How the Twins Might Tweak J.A. Happ
Image courtesy of BrooksBaseball.netHapp, 38, slots in as the Twins’ fourth starter for the coming season, and if he’s anything more than their number-three at any point, then something will have gone wrong. The team brought him in, rather than gambling on higher-upside hurlers with a few more flaws to iron out, partially because he is a low-maintenance upgrade at the back of the rotation.
Coaching is a finite resource. Branch Rickey was fond of saying that, given two runners who run from home plate to first base in the same amount of time, he would always choose the one with worse form, because he could coach that player up to be even faster. That’s a valid lens, but it works best if there are just a few such players in camp. A team can’t fix six or seven players in camp each year; it demands too much of coaches and front-office staff who need to worry about refining certain players’ games, keeping others healthy, turning prospects into big-leaguers, and getting the complex logistics of spring training (and, for that matter, the regular season) right. Happ shouldn’t cost the team much time or energy, and should return fairly reliable innings in the rotation.
That said, there’s room for improvement, and one of the benefits of the Twins’ organizational commitment to retaining developmental and support staff during the pandemic is that they should still be able to help Happ get a bit better, a bit more consistent, or work a bit deeper in games when needed. They can do that mostly by helping him better make use of an interesting arsenal.
Happ throws two very distinct fastballs, a slider, and a changeup, with an occasional curveball mixed in for an extra look. The most unusual feature of his pitch mix is the relationship between his four-seamer and his sinker; they look almost nothing alike. No starter had a bigger velocity gap between their four-seamer and their sinker in 2020 than did Happ. Ditto for vertical movement. His sinker is almost a hybrid between his true heater and his changeup. He throws each pitch out of the same arm slot, and with the same initial spin. Yet, thanks to the positioning of the seams and their interaction with the air, the sinker dives and takes off to the arm side, whereas his four-seamer has good (though not overpowering) riding action, and he can occasionally cut it away from lefties or toward righties.
A bit has been made of Happ using more sinkers in 2020, perhaps to better manage contact and keep the ball in the park, but that’s only half-true. Against fellow lefties, Happ did dramatically increase his sinker usage, from roughly a quarter of all his pitches against them in 2017 and 2018 to 37.6 percent in 2019, and all the way to 52.2 percent in 2020. However, against righties, Happ actually decreased his sinker usage, and has gone to the four-seamer four or five times as often as the sinker since 2018.
Also prominent in the narrative about Happ since he signed has been the idea that his slider was remade recently. This, alas, is even less than half-true. Happ has improved his ability to shape the slider a bit in recent years, hearkening back to an earlier phase of his career, when he toyed with a cutter, while also mastering the ability to take a bit off the pitch and increase its vertical depth. On balance, though, he throws a slider that fools hitters mostly by achieving more sweeping action than its spin suggests to them. He enjoyed more whiffs on that pitch in 2020 primarily because he threw more sinkers against lefties, and the sinker sets up his slider better than his four-seamer does.
That doesn’t mean that the Twins will (or should) have him confine himself to two pitches, though, against either handedness of batter. Wes Johnson likes a starting pitcher to be able to use both of their fastballs, if they have them, and to learn how each pitch can be deployed against any opposing hitter. With such a separation between the two for Happ, that only figures to be a larger part of their thinking.
Happ doesn’t use his changeup at all against lefties, which is fine, because (as discussed above) his sinker acts like a turbo changeup against them, boring in on their hands. Indeed, the three-pitch attack he’s used against lefties for the last few years works very well, and he should keep his sinker usage ratcheted up and enjoy further success on that front in 2021.
Against righties, the story is more complicated. Righties were the ones who killed Happ in 2019, but that was the first time they’d been better against him than against a typical lefty since 2014. His four-seamer inarguably works better against them than does his sinker, but he could stand to throw all of his secondary pitches a bit more against righties. Part of his recovery against righties in 2020 was luck; another part is that he threw them more sliders and changeups. He should continue that shift in 2021, and possibly even up his sinker usage, keeping it off the plate away from righties to set up the sweeping slider.
These are slight adjustments. The Twins don’t want to overhaul J.A. Happ; they chose him in part because he doesn’t need that kind of change. Still, these little things can help him thrive, not only in a new ballpark, but in a righty-heavy AL Central that will test the depth of his repertoire and the deftness of his mind.
Thanks to Brooks Baseball for the pitch usage and movement data used in this article.
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