Happ-ier days could follow with adjustment
Reuss, Maddux could be examples for struggling Astros hurler
Last year, the Astros traded Roy Oswalt for J.A. Happ and a Minor League player. Happ, a young left-handed pitcher with enormous potential was the guy they wanted. If he could reach his potential, he could be a worthy replacement for Oswalt.
It was not a stretch to believe this. After all, Happ was only 27 and he had all the makings of a solid southpaw starter. As a rookie, in 2009, he went 12-4 with a 2.93 ERA. But in his first start in 2010 he came out with a strained left forearm. He went on the disabled list and didn't start his Minor League rehab until June. On July 29, he was traded to the Astros.
The Phils were happy with the deal as Oswalt pitched extremely well, helping the Phils win the NL East. The Astros were delighted too. Happ went 5-4 with a 3.75 ERA in his 13 starts in Houston. The Astros, in the process of rebuilding the team, felt that one piece of the puzzle was firmly in place. Going into this year, Happ had a career record of 19-9.
Happ was happy. Now he's hapless.
On Thursday he lost for the 11th time, more than any other pitcher this year. And it's not just that the Astros are a weak team, giving him little support. It's mostly his control. When you get behind in the count all the time, you are bound to struggle. You end up walking a lot of batters, and worse yet, you throw the ball into the middle of the strike zone and give up home runs.
Earl Weaver, with his two-walks-and-a-three-run-homer approach to offense, would have loved facing Happ.
From an Astros point of view, the situation isn't desperate. They weren't going to make the playoffs this year anyway, even with Roy Oswalt in his prime.
And Happ, though enigmatic, is not beyond hope. Thursday's pitching line against the Marlins is a case in point. He pitched 5 2/3 innings and gave up five hits, one of them a home run. He walked seven batters, but he struck out eight. To find the last Major League pitcher to pitch at least five innings and give up five runs while walking seven and striking out eight, you have to look all the way back to 1989. That pitcher's name is Roger Clemens.
Right now, I'd rather be in Happ's shoes, but that's beside the point.
There is no conceivable way that Happ will win as many games between now and the end of his career as Clemens did after 1989. But the eight strikeouts were not accidental. He has the pitches to strike out a lot of batters, but he has too many of them.
After last night's game, his catcher, Humberto Quintero, said, "He used all his pitches. He threw really good."
I watched the game and he did not "throw really good." He threw some really good fastballs, some really good curveballs, some really good sliders, and some really good changeups. But, he threw a ton of pitches that were so far out of the strike zone that Marlins hitters weren't even tempted to offer at them. That's what happens when you don't have good control and everybody knows it.
If I were managing a team that was facing him, I would instruct my hitters not to swing at anything but a fastball right down the middle until he threw at least one strike. That's what the Marlins did and it worked pretty well.
This year, Happ has reached the 100-pitch mark in the fifth inning more often than not. You can't win that way. But you can win without striking out a lot of batters if you can avoid walking so many batters.
So, how do you avoid walking so many batters if you don't have good control? You stop throwing a wide variety of pitches and concentrate on two or three. In most of my games, I had a good fastball and slider. In some of them, I also had a good curveball or a good changeup. On rare occasions, I had all four pitches working. So, I threw a lot of fastballs and sliders, and used the other pitches sparingly most of the time.
It sounds illogical to tell a pitcher to stop striking out so many hitters. But that's exactly what I would tell J.A. Happ.
Watching him, I am reminded of Jerry Reuss, another tall lefty with an over-the-top arm slot. Reuss was an excellent pitcher during the first half of his career. He had the same four pitches Happ has, and though he didn't strike out or walk as many batters as Happ, he did run high pitch counts, mixing his four pitches up, and missing the strike zone with a lot of them.
After stints with the Cardinals, Astros and Pirates, Reuss was traded to the Dodgers. He struggled his first year in L.A. while trying to learn to throw a cut fastball. The next year, he got it down. In the succeeding years he was one of the most consistent starters in the NL and he did it with two pitches, a fastball and a curveball. He learned to throw his cutter up and down to right-handed hitters. Most of the time, they chopped the ball to the left side of the infield, like a coach hitting fungoes. Occasionally he would throw a fastball away or a curveball for good measure. But his success was built on one pitch, and he threw that pitch about 85 percent of the time.
After he learned how to throw and control the cutter, pitching became easy for him. He walked fewer than two batters per nine innings, while striking out four or five. He usually reached the 100-pitch mark in the eighth inning.
If I were working with Happ, I would try to teach him to do the same thing. It took Reuss a year to get the knack of it. At this point, the Astros have at least a year to experiment. And Happ is only 28 years old.
I would try to show him some video of Reuss. And I would also talk to him about Greg Maddux.
When Maddux came up with the Cubs, he had an excellent curveball, but he did not have a cutter or good control of a changeup. As the years went on, he became one of the best control pitchers of all time. His changeup improved. It had a little sinking action, and he learned to keep it down. He learned to throw a cutter and he learned to throw it to both sides of the plate. These pitches all looked the same coming out of his hand, but they all moved a little and all came in at different speeds. He never lost his good curve, but he almost quit throwing it. He could spot all of his other pitches, but his curveball, because it had a lot of movement, was more difficult to control, and it looked different coming out of his hand.
Reuss learned to simplify his craft by throwing pitches he could control. Maddux did the same thing. I don't know if Happ could learn to do the same thing because his control as a young pitcher isn't as good as that of Reuss and Maddux at a similar stage of development.
But at this point, Happ has nothing to lose by trying. And there is nothing for the Astros to lose either.
Larry Dierker played 14 seasons for the Houston Colt .45s/Astros and the St. Louis Cardinals. He guided the Astros to four National League Central titles in five seasons as manager from 1997-2001. The two-time All-Star pitcher writes a weekly column for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.