SEATTLE – J.A. Happ is in a perfect position to help the Blue Jays push for a playoff spot and solidify his standing as a dependable big-league starting pitcher. By standing pat at the trade deadline, Toronto is giving Happ, who could become a free agent at the end of this season, an opportunity to step up and prove his worth.
In his first four starts after the all-star break, Happ did just that. He put up a 1.71 ERA and picked up 25 strikeouts over 26 1/3 innings of work. It was his best run of the season and while the Jays went 2-2 in those games, it gave the team hope that they could count on the 31-year-old left-hander to continue delivering quality outings down the stretch.
Happ's hot streak came to an end Tuesday night when he gave up four earned runs, five runs total, over six innings in a 6-3 loss to the Mariners. What was behind Happ's improved play and what changed during his outing in Seattle? Here's a look at his pitch usage in the four starts before Tuesday's loss and how they compare to his numbers from the last two-and-a-half seasons.
vs. Red Sox (7/22)
vs. Yankees (7/27)
vs. Astros (8/1)
vs. Orioles (8/7)
2012-2014 (346 2/3 IP)
Happ is among the starters in the major leagues that relies most heavily on his fastball. He's thrown his heater 73.1% of the time this season and his three offspeed pitches a combined 26.9%. What stands out when comparing the recent results to his track record between 2012-2014, is that he has almost eliminated the slider from his arsenal while increasing how often he used his curveball.
"There are times when he's in trouble and he's limited to his fastball. As a starter you have to have three pitches," said Blue Jays manager John Gibbons. "I think he's been better lately because he's been using his breaking ball more and it's gotten better. He throws it over the plate more, lately anyway, and his changeup is starting to show up."
Against Seattle, Happ stayed consistent with his fastball-heavy approach but didn't use his curveball nearly as much as he had in his previous four starts. He only threw three sliders but Mariners third baseman Kyle Seager hit one of them out of the park in the fourth inning.
Typically, Happ misses a fair amount of bats. His career strikeout rate is above average for a starter, but as a fly ball pitcher who is prone to giving up hard-hit balls. he can't afford to not put away opposing hitters.
After punching out the first batter he faced, Austin Jackson, Happ didn't strike out another batter over the next 5 2/3 innings he pitched. He only allowed one walk, an area where he sometimes runs into problems, but otherwise the Mariners' hitters were squaring him up and driving the ball all over the field. He faced 25 batters and seven at-bats resulted in line drives, four of those line drives producing hits, including Seager's home run.
vs. Mariners (8/12)
Coming off a 11-1 loss to AL Cy Young favourite Felix Hernandez in the series opener, Tuesday's loss keeps Toronto two games off the pace for the second AL wild-card spot. R.A. Dickey will take the mound on Wednesday night as the Blue Jays look to avoid being swept in Seattle.
"I don't really give [momentum] that much thought. It all comes down to how the guys pitch the next day. That's the way it usually works," said Gibbons. "Happ wasn't bad but he wasn't good enough."
"I feel like I was throwing the ball the same way I did [in the last four starts]," said Happ. "The results weren't there, so that's obviously frustrating. Every game is big but I can't get too down on this [performance]."
A slight change to his game plan on the mound helped Happ find a formula for success coming out of the all-star break. More performances like the one's against Baltimore (8 IP, 2 ER, 12 SO, 1 BB) and Houston (7 IP, 1 ER, 6 SO, 2 BB) will raise his value and help Toronto inch closer towards the playoffs. More performances like Tuesday's night in Seattle will only raise more questions about Happ and the Blue Jays' postseason aspirations.