ST. LOUIS — It’s easy to make too much out of what J.A. Happ is doing right now. The left-hander was acquired by the Pirates at the trade deadline, at a time when he seemingly had no value. He made one start, had horrible results, then spent a week away from the rotation working on his mechanics. Since coming back, he has been fantastic, including tonight’s outing where he threw seven shutout innings against the St. Louis Cardinals, leading the Pirates to a 9-3 win.
When asked about the recent success from Happ, Clint Hurdle was quick to point out that he was successful early in the season.
“I think we continue to lose the fact of how he pitched in the first half,” Hurdle said. “We’re not paying any recognition the fact that the numbers the guy put up in that first half in the American League. As I said before, we wouldn’t have gotten him probably if he would have continued that trend.”
Happ did have some good numbers. He had a 2.98 ERA and a 3.64 xFIP in 45.1 innings through the middle of May. He struggled a bit after that, but ended up with a 3.97 xFIP at the All-Star break. He then got hammered in his next four outings, combining for an 8.31 ERA and a 5.37 xFIP in 13 innings before being traded away for Adrian Sampson. That bad stretch carried over to his first start with the Pirates. And that’s when the Pirates decided to skip him in the rotation and give him more time to focus on what was going wrong.
Happ said tonight that he felt good coming out of Spring Training, but that over time it seemed that a few bad habits formed, creating the need for him to revert back to his early season ways.
“Sometimes it’s just kind of a slow build, and you don’t recognize what’s going on,” Happ said of the bad habits. “Sometimes you know what’s going on, and it’s really hard to fix.”
Happ said that he felt the problem in Seattle, and was “struggling to correct it.” When he arrived in Pittsburgh, it was reinforced that he had developed a few bad habits after Ray Searage watched him throw a bullpen. As Pete Ellis wrote last month when Happ was taking time off, the key focus points were the landing, his elbow placement, and overall keeping his body moving toward home plate, rather than fading to the first base side.
Interestingly enough, Happ didn’t want the time off, but went along with the plan. He split the time working in bullpens and preparing for the possibility of being used as a reliever, so that time wasn’t 100% focused on mechanics. Still, it’s hard to argue with the results since that break. After tonight, Happ has put up an 0.60 ERA in 30 innings since getting skipped in the rotation.
Hurdle has constantly praised Happ’s mix of pitches, his command, and the downhill angle on his fastball, along with getting ahead of hitters. And if there was any doubt before tonight, it seems Happ has claimed a rotation spot for when A.J. Burnett returns.
“He’s come in and he’s put a foot down. He’s in that spot right there,” Hurdle said.
Happ said that it helped that the Pirates were a winning team, giving him a boost due to the change in scenery.
“A team that’s been winning games gives you some confidence too,” Happ said. “It’s fun to be on that kind of team. The atmosphere, it’s lighter. It’s more energy. You try to feed off those guys. Offense was really good tonight, staying on them the whole game and adding on at the end. Good teams do that.”
It’s probably unlikely that Happ continues pitching the way he’s been pitching lately. These kinds of numbers are insane, and shouldn’t be expected long-term for any pitcher. But the hope is that his transition to a good pitcher — the good pitcher he was at the start of the year — will be permanent this time around.
**Prior to the game, Clint Hurdle said he moved Starling Marte to the number five spot in the batting order in part due to the success Marte had in that spot. He came into the game with a .798 OPS in his career as a number five hitter. The goal this time around was to try and give Marte a change, allowing him to break out of a slump. It may have worked tonight, as he picked up three hits, including a big two-RBI double that gave the Pirates a 4-0 lead.
“That’s one of the challenges we’ve had here, is adding once we’ve scored,” Hurdle said. “Been a lot of close games that have gone their way, and we were able to continue to add throughout the evening.”
It didn’t stop there. The Pirates added four runs in the top of the ninth inning, giving some much-needed insurance. Some of that damage came from the bench, as Sean Rodriguez and Travis Snider both had big hits in the inning. A few innings earlier, Michael Morse came off the bench with a hit of his own.
“We’ve been on a nice roll off the bench for a while now,” Hurdle said. “Ishikawa gave us a shot in the arm initially. Morse is giving us a shot in the arm. Other guys have added to it. It’s good to see. We’ve got Snider back in play, and he’s got the ability to do that.”
Hurdle also noted before the game that Gregory Polanco has been hitting the ball hard, but hasn’t been getting many hits lately. I posted this graphic before the game to illustrate that this is true.
Tonight the bad luck continued. Polanco had three outs that were hit 96 MPH or harder. He even had a single — his lone hit in his last 26 at-bats — but even that was fluky. Polanco ripped a hard shot up the middle, which hit the second base umpire. This prevented a run from scoring, which ultimately didn’t cost the Pirates.
“He swung the bat well again,” Hurdle said. “It’s just been a tough stretch for him to get results.”
**Hurdle went to Jared Hughes in the ninth inning, despite an eight run lead. He said he did that to give Hughes some consistency, and gave the opinion that Hughes had his best sinker of the second half tonight.