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There Will Be Changeups: J.A. Happ and something new for 2015

The Mariners lefty is hoping a new circle change will be the key to a stable and successful season.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Last December, the Mariners traded a beloved-yet-oft-injured Bavasi connection to the nation of Canada in exchange for a person known for throwing baseballs at a relatively high-velocity every five days or so. In the process, Jack Z and company were signaling the belief that the club was made better in three clear areas: 1. Paving the way for what would eventually become a crowded platoon outfield filled by, ostensibly, healthy players, 2. Acquiring a middle-of-the-rotation starter ready to eat around 170 innings, and 3. Doing both without hampering roster flexibility on a club only missing a few key pieces.

Because justice is only an imaginary concept concocted by Lovecraftian Elder Gods, that beloved player won't be doing much playing for his new team, and even literally had part of his body removed in the process. So in a sense, although a pretty bleak one, the Mariners have already won said trade. But in another sense, the Mariners bought themselves nothing but time, with an apparently blank slate ready for the making right in front of them.

We are here speaking of new Mariners starter, J.A. Happ, owner of a recent 1.3 fWAR season with a shiny 3.95 xFIP despite having a slight tendency to get hit hard when overusing his fastball. After the trade, there was a general sense of untapped potential in the sense that the Saunders-Zduriencik relationship seemed resolvable only through a trade, and also that the pitcher they received in return never had the opportunity to call a spacious ballpark his home.

In fact, in his eight seasons in the major leagues, Happ has yet to post any sure-fire consistency from year to year, somehow gaining around four average MPH on all his pitches while at times abandoning his off-speed pitches in favor of his fastball. Which, yeah, isn't always the most preferred situation.

Consistency has always been the key to Happ's success. Despite the fact that his uptick in velocity has turned his left-handed fastball into a plus pitch, Happ ran into quite a bit of trouble last year when losing control of his off-speed stuff. Which made this morning's report from Shannon Drayer all the more interesting:

"The changeup will be a focus, getting that back," (pitching coach Rick Waits) said." He has been in and out with it. The changeup is crucial for him as a lefty, but he has been working hard on it and will continue to do so this spring, getting that feel back. There will be a lot of changeups."

Although Waits probably didn't intend to channel his inner Paul Thomas Anderson with this quote, I have to wonder what this new focus will do for Happ as he enters his ninth year in the bigs on this, his fourth club. Last season, Happ once again came out of the gate with poor command of his off-speed pitches, leaving him to mix up his repertoire in the hopes of stabilizing what has actually been a pretty unstable arsenal over the past couple years.

By July, Happ had nearly given up his slider altogether, and instead focused on locating his curveball to add variety to his fastball-dominated approach. The result, visualized in a pretty striking graph image over at Rotographs, was not only more whiffs, but a vastly improved secondary arsenal that led to some of the best games of his career. It was only too bad the rest of the Blue Jays couldn't have thrown him a bone in the process. And here I thought Canadians were supposed to be nicer.

But his changeup? It's an interesting idea. While that curve was key to his resurgence last season, he never returned to throwing it at the rate as he had in previous seasons, dropping use from nearly 14% down to 6.98% by July. But now Happ has changed his changeup grip--which he apparently has done midseason in the past--and the pitch has effectively developed into a circle change. Happ's old change was thrown with a split-finger grip, which was Roy Halladay's bread and butter during his 2010 Cy Young season. While split-finger changeups tend to break vertically down toward the plate, circle changes have a little more horizontal movement, which is good news for a lefty.

The best case scenario is that this change will allow Happ to further take advantage of his handedness against right handed hitters, especially considering he has apparently completely abandoned his slider in recent bullpen sessions. But the downside is that circle changes, like the sliders they mimic, can become dinger magnets when left hanging in the zone. And the last thing Happ needs is to give up more hard hit balls.

Every season someone develops a new pitch, or gives up this or that thing for the other. Montero already took the Best-Shape-Of-His-Life card from the rest of the team, so maybe it's just Happ's turn to play his in the hopes of putting together a more consistent year nine in the bigs. Or maybe this will become Happ's key out pitch and lead him to the first totally stable year of his career. Either way, the Mariners have an interesting project in their rotation that only cost them a player who was probably on his way out anyway, and then they still had enough money left over to pick up Rickie Weeks a few months later. Which is kind of a strange way to look at it, but hey, we've never been hit in the head with a baseball or lost our meniscus to a sprinkler, so what do we know?