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How J.A. Happ can (maybe) help Sonny Gray

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The two starters use similar repertoires, with wildly different levels of success

MLB: Kansas City Royals at New York Yankees Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Without being too “behind the curtain,” I can pretty confidently tell you I was the most enthusiastic PSA writer over the J.A. Happ trade. He’s a good pitcher, will eat up innings, and once he recovers from this strange New York outbreak of hand-foot-and-mouth disease, I think he’ll help the Yankees a lot down the stretch.

Watching him in the dugout last Saturday, though, made me think about another way he could help the Yankees. Happ seemed to strike an immediate rapport with Sonny Gray. It makes sense in a lot of ways, Happ grew up about halfway between Chicago and Gray’s hometown of Nashville, they both played college ball at prestigious schools in the middle of the country - Northwestern and Vanderbilt - , and both base their pitching styles around the fastball.

Where they diverge has been their relative success over the last two seasons. Since returning to Toronto, and through a single start in the Bronx, Happ’s been as close to a modern workhouse as you can get, short of Justin Verlander. Gray, on the other hand, has been bad. Their similar pitching styles, though, suggest to me that a “value add” for Happ while in New York could be helping to right the rapidly capsizing Sonny Gray ship.

Let me explain. Last week I talked about how Gray should be a two pitch pitcher, and how most of his success comes when he relies on his favorite fastball, a two-seamer, and his favorite breaking ball, a curve. In fact, his reliance on those two pitches matches up really well with Happ’s two favorite pitches over the length of their careers:

The only serious divergence has been in 2018, when Gray’s usage of the two-seam has fallen off a cliff. Coincidentally, it also happens to be easily the worst season of Gray’s career. Their pitches also track together fairly well when you look at their pure stuff:

They both throw their fastballs pretty much as hard as each other, and even though they throw different breaking balls, the velo tracks closely as well. Why, then, is there such a discrepancy between their performance? Location, location, location.

Look at Happ’s fastball location:

He works up in the zone a LOT. That third row from the top of the strike zone is generally belt-high on a hitter, and you can see how often Happ works above that level. In an age of launch angles and uppercut swings, this keeps the bat below the ball and makes it really difficult to square anything up.

Now match that with Sonny:

His fastball use is heavily BELOW the belt. Not only does that bring it closer to the contemporary hitter’s swing plane, it also reduces the effectiveness of Sonny’s curve. Curveballs, of course, are thrown down in the zone, or below it completely. By also throwing his fastball down, a hitter can face Sonny and virtually ignore the top of the zone; pitches just aren’t going to be hit there.

We can tell that Happ and Gray have a rapport, and they have similar makeups as pitchers. There are clues Sonny can take in to improve, and last longer in the majors as a starting pitcher. Improvement could begin by leveraging that rapport and following along with Happ’s example.