New starter for Seattle trying to get back the old feel on his changeup

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PEORIA, Ariz. — Even at age 32, with 140 major-league starts and 24 relief appearances and more than 840 big-league innings, J.A. Happ isn’t going to stop evolving as a pitcher.

A weakness needs to be erased, pitches need to be refined and adjusting to the always tough big-league hitters is key for survival. There is always something to work on, something to make better.

So when he was traded from the Blue Jays to the Mariners in the offseason, he made those thoughts known to his new pitching coach, Rick Waits, in their first conversation.

One of Happ’s main goals was to resurrect his changeup.

“It’s one of the things I said to Rick before we talked about anything else,” he said. “This is the thing I would like to work on and I’d like to pick your brain about and get some feedback from you on — getting back and getting comfortable throwing this pitch.”

Happ, projected to be the fourth starter in the Seattle rotation, always has thrown some form of a changeup in his eight-year big-league career, but the results have been uneven.

Per Pitch/FX tracking and the website Fangraphs, Happ’s number of changeups thrown have decreased each of the past three seasons. In 2012, it accounted for 14.6 percent of his pitches thrown. Last season, it was just 9.1 percent.

Part of the reason was the lack of success and command with the pitch. Happ didn’t have quite the feel he hoped. According to the website Baseball By Brooks, which also uses pitch tracking algorithms, opponents posted a .339 batting average against the pitch with a .615 slugging percentage. A poorly located changeup is going to get hit and get hit hard. Based on Fangraphs’ pitch values where an average pitch rates at 0.0, Happ’s changeup was rated at a -7.5. Pitching in the hitter-friendly confines of the Rogers Centre as his home park for the Blue Jays and places like Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium and Camden Yards and having a subpar changeup isn’t ideal.

“I wanted to get back to throwing that pitch well,” Happ said. “I think it could be a big change for me. I think it could make everything better for me.”


Well, the pitch would be a weapon against right-handed hitters. Happ has a good four-seam fastball that he can throw to both sides of the plate and elevate when needed. He also has a cut fastball and curveball. He will bury the cutter, which breaks in on a right-handed hitter onto their hands. He has the curveball to change a hitter’s eye level. But with both pitches moving into a right-hander, the changeup, when he throws it properly, sinks always from a right-hander and is the perfect complement pitch.

“It sinks more than it runs,” Waits said. “I like the depth on it. I think it would be great combo with the cutter. He loves the idea.”

Seattle catcher Mike Zunino saw the same thing even before he caught Happ in spring training.

“It’s got great life to it,” Zunino said. “I watched some film on him from his career once we made that trade. That’s one thing that stuck out to me. If we can get that going, especially with some of the right-handed hitters we have in this division, it’s going to play a lot. He has that ability to run the fastball and cutter in on their hands, that could be a good counter to them.”

The big thing now is finding a grip he can get consistent movement and command with. Happ has been experimenting with two grips — a traditional circle change grip like Felix Hernandez uses and also a modified split-finger grip that he used last season. He hasn’t decided on which one.

“It’s a work in progress on what grip is most comfortable and most consistent, so I’m still working on that,” Happ said. “Maybe I will end up using both, depending on the action.”

Happ has been using both grips in his bullpen and live batting practice sessions.

He is really interested to see how the pitch works during game situations. It’s something he’s going to throw early to find some feel with it.

“You can’t really take too much out of the results of the first few outings, regardless if they’re good, great or terrible,” he said. “For me, you want to have success at the end of March, in order to feel confident going forward.”