard-hit balls. In fact, he rated well in an update today from ESPN’s Mark Simon on starting pitchers who allow the least amount of hard-hit contact.
Which starting pitchers are allowing the least amount of hard-hit contact? Here's the current leaderboard. pic.twitter.com/EIxGHRjfw3
— Mark Simon (@MarkASimonSays) August 14, 2015
Another small sample size has seen Happ get a lot of strikeouts in his first two starts with the Pirates. He has now struck out 13 in 9.2 innings over two starts. That’s probably not going to continue, although he seems to be doing well with his slider. Tonight he threw his fastball 66.7% of the time, while relying on the slider 16.7% of the time. He threw the changeup and curveball seven times each.
In Pete’s update last week, he quoted Happ as saying he needed to use his changeup more, and get away from the slider, which had been over 20% in a lot of his recent outings. Last time out with the Pirates he threw the fastball 70.7% of the time, and the slider 25.3%. That left just 4% for his curve and changeup. The fact that he decreased the slider usage tonight, and increased the curve and changeup to a combined 16.7% shows that he could be moving in that direction to use all of his pitches.
As I noted last week, the slider has been Happ’s best pitch this year, with a .561 OPS against. However, it probably loses its effectiveness if he uses it a quarter of the time. Mixing in other pitches will probably allow the pitch to remain effective going forward.
The Pirates took a risk at the deadline, going a familiar route by adding a reclamation project, while having a very limited amount of time to fix what was wrong with Happ. As Pete noted last week, the Pirates and Searage believe that Happ can be fixed with very small adjustments that don’t take a lot of time to implement. He was skipped a start to work on this, and the first results after that work were very encouraging. If he continues to build on this work, and does turn things around the final two months, then it might be time for a Ray Searage statue outside of PNC Park to HAPPen.
**Prospect Watch: Waddell Strong in Second Start, Brault Has Solid Start Spoiled. Suddenly the Pirates have some interesting left-handed pitching prospects in their system.
**Pirates Trade Edward Salcedo to Royals. Minor move here, and it seems that this will help the playing time situation in Altoona. They’ve got a lot of infielders playing well, and Salcedo wasn’t one of them.
**Josh Harrison Sees Time at Second Base in Latest Rehab Appearance. Ryan Palencer with the latest rehab update on Harrison and Jordy Mercer, after their outings on Thursday night. They both had a schedule day off today.
**Pirates Ranked as Sixth Best Farm System. The farm system continues getting strong rankings.
**Morning Report: The Gap in Talent Between the DSL and GCL. John Dreker takes a look at the tough jump to the US.