Let’s Try to Make Sense of J.A. Happ

One of my favorite parts of the trade deadline happened right at the deadline itself. As the deadline passed, a Mariners writer or two tweeted out that no trades had been made. Then, a few minutes later, it was announced that J.A. Happ had been traded to the Pirates. It happened suddenly, and it arguably only happened because A.J. Burnett had gotten injured. There were never any Happ rumors to speak of; the MLB Trade Rumors archive doesn’t show anything. Happ was essentially unwanted and mediocre. I forgot who he was traded for, so I looked it up, and I’ve forgotten again. Deadline additions don’t get much less sexy than this.

But sometimes the present doesn’t give a crap about the past. Since getting traded to the Blue Jays, David Price has been worth 1.8 WAR. Makes sense; he’s an ace. Since getting traded to the Pirates, J.A. Happ has been worth 1.4 WAR. Makes less sense. All the other traded starters have done worse. Johnny Cueto‘s done worse. Cole Hamels has done worse. Scott Kazmir has done worse. They’ve all done worse. I just came across an article a few minutes ago suggesting that maybe Happ should start the Pirates’ wild-card game. That’s insane, but it still speaks to how shocking this has been. Happ has pitched like a valuable pitcher, after the Pirates got him for basically nothing. Baseball’ll get ya.

So you know what the next section is. The next section is: what? What is this? What do the Pirates have J.A. Happ doing? I’ll do my best to try to explain.

Maybe it would just be enough to say “Ray Searage“. He’s developed an almost bulletproof reputation, and I’m not sure there are any fans out there who have a greater degree of trust in their pitching coach. Ask a decently-invested Pirates fan, and he might just tell you it’s Searage magic. The usual. And apparently Searage has been good for Happ’s confidence. Or, maybe the good results have been good for Happ’s confidence. I’m sure he’s thrilled, too, to be pitching for a winner, but I’d like to get more specific and data-y. I’ve prepared three points, hopefully mostly explaining what the numbers say has happened.

1. More fastballs

The version of Happ the Mariners traded for had just thrown 72% fastballs for the Blue Jays. And that made sense, because Happ’s fastball just kept getting faster and faster. But the Mariners version cut back. According to our information, Happ threw 64% fastballs. According to Brooks Baseball, he threw…64% fastballs. Since joining the Pirates, he’s back up at 73%. They’re almost all four-seamers, instead of the two-seamer Happ used to play with.

Maybe a better header would’ve been “more hard pitches,” because Happ also has a slider or cutter, and he’s throwing that more than he did as a Blue Jay. The other direct effect is this: by throwing more hard pitches, Happ is throwing fewer soft pitches, including his curveball and changeup. The Pirates version of Happ has moved away from those pitches, and while they haven’t been abandoned entirely, they’ve been featured just often enough to keep the hitter honest.

When Happ was a Mariner, right-handed hitters saw hard pitches 74% of the time. Since Happ joined the Pirates, right-handed hitters have seen hard pitches 88% of the time. That’s probably not an accident, against opposite-handed bats. Happ has more often gone with his strength.

2. More strikes

Or, “more aggressiveness.” This goes hand-in-hand with the change in pitch usage. Some pitches are designed to end up out of the zone. Some pitches are designed to end up within it, or at least near it. Happ’s strike pitch has long been his fastball, so now that he’s throwing a lot of fastballs again, it follows he’s getting more strikes. Mariner Happ threw about 63% strikes, a bit below average. Pirate Happ has thrown about 67% strikes, a few points above average. Viewed differently, Mariner Happ threw just under 46% of his pitches in the zone. He was down around 44% in his final stretch. Pirate Happ has thrown 50% of his pitches in the zone. More pitches in the zone means more strikes. It means more pitcher-friendly counts. And that means hitters expanding their own zones to protect. Happ’s getting a few more chase swings, now. It all works together.

The problem with Happ’s softer pitches is that he doesn’t have great control of them. Frequently they’d end up as balls, balls too wild to swing at. Happ has tried to make those pitches better, but now he’s using them less, nibbling less, believing in his fastball and slider/cutter. Maybe it’s not easy to flip that switch in your brain, when you’re a lefty and your fastball isn’t overpowering, but Happ has to be gaining confidence. His main two pitches are doing enough.

3. More favorable opponents

I don’t mean for this to be controversial. I don’t mean to take anything away from what Happ has done. It’s just that this point can’t be ignored. Most simply, Happ has gone from the American to the National League, and the NL is believed to be a little worse. But that isn’t a very strong point. This can be made a lot stronger.

To begin, Happ faced lefties 23% of the time when he was a Mariner. Since joining the Pirates, he’s faced lefties 33% of the time, which is an awful large uptick. That’s one more lefty for every 10 batters. Happ, like everyone, will take a more common platoon advantage.

And that partially explains the following. I looked at every single batter Happ has faced on the season. The batters Happ faced as a Mariner have averaged a .322 wOBA against lefties this year. The batters Happ has faced as a Pirate have averaged a .303 wOBA against lefties this year. That’s a pretty dramatic split.

Maybe you don’t like one-year data. Good! You probably shouldn’t. The batters Happ faced as a Mariner have averaged a .329 wOBA against lefties over the past three years. The batters Happ has faced as a Pirate have averaged a .304 wOBA against lefties over the past three years. That split is even bigger. Happ, in short, has faced worse hitters. Significantly worse hitters. He’s faced more lefties, but he’s also just faced worse righties. It’s not at all like every opponent since joining the Pirates has been bad — Happ has had to deal with, say, Paul Goldschmidt — but there’s no getting around this point. When opponents are worse, performance is better. That’s always true, given enough time.

That should just about make the sense that needs to be made. And I didn’t even mention that Pirate Happ has 19 called strikeouts, after Mariner Happ racked up 21. Throw that in as a fourth and final point. J.A. Happ has pitched better since joining the Pirates. He’s been more aggressive, and if you believe some of the interviews, he feels balanced and rejuvenated. The Pirates have done well to turn him into a useful and even helpful asset. He’s not actually an ace, of course. He’s presumably benefited from a relatively soft slate of opponents. No one should start J.A. Happ over Gerrit Cole or Francisco Liriano on purpose, if Cole and Liriano are conscious and available. But, the trade deadline will surprise you. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s even surprised the Pirates.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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Pirates Hurdles
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Pirates Hurdles
8 months 18 days ago

Thanks for this Jeff! Pretty similar to Eno’s chat comment yesterday that he is throwing his good pitches more and his bad pitches less. Like you say, its hard to just say NL vs AL when there is 2 run difference in FIP.

Buctober
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Buctober
8 months 18 days ago

Awesome stuff Jeff! Like Pirates Hurdles said, I think it mostly boils down to him throwing his good pitches more, which again goes back to being aggressive and that hint of Searage Magic us Pirates fans love. Definitely one of the better deadline deals made this year

Emcee Peepants
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Emcee Peepants
8 months 18 days ago

Who he’s throwing to could also be a factor. Cervelli has been the best defensive catcher in baseball this year according to StatCorner and Pirates catchers as a whole have a +calls of 216 versus 105 for Mariners catchers.

szielinski
Member
Member
szielinski
8 months 18 days ago

Searage did work with Happ on his mechanics.Happ skipped a start, to work with Searage, and improved once he returned. The Searage effect? Coincidence? A post hoc mistake?

What does it matter when Pitchers that want to reinvent themselves try to sign with the Pirates in order to work with Searage and Jim Benedict. Pirates fans benefit.

cuck city
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cuck city
8 months 18 days ago

The NL has siht lineups thats why

Roto Wizard
Member
Roto Wizard
8 months 18 days ago

Yea those horrible Mets, Dodgers, Giants, Cubs and Cardinals lineups could make any pitcher look like gold. Not sure why teams in the NL even bother sending guys to the plate.

KobraCola
Member
KobraCola
8 months 18 days ago

http://www.fangraphs.com/leaders.aspx?pos=np&stats=bat&lg=all&qual=0&type=8&season=2015&month=0&season1=2015&ind=0&team=0,ts&rost=0&age=0&filter=&players=0&sort=16,d

3 of the top 5 best-hitting teams in the MLB and 6 of the top 10 best-hitting teams in the MLB can be found in the NL. 8 of the top 12 are NL as well.

Rob
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Rob
8 months 18 days ago

Greater imbalance in the NL between good and bad teams, and the impacts overall stats. An argument can be made that the five worst teams in MLB right now are all in the NL, and that allows good teams to pad. Rockies, Phillies, Braves are dreadful, and several others not far behind. The AL has bad teams too, but even the worst such as the Tigers and A’s (still only a -1 run differential) only hit that point at the trade deadline. It’s no picnic to go in and face last place teams like the Indians and Red Sox.

This is not a knock on the NL, but there is a clear difference between the two leagues. That doesn’t mean the best team isn’t from the NL (not that the World Series decides those things anymore), but it would be far easier to run up a good record playing more games in the NL this year.

HoratioSky
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HoratioSky
8 months 18 days ago

Something about this just seems flawed at first glance. Couldn’t you also say that the reason the bottom of the NL is so bad is because they are playing superior ‘top’ teams in the NL? I just have a hard time saying that it is written in stone that the AL is better because of the parity in the W/L records of the teams. Even if you go by run differential, if there is a disparity, the interleague play could be considered a small sample and the differential is mostly made up of the matchups between NL teams. Not trying to be snarky, but is there anything concrete to this assumption that I have heard about 100 times this year?

Howie Porker
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Howie Porker
8 months 17 days ago

I understand that some people are fans of NL teams so for some reason they like to defend the NL. I guess I get that. BUT C’MON! ADMIT IT EVERYBODY! The pitching staffs in the NL are horrible. Absolute garbage. Most of the #3-5 starters throw around 87-90 mph and you can’t even name them. These AAAA pitchers continue to have jobs because they get to face a pitcher every 8 batters and a bunch of scrub bench players. The lineups are even worse.

The NL is where both pitchers and hitters go to revive their careers because it’s way easier. It’s ok to admit that fact. Keep in mind I’m a fan of a very good NL Team, but I recognize how ridiculously easy it is to compete here.

Rational Fan
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Rational Fan
8 months 17 days ago

How many years in a row does the AL have to completely take a dump on the NL in interleague play before the NL supporters accept the fact that it’s an unbalanced league with the majority of the talent in the AL?

Rational Fan
Guest
Rational Fan
8 months 17 days ago

You don’t seriously believe this I hope.

Why is it that when the AL and NL play the AL continually destroys the NL? Supposedly the NL has better pitching and now apparently better hitting lol.

Yet here we are, at the end of the year and the NL is once again the AL is 28 games over .500 vs the NL.

The NL is a weak league with not as much talent; look at the average payrolls, the interleague success, and the success pitchers have when switching to the NL.

No one is ever worried about how a guy will translate to the NL, but there are plenty of GM’s who worry how a pitcher may translate to the AL.

The NL has a hard time accepting the fact that not having a DH has greatly changed the overall talent level in the NL vs the AL. The AL simply has more talent.

LHPSU
Guest
LHPSU
8 months 17 days ago

NL: 4-1 against the AL in the World Series this decade.

But don’t let me stop you from whining about how not having the DH puts AL teams at a disadvantage in the WS. Never let the truth get in the way of a good narrative.

Rational Fan
Guest
Rational Fan
8 months 15 days ago

Yes, let’s use the 7 game sample instead of the 150+ games of interleague play as the sample to determine the better league.

Brent Henry
Member
Brent Henry
8 months 18 days ago

Jeff, great article man.

Another great topic with pertinent data analysis. You set the standard. Thank you!

Hurtlocker
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Hurtlocker
8 months 18 days ago

After 2009 Happ has pretty much sucked, no trade rumors because he is really off the scrap heap.

ceee
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ceee
8 months 18 days ago

Happ being a flyball pitcher, I thought he would have much better numbers moving from Rogers center to Safeco, yet results never followed- call it the Mariner effect I guess. Anyway, now that he’s in PNC facing weaker line-ups and in an equally big yard, it seems like both park factors and line-up factors have kicked in and now he’s been well above average to say the least.

siggian
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siggian
8 months 18 days ago

So the Jays showed MLB the blueprint on how to use Happ effectively. The Mariners tossed the blueprint into the garbage. The Pirates picked it out of the trash and proceeded to build on it.

Bobo
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Bobo
8 months 18 days ago

#6org

John C
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John C
8 months 18 days ago

One sure-fire way to be successful in baseball is whatever the Jack Z Mariners did, just do the opposite.

sb
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sb
8 months 18 days ago

Pitching philosophy and coaching does seem to go a long way. Estrada this year has been outstanding for the Jays. Everything stems off aggressive FB command. Both guys have that sneaky fast FB with some deception.

Kevin
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Kevin
8 months 18 days ago

Estrada is not really the same at all though. His fastball is a pretty terrible pitch. Luckily, he has one of the leagues best changeups. So good that even though he has one of the highest changeup usages in the league, it’s still extremely effective.

Brett W
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Brett W
8 months 18 days ago

Happ v Cole is not in a vacuum. It’s against a lefty-heavy Cubs lineup.

mch38
Member
mch38
8 months 18 days ago

Then why not just start Liriano?

Mike B.
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Mike B.
8 months 18 days ago

If Cole is unconscious and available, I still think he should pitch.

HoratioSky
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HoratioSky
8 months 18 days ago

Hey, if the revamped Happ can reduce the starts given to Locke, I hope they re-sign him next year as well.

Cowboy Sweet N' Nasty
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Cowboy Sweet N' Nasty
8 months 18 days ago

The Pirates use pitch framing to make pitchers look better than they are. Once an automated K zone is put in place after the next CBA, these pitchers will all turn back into pumpkins.

Nathaniel Dawson
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Nathaniel Dawson
8 months 18 days ago

What would an automated strike zone have to do with the CBA? Why would the players association care enough about that to even think of introducing it into negotiations? Which they may not be able to do anyway, since it’s not really about labor relations.

maguro
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maguro
8 months 18 days ago

It would certainly affect their CBA with the umpires union.

BMac
Member
BMac
8 months 18 days ago

…some particular umpires might actually be good if they didn’t have to call balls & strikes! Although some umpires struggle with even the formality of granting a time-out to a batter…

HoratioSky
Guest
HoratioSky
8 months 18 days ago

Pitchers would love the automated strike zone. With all the bias against the strategy based ‘NL’ version of baseball, I don’t think we see this automated strike zone until they change the rule book and make it smaller. If the strike zone was called accurately, there would be even more strikeouts, and the hitters would have to protect the high strike. I think the analysis performed on the strike zone that is called today by the umpires vs. the strike zone in the rulebook makes it pretty clear that we could logically expect a reduction in scoring.

TWNDAI
Guest
8 months 18 days ago

Re: almost all of his fastballs being four-seamers, as opposed to the two-seamer he used to throw. Is this accurate, or did you transpose those? Because the Bucs are notorious for getting their pitchers to throw more two-seamers, so this would be pretty surprising/interesting if true.

Darkstone42
Member
Darkstone42
8 months 18 days ago

I think they get their righties to throw more 2-seamers, but the 2-seamer isn’t a great pitch against opposite-hand batters, so lefties may not benefit from it the same way.

Roberto
Guest
Roberto
8 months 18 days ago

Here’s an amusing commentary by Brendan Panikkar posted on May 3 of this year

“What is Happ doing differently to be so successful thus far? He is using all of his pitches. After throwing his fastball an average of 57.9% of the time, in 2015 that number is down to 36.9% of the time. The use of his slider, curveball, and changeup have gone up. The mix and assortment of his pitches have worked well for him. Happ is also benefiting from pitching in one of the most, if not the most pitcher friendly ballpark in the majors.”

How is this for a conjecture: Happ’s season statistics reflect that he has bad games from time to time, as in he can’t locate. He’s only had one bad game with Pittsburgh

Spa City
Member
Member
Spa City
8 months 18 days ago

Happ is pitching in a pitcher-friendly ballpark, to a pitcher-friendly catcher who provides a larger strike zone via framing, with a pitcher-friendly defense that is as effective with shifting as anybody.

But more likely, we are just having fun with small sample sizes.

Johnny Ringo
Guest
8 months 17 days ago

Happ has always seemed like a serviceable option to me, assuming he stayed healthy. Without looking, I remember a couple of bad years and some fairly good ones.

Larphraulen
Guest
Larphraulen
8 months 15 days ago

Watching Happ command 93-95 mph heat in the 2nd half of the 2014 season, I actually thought he was going to be major breakout candidate – something to the degree of 2.5-3 WAR.

Glad to see the pirates have been able to turn him around.

HoratioSky
Guest
HoratioSky
8 months 15 days ago

Aside from the “AL much better than the NL” troll comments, I still haven’t found any solid evidence that the AL is any better/worse than the NL.

Rational Fan
Guest
Rational Fan
8 months 15 days ago

So you’ve chosen to just completely ignore the interleague records over the past decade. Or the interleague records from this year…?

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