Blue Jays Southpaw J.A. Happ Is Constantly Adjusting to Stay Ahead
Whether it's changing arm slots, working faster, mixing different pitches more or watching video, there's always ways to adapt as a pitcher.
Photo by Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
The story you were just reading says a pitcher on your favourite team has made an "adjustment," which explains why, after a mess of a month, he worked seven innings, allowed one run and made it look like child's play. So if that's all it took, you mutter to yourself, what took him so long to make the "adjustment"?
"I wish I could tell you the answer to that," says Blue Jays pitcher J.A. Happ. "Sometimes it takes two pitches, sometimes it takes six weeks. Your body and your mind need to work together. So much of it is about feel.
"And sometimes I try to analyze things a little bit more than I should."
If there is a kinship among big-league hurlers, it is that pitching can make you crazy. All you have to do is synchronize your arm angle, the torque in your hips, your release point and your stride, and do it all in such a way that you make the ball go where you want it to, with the velocity and movement you desire. Then you have to do it again and again—"repeat your delivery," as the coaches say—and when things go awry, as they inevitably will, figure out how to get back on the rails as quickly as possible.
When you're struggling, you will remember what the coach on your previous team told you and contrast it with the advice of your current coach. You will watch video of your best games and try to emulate your good self. You might move an inch or six to the other side of the rubber. You might lower or raise your arm slot by three quarters of an inch.
None of it might work. And by then, your confidence is wilting, whether you want to admit it or not.
Pitching is not for the faint of heart.
Like his mound brethren everywhere, Happ knows about all of this. Last season, the tall left-hander started strong with Seattle, then scuffled for two months, then was traded to Pittsburgh and turned into an out machine, with a 1.85 ERA and 7-2 record in 11 starts. This year, at 33, he is doing well so far—2.42 ERA, 3-0 record over four quality starts—in his second tour with the Blue Jays.
While it may not be obvious, he is constantly making little adjustments to keep the gears engaged. Many of us can probably identify with one reason he does this: the way we feel can change by the day.
"It can be really hard to notice the changes that happen slowly over a period of days and weeks," Happ says. "Sometimes it's not all that obvious. Sometimes you feel like you're doing the same thing and you're wondering why you're not getting the same results. It just kind of happens, and I think part of it is your body over the course of a season feels different every day. And it maybe tries to adjust for you. That's where video can be good, and just getting back to the basics."
By the time Happ was traded to Pittsburgh last July 31, he had logged a 5.83 ERA in his previous 11 starts. Then, the story goes, Pirates coach Ray Searage waved a magic wand and—voila!—a new Happ was born.
Except that it wasn't quite that simple. Clearly, the two forged a quick rapport. But by that time, Happ had also begun to identify more precisely what he wanted to achieve: improve the command of two of his pitches to his arm side and better locate his breaking ball to left-handed batters.
"I want to give a ton of credit to Ray," Happ says. "I think Ray's great. He certainly did help me. But it wasn't a sit-down thing with a projector screen and him saying, 'This is what we see you're doing.' We just had a series of conversations. I told him where I wanted to be, what I wanted to do better. He told me how he thought I could get there, and we worked from there."
Searage worked with him to keep his left leg pointed directly to the plate. "I was a little bit 'gaity' with it, swaying a little bit," Happ says. But the major challenge was to rebuild his confidence.
"I said to Ray, 'I'm this pitcher right now, and if I can do these things, I know I can be that pitcher. And if I can do these things 10 to 15 percent more consistent, this is where I should be. I'm tired of being right here. Let's get there,'" Happ says.
Happ had help from Searage, but he was also "self-coaching," as Blue Jays bullpen coach Dane Johnson calls it. And when it comes to self-coaching, nothing substitutes for experience.
"That's what they learn through trial and error in the minor-league system, how to coach themselves on the mound," Johnson says. "That's why they have the minor leagues. It's a schooling area where you can go and work on your craft. Those who go down there looking for results I think are looking for the wrong thing. Results will come if you're doing the things you need to do—repeat those deliveries and repeat those pitches."
That doesn't mean it ever gets easy, even for experienced pitchers like Happ.
"It's not like I didn't try to do those things earlier," he says of the adjustments he made in Pittsburgh. "I have a little sheet on my phone, bullet points about what I want to do in my delivery and how I want to feel confidence-wise. But sometimes it just clicks better than others, and your body gets back in that rhythm once you feel it. It's hard to explain unless you're actually out on that mound, or doing your (bullpen session), or in the game. You just feel it, and it kind of clicks, and you're like, 'Oh, that's how I want to feel.'"
He feels the best, he says, when he's not feeling much at all.
"Body is on time. Ball comes out, you barely feel it—it's like hitting a golf ball or a baseball, when you hit it flush it feels like nothing. Your velocity might be a little bit better even though it feels like you're not putting as much effort into it because your body's on time, your arm slot's right, your stride length is right."
So far this season, Happ's strikeout and walk rates are sitting at career lows. He is throwing fewer four-seam fastballs—the kind that typically stay straight—and more sinkers and curveballs than last year. His ground-ball and fly-ball rates are about the same, but batters are pulling fewer of his pitches and hitting more to the middle of the field, where the Blue Jays boast three of the game's best defenders. In short, he is mixing his pitches effectively, pitching to contact and taking advantage of his defence.
Another reason for his success so far, Happ says, is that in his most recent starts he is taking less time between pitches. He mentioned that after his last start, in which he worked seven innings in a 9-3 win over Oakland. The game took just over two and a half hours.
"I would say it's been a huge difference," he said. "I'm trying to keep the tempo going, just work quick and kind of trust what I'm seeing and what the catcher's feeling out there."
And, as he said way back at the beginning of this dissertation, he is relying a little less on analysis and a little more on instinct.
"I'm giving myself a little less time to think out there," he said. "I think in the past, maybe I thought a little bit too much about maybe what's next. I'm kind of just having a little more faith and a little more conviction."
But even with the accumulated wisdom of a veteran, he knows there will be speed bumps ahead. The messages between a pitcher's body and brain can get scrambled or pass like ships in the night. Which is why the time it takes for some adjustments can frustrate a pitcher, and fans, too.
"What people probably don't understand is, even when you know what you're doing wrong, and you know what to do to get right, sometimes it just doesn't work, sometimes it just doesn't feel right," Happ says. "It takes practice at getting back, like breaking a bad habit. Sometimes your body doesn't agree with you. Even though what you're doing is the right thing, sometimes it doesn't feel right."
So far for Happ this season, it feels right. He's hoping it stays that way on Saturday in Tampa Bay when he makes his next start.