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What’s ‘Happ’ened to J.A.?

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All puns aside, J.A. Happ has continued to impress early this season. What does his pitch arsenal look like now?

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most pleasant surprises in this young season has been the effectiveness of J.A. Happ. He drew the ire of this community—maybe unfairly—because of the circumstances of his acquisition but it’s hard to argue with the early results. Outside of a rough start in Houston, he hasn't given up more than two runs in any of his other five starts. His strikeout rate is still remarkably high and he's lowered his walk rate for the third consecutive season. He’s clearly established himself as the second-best starter on the staff in this young season and has provided the team with some nice consistency amidst the volatility of our young pitchers.

The most intriguing thing about Happ was has been the increase in velocity over his career. He’s slowly added velocity to all of his pitches throughout his career and those gains peaked towards the end of last year. As you can see in the graph below, 2014 was a banner year for Happ:

Happ Velocity

Happ’s velocity was down a bit early in the season but has returned to the peak levels he enjoyed last year. That extra velocity is helping Happ generate a ridiculous amount of whiffs with his fastball. Through six starts, Happ has induced a whiff almost a third of the time an opponent swings at his fastball—that’s 90% better than the league average whiff rate for four-seam fastballs!

Happ’s other two fastballs (a sinker and a cutter) are also generating whiffs at an above average rate. His sinker is actually the pitch that piqued my interest in his arsenal. This year, Happ is throwing his sinker with an extra two inches of vertical drop—the biggest change in vertical movement for a sinker this year. That additional vertical movement continues a trend that started in 2013:

Happ v mov

Here are a couple of gifs comparing Happ’s sinker from last year to this year:

2014:

happ sinker 2014

2015:

happ sinker 2015

The sinker from last year is a little bit flatter but there isn’t much difference between the two pitches. Despite their visual similarities, Happ is generating 30% more whiffs with the pitch this year. A sinker with more sink should result in more groundballs and we’re actually seeing that—Happ is also running the lowest fly ball rate of his career. Combining more whiffs and more grounders is an excellent recipe for success and we're seeing that play out on the mount every fifth day.

Besides an increase in velocity, there is one other mechanical change to Happ’s delivery that could point to greater success. Last year, Happ dropped his arm angle by about an inch. He’s now throwing closer to a two-thirds delivery rather than an overhand delivery. The release points for all of his pitches are now clustered closer together than they were last year. That's probably a result of being more comfortable with his new mechanics and should help him disguise his pitches better. I’m not an expert in pitching mechanics but it has to be more than a coincidence that an increase in velocity and a change in delivery coincide with a vastly improved pitch arsenal.

You would think that with the amount of whiffs Happ is generating with his four-seam fastball, he would be throwing it more often. That’s not the case. He’s throwing his four-seam fastball around a third of the time, down from over half of the time last year. All of his other pitches have seen a slight increase in usage with his cutter receiving the biggest boost. It’s possible that his four-seam fastball has become more effective now that batters aren’t seeing it as often.

His curveball and cutter are still effective pitches but he's getting rocked when he throws his changeup. That pitch generates a well below average amount of whiffs and batters are teeing off on it—opponents have a .733 slugging percentage, though he's only thrown the pitch 67 times this year. His revamped sinker should fill the need to throw his changeup to right-handed batters as sinkers and changeups traditionally run a reverse-platoon split.

I ran Happ’s four-seam fastball and his sinker through my pitch comp calculator (comparing only pitch movement) and there was one name that was near the top of both lists, Brandon McCarthy. McCarthy is an interesting comparison not only because of the similar increase in velocity both pitchers have seen in the past few years but also because of the results they’re getting with these two pitches. Both McCarthy and Happ have very similar—and ridiculously high—whiff rates on these pitches though their usage is flipped.

Admittedly, McCarthy’s name jumped out at me because both he and McCarthy share a similar career narrative. Still, if Happ is in the midst of a similar reinvention, minus the huge homer problem McCarthy developed, this version of J.A. Happ would go a long way towards helping the Mariners outperform their preseason projections. Happ was projected to be worth 1.1 WAR via Steamer and just 0.7 WAR via ZiPS. He's already met the ZiPS projection and is on pace to accumulate 2.7 fWAR over 150 innings this year. That's a really simple way of saying the Mariners may have a much more valuable piece than we might have initially thought.