Pittsburgh Pirates’ J.A. Happ could be stretch-run catalyst
Stop me if you’ve heard this before.
Pittsburgh Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage has done it again.
Well maybe it’s a little premature to officially stamp it as another success story, but what Searage has done with J.A. Happ in such a short time frame is considerable.
It wasn’t all rainbows and sunshine. Happ’s first start was hardly memorable, lasting just 4.1 innings in a loss to the Cubs. Pittsburgh Pirates fans were ready to pounce on a poor performance after a perceived lackluster trade deadline haul from Neal Huntington. That notion is now fading, if not gone completely. How did Searage “fix” Happ in just two starts?
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Most importantly, he narrowed his pitch selection. In Happ’s first start as a Pirate, he threw 62.5% of his 99 pitches for a four-seam fastball, 9.1% for a two-seamer and a whopping 25.3% of his pitchers were sliders. His cut-fastball, a staple of many Pittsburgh Pirates pitchers, was nearly non-existent at 1%. That particular pitch selection resulted in a 26.7% line drive-rate. Compare these numbers to Happ’s most recent start, a win over the Arizona Diamondbacks. Happ pared his pitch selection down, relying much more on the cut-fastball, which he threw for 8.4% of his 83 pitches. Happ still relied on traditional fare; in fact he threw more four-seamers with a 67.5% rate. He also mixed in a slider at times at a 18.1% clip. Oh, and the result of this change? Only a 7.1% line drive rate.
It becomes clear from looking at these numbers that Searage helped Happ pare down that which was not working, Searage himself alluded to as much in a recent interview with 93.7 The Fan’s Joe Starkey.
"“It’s keeping it simple, K-I-S-S,” Searage said. “At the Major League level, you don’t want to do any wholesale changes or anything like that, but if you see something that stands out that you think that might help, and then he tries it, and then all of a sudden it does help, then it just gives you credibility that way. So you have to build trust and you try to keep it simple.”"
As a result of Searage’s tinkering, Happ enjoyed an increase in O-Swing % (percentage of pitches outside of the zone in which a batter offers a swing) from 17.3% in his disastrous start to 30.8% in his best start as a Pirate. For Happ, having batters miss is paramount, as his opponents enjoyed a 33.3% hard-contact rate in his start previous to the Diamondbacks outing.
Harkening back to the title of this post, if Happ and Searage can continue to tinker and continue to find what works as quickly as they have already shown, Happ can easily become an important catalyst to the Pirates’ September aspirations. He could also show himself to be a good insurance policy against possible struggle from A.J. Burnett.
Happ has only had three starts with the Pittsburgh Pirates. His performance could go south very quickly. But, Happ has shown to be a very adaptable pitcher, and one that could fit in very well with the Pirates defensive system.
The great news for Pirates fans is this: when Huntington goes shopping for a pitcher, those qualities are usually at the top of the grocery list.