Cardinals: The change that has made the difference for J.A. Happ

J.A. Happ was an underwhelming addition to the St. Louis Cardinals at the time, but now the lefty has made a change and found success.

Even with how things are going right now for the St. Louis Cardinals, it’s impossible to say that the 2021 trade deadline was exactly what fans wanted. Coming into the end of July, the Cardinals clearly needed starting pitching and could’ve used bullpen help or a bench bat.

On deadline day, fans only got the two pitchers now having success in the Cardinals’ rotation, Jon Lester and J.A. Happ. As much as those two acquisitions have worked out as well as the various waiver claims John Mozeliak has made, it was still a disappointment.

At the time of the trade, both Lester and Happ were very aptly described as “DFA fodder” even while pitching on the Nationals and Twins. Happ, traded for John Gant who had the most walks in the league, had the most earned runs in the league. Lester, traded for Lane Thomas, just looked like he didn’t have it anymore. However, despite both soft-tossing lefties struggling with their first teams, things have turned around since coming to St. Louis.

This screenshot, taken from this article from MLB.com’s Ryan Harrigan shows that with both pitcher’s FIP staying relatively constant, the greatest cause in the improved performance from the late-30’s starters has been the fantastic defense of the Cardinals. While this is definitely the largest reason for improvement, both Lester and Happ have made other changes.

These changes are directly as a result of new instruction by pitching coach Mike Maddux. In Lester’s case, Derrick Goold did a fantastic job cataloging the changes in this article from the St. Louis Post Dispatch. At 37, Lester’s fastball isn’t what it used to be so Maddux has instructed him to throw a lot more offspeed and a lot more strikes to trust the defense behind him. Goold hits the nail on the head and the improvements are easily seen for Lester.

Goold did not discuss the changes that Happ has made though. Ultimately, it comes down to one pitch: Happ’s sinker. Like Lester, Happ is also throwing many more strikes, trusting the defense behind him. But with his sinker, he has gone from throwing the pitch about 17-18 percent of the time for the majority of the season to now throwing it more than 30% of the time in August.

While the 38-year-old Happ still has an ERA over 4.00 with the Cardinals, that ERA is ballooned by one horrific start in which he let up seven earned runs over 1.0 inning against the Reds. This has been the only outing that Happ hasn’t gone at least 5.0 innings and his worst outing otherwise has just been allowing four runs against the Dodgers.

While simply throwing his sinker more doesn’t seem all that groundbreaking, it has worked for Happ, and that is all fans should care about.

It may not have been what fans were asking for the team to trade for, but Happ and Lester have been huge in stabilizing the Cardinals’ rotation and allowing them to go on their current run that has put them in the driver’s seat of the second Wild Card spot.